The Middle East thrills to a new forum for open talk. Clubhouse's main attraction is that it has so far brought together real people engaging in civilized dialogue, instead of faceless avatars.

In Iran, presidential hopefuls have staged campaign events on this app. Iran's foreign minister, Mohammed Javad Zarif, has taken questions.

Other speakers have included the vice president, and the telecommunications minister, who denied the government was trying to block the app.

Clubhouse has been downloaded 1.1 million times in the Middle East since it became available there in January, according to Sensor Tower, a mobile app analytics company, accounting for nearly 7 percent of global downloads.

When they were new, social media platforms such as Twitter and Facebook offered much the same promise as Clubhouse. Middle East activists and scholars expounded on their potential to foster dialogue and spread calls for change.

A decade ago, when protesters across the Arab world used social media to organize and call for change and the toppling of dictators, Western media christened their movements the ''Facebook revolutions'' and '' Twitter uprisings.''

Many Middle Eastern governments responded by tightening their grip on social media. Iran banned Facebook and Twitter [though the bans are widely circumvented and, including by Iranian officials].

Already, there are hints that Clubhouse may succumb to the same cycle, or be blocked altogether, as it was in China.

Oman has already done so, and users in Iran, Jordan and the Emirates have reported difficulty in gaining access to the app. Clubhouse has drawn rebukes from the state-owned media in Egypt and from government supporters in Saudi Arabia.

While the app is currently limited to iPhone users, who make up a small and affluent subset of the Middle East, Clubhouse may draw more government scrutiny once it releases an Android version.

''Does anyone get arrested for something they say on Clubhouse? That's definitely going to cast a pall over the whole thing,'' said Timothy Kaldas, a fellow at the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy who studies Egypt. 

''What I worry about is that a lot of people might get a little too comfortable. While the authorities aren't necessarily monitoring on a grand scale, they still have people bouncing around their rooms.''

Clubhouse policy bans users from recording conversations without participants consent, but the company says it temporarily records audio for investigating reports of policy violations. It has not specified who can listen to such recordings, or when A Clubhouse spokeswoman declined to comment.

Yet something about the spontaneous, intimate nature of the conversations - open to everyone regardless of fame or followers count - keeps lassoing people in.

Away from government propaganda, Clubhouse is allowing Qataris unfettered access to their Saudi neighbors after years of bitter feuding between their countries, and Egyptians access to Muslim Brotherhood defenders.

''People have been longing for this kind of communications for a long time, but I don't think they  realized it until they started using Clubhouse,'' said  Tharwat Abaza, 28, an Egyptian dentist who said he had listened to rooms discussing sexual harassment, feminism, the need for sex education in Arab countries and mental health.

But many ordinary users have logged off, if not from fear, then from frustration that the platforms have been overrun by government trolls or reduced to a stage for political opponents to insult and threaten one another.

And despite its giddy atmosphere of free expression, there are obvious risks. Clubhouse users, who generally sign on with their real names, are easily identifiable, and its chat rooms  are easy for government security agencies to eavesdrop on.

Privacy advocates have also raised issues about the personal data that Clubhouse collects, which could be even riskier if authoritarian governments can gain access to it.

The World Students Society thanks authors Vivian Yee and Farnaz Fassihi.


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