Earlier this month, Forbes Riley attended a virtual wedding. The 61-year-old St. Petersburg resident was a bridesmaid in the ceremony, which took place on Clubhouse, a social media platform many adults over 50 in Florida — and around the world — have begun to embrace.
Clubhouse is also where the bride and groom met.
“Obviously, this social network is different in that it’s attracting many more — I hate saying ‘old’ because I don’t see myself as older — but people that you don’t typically see on social media,” said Jeffrey Sass, a 61-year-old who lives in Fort Lauderdale.
Clubhouse is an audio-only social app. Users engage in live group conversations in “rooms” — virtual hangout spaces centered around a given topic or issue — overseen by moderators who bring people “onstage” from the audience to speak.
While its business-oriented chats have received the most attention thanks to the embrace of start-up entrepreneurs and occasional appearances by tech giants like Elon Musk and Mark Zuckerberg, Clubhouse offers discussions on a diverse array of topics, from race to faith to The Bachelorette.
“No matter what, I can find a room for anything I’d like — mental health-related, recovery-related or business-related,” said Tina McGlynn, a 53-year-old Tampa native and treasurer of the South Shore Coalition for Mental Health and Aging. “Literally, there’s just so much on there — and I think that’s the appeal.”
Who’s using Clubhouse?
Clubhouse was introduced on the eve of the coronavirus pandemic in March 2020, when people wanted to make virtual connections. For most of its existence, the product has only been available on Apple products. Last month, it opened to Android users in the United States. With an estimated 2 billion more people now able to access the platform, membership is expected to balloon in the coming months. However, the app is currently available by invitation-only.
It’s hard to say how many people over 50 are on Clubhouse — the New York-based company did not respond to repeated requests for comment. But clubs for Baby Boomers and Gen Xers abound on the platform, from “Flip the Script After 50” to “Second Act Sisters” to “The 60+ Club.” Inside, members attend discussions about navigating divorce, changing careers at an older age or simply “looking for your tribe in midlife.”
Enter a room convened around a topic that’s not age-specific — be it the LGBTQ+ community in the Middle East or psychedelic drug use — and you’ll likely encounter at least a few folks in later adulthood.
Sass recalled when his father, David, who at 85 is an avid Clubhouse participant, joined a room hosting a tennis-themed trivia contest. The room was moderated by a man in Germany, where David Sass had lived for a few years. “My dad got every question, ‘cause he’s been following tennis his whole life,” said Sass, who founded the ‘Over Fifty Club’ on the platform. “Then he went up on stage and they ended up speaking German to each other, and he just had this amazing experience.”
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An app for those that love audio communication
As a phone-based app, Clubhouse may appeal to the over-50 crowd for several reasons — but its emphasis on audio communication is key, many users said.
“My daughter and son prefer texting, but I think Clubhouse resonates with people who grew up talking on the phone,” McGlynn said. “Because that’s what it’s about, it’s completely conversations. It’s not written word, it’s not memes, it’s not videos like TikTok or Instagram.”
Riley, who is a longtime actress and motivational speaker, called Clubhouse “the most honest platform ever” and said it alleviates the pressure to have a pristine appearance before meeting with others.
“All I have to do is just show up. I don’t have to do my makeup. I can be naked. I can do my laundry, I can go to the bathroom,” Riley said. “Whether you use it for business or dating, it’s just genius.”
Clubhouse provides an opportunity to connect with new people outside a person’s immediate social context.
“It’s created space for personal issues that people usually just don’t talk about — like being the parent of your parent as they get older, or taking care of a friend that’s an addict,” said Pearl Chiarenza, who’s 57 and works as a naturopathic coach in Riverview.
A cure for loneliness?
Loneliness is increasingly considered a public health crisis by those who study it. Like hunger, it’s a subjective experience that drives a person experiencing it to take action — but if ignored, loneliness can increase a person’s risk of dementia, depression, high blood pressure, and is significantly linked to earlier mortality and morbidity. One in every three adults over 45 in the United States identifies as lonely.
“These technologies and social media are increasingly used by older adults who don’t have large social or family networks — perhaps because they want to compensate for that,” said Gizem Hueluer, assistant professor at the University of South Florida School of Aging Studies, though she noted that in-person interaction is still the “gold standard” for reducing loneliness.
Researchers are still studying the effects of social technology on curbing loneliness in older adults — the jury is out, according to Louise Hawkley, senior research scientist at University of Chicago, who focuses on loneliness and social isolation in later adulthood. But online interventions should always be considered supplements — not stand-ins — to community offline, she said.
“If you’re using technology to replace real face-to-face, in-person kinds of interactions, it probably won’t solve the problem,” Hawkley said.
Clubhouse may also be a more accessible form of social media for older adults developing vision loss later in life — however, the platform has come under fire for its lack of accommodations for adults with hearing impairments and the deaf community.
There are other limitations to the platform.
The app has been rife with reports of unchecked misinformation, which older adults are particularly susceptible to on social media, and met with criticism for its fumbled handling of harassment, which tends to disproportionately affect marginalized communities online.
Of particular note to its more senior users, Clubhouse recently began allowing participants to send cash payments to other users on the platform. Several users the Tampa Bay Times spoke to warned of potential scammers posing as experts or entrepreneurs on the app.
Older people are more likely to become victims of scams than their younger counterparts, according to Hawkley.
“But you don’t want to shut them out of all potentially good things out of fear that something bad might happen,” she added. Hawkley said the app’s creators should create a system for identifying and thwarting scams before they occur.
Amid the barriers of an invite-only structure and challenges around moderating a rapidly growing social network, it’s unclear if Clubhouse will last. But other platforms have realized the importance of audio-based social media, even in a post-pandemic world.
Last month, Twitter released Spaces, its version of Clubhouse, to a generally warm reception. Facebook, Slack and Reddit are also working on audio-based products.