Politicos turn away from Zoom, head for Clubhouse

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What would you say to your elected representative if you could call them up right now?

Until recently, this question was a moot point because most constituents didn’t have direct access to their representatives beyond maybe text-based social media. They would have to jump through a series of hoops before ever being able to get on the phone with their Assemblyman, council member, or even a mayoral frontrunner.

But Clubhouse changes that — at least that’s what fans of the relatively new audio-conferencing app say.

Launched just as the coronavirus pandemic took hold of the world in April 2020, this invitation-only application is available through smartphones, allowing members to have real-time voice conversations in virtual group settings.

It’s become the go-to platform for Nick Sterlacci. A co-founder of the New York Power and Politics Clubhouse group, Sterlacci has organized a series of discussions on the app with Democratic primary mayoral candidates like Brooklyn borough president Eric Adams and businessman Ray McGuire.

“In no other forum can you just sign up for an account, and instantly, you’re in the same room as Eric Adams, as Ray McGuire, as Andrew Yang,” Sterlacci said. “And if you raise your hand, you can speak to that individual. You can’t do that on any other social media.”

Eytan Saenger, a politically active junior at SAR High School, says the accessibility of public figures on Clubhouse allowed him to connect with local politics in a way that wasn’t possible before. For instance, when mayoral candidates like entrepreneur Andrew Yang typically hold events, their campaigns have tight control over who gets to participate and ask questions.

Normally, it’s like “if you donate more than $50, you can join a private Zoom and talk to” the candidate, Saenger said. “Versus here, it’s like you’re listening in, you can raise your hand. And it’s not that exclusive.”

Discussions on Clubhouse take place in “rooms,” and any user can start one any time day or night based on any subject. Public rooms are open to any user with a login to the app. But users can also establish private rooms where they choose who gets to participate. Those in a room can either sit in the audience or be one of the speakers on the “stage.”

Similar to other apps like Twitter and Instagram, users can follow one another and see which rooms the people they follow are participating in — all in real time.

The app is also popular among elected officials like state Sens. Alessandra Biaggi and Gustavo Rivera, who participate in public rooms fairly often. Biaggi believes Clubhouse will permanently change the way people engage with politics.

“The essence of old politics is an exclusive boys club that makes deals in backrooms in the dark,” Biaggi said. “What Clubhouse does is it opens up the political process to everybody, giving access to leaders in government without the traditional routes of engagement.”

Biaggi started a series of rooms called “Lit Politics Podcast” with her colleague, Assemblywoman Yuh-Line Niou, who represents parts of Lower Manhattan. The rooms were created to discuss how government works, Biaggi said, explaining complicated systems like the state budget process to everyday people.

Niou was even known to pop onto Clubhouse in the middle of the night during the budget negotiation process, getting real-time feedback on funding initiatives from anyone who might happen to be on the app and to find her room.

But the emergence of several scandals facing Gov. Andrew Cuomo since late January caused both Niou and Biaggi to temporarily shift their focus. Now there are times the lawmakers are pulling people together to discuss the various sexual harassment and coronavirus nursing home cover-up allegations that have been made against the governor.

In fact, Politico New York says Biaggi and Niou have used the “Lit Politics Podcast” rooms to discuss Cuomo’s alleged abuses of power while openly strategizing about how to stop the governor from winning re-election in 2022.

Clubhouse is similar to the Zoom videoconferencing app, but without the video. People only hear one another’s voices and don’t have to worry about their personal appearance or even what others can see in their background.

“People don’t have to put makeup on,” Sterlacci said. “Whether it be an event or a video call, you don’t have to dress up. It’s just your voice, and it’s just so authentic and real. And it’s not recorded, so people feel comfortable on it.”

Sterlacci is not alone. Many of the app’s fans — including city council candidate and political activist Marcos Sierra — think it allows people to engage in open and honest dialogue that isn’t generally possible in more structured settings.

“Unlike Twitter and Facebook, where everything is text, you’re actually talking to people in a live setting, and having a real-time conversation,” Sierra said. “They’re awesome conversations because they’re people that are in the industry — in the political realm — speaking freely.”

Clubhouse helped Sierra connect with potential voters he might not have otherwise reached. The app also allows him to share stories from the campaign trail with other candidates, while working through common challenges, like educating voters on the new ranked-choice voting system.   

The casual nature of Clubhouse rooms could be a liability for public figures, however — especially since it can be easy to forget they’re speaking to a large group of people where they might accidently say something they later regret.

Biaggi’s not worried about this, however. She treats Clubhouse like any “live mic.”

“I’m consistent with who I am and how I show up no matter where I am,” Biaggi said. “I might use different language in different spaces. But it doesn’t mean that I am a different person.

“If we’re going to really transform the political agenda, arena and frontier, we have to have spaces where people can actually show up as who they are. And for the people they represent to know who they are.”

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