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A Medium Is Born: Participatory Media and the Rise of Clubhouse in Russia and Ukraine During the Covid-19 Pandemic

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Clubhouse is a social network allowing only real-time oral communication. While its 2020 worldwide launch went largely unnoticed in Eastern Europe, it took countries such as Ukraine and Russia by storm in February 2021. Users were enticed by the platform’s exclusivity (invitation only and limited to IOS users), unusual format, and compatibility with post-covid social life. For some time, Clubhouse was the dominant theme of discussions on other social media, mainstream news media organizations started launching daily talk shows in the app, and early adopters engaged in a plethora of participatory activities ranging from propagandist broadcasts to 24/7 rooms where bots would recite Russian classical poetry, from fervently seeking ways to monetise their participation to creating the somewhat unexpected genre of audial fakes.

In this article we intend to analyse the turbulent arrival of the new app in Russia and Ukraine from the perspectives of media ecology and media archaeology. Focusing on the app’s mediality and remediation, the social media discourse about it and particular content in some of the notable rooms, we highlight the conjunction of social environment, the already existing and novel technological affordances, as well as users’ perceptions and expectations in the emergence of a new niche in the ecology of participatory media. Based on this, we will also try to outline some possible scenarios for the new platform in Eastern Europe’s dense mediascapes. We argue that the prompt rise of Clubhouse’s popularity was not thanks to its special authenticity, as some suggest, but rather because of the normalization of group long-distance conversations (e.g., via Zoom), coupled with the intentional monomedia poverty of affordances and clearly delimited boundary between the roles of broadcasters and listeners, which was perceived as liberating in a produsage-saturated environment. This actually limits the participatory media potential of content creators and influencers, increasing their power and reviving monological models of communication that suggest a passive audience.