In late 2019, Nivine Jay, a comedian and writer in Los Angeles, was perusing Raya, a private social app, when she matched with someone claiming to be Ben Affleck. He messaged her first, and they chatted for a bit. But then Jay grew skeptical. “He was writing, like, a lot, and I thought, There’s no way that’s really him,” she told me recently. She sent a message accusing the person of being a fake, then unmatched with the account, cutting off contact. Soon enough, though, she received a message from Affleck’s verified Instagram account, which has more than five million followers. “Nivine, why did you unmatch me? It’s me,” Affleck said, in a plaintive phone video shot in closeup. This past spring, Jay turned a clip from that message into a TikTok meme about embarrassing personal moments. “I didn’t put out our whole conversation—there are many more videos from him,” she said. The clip immediately made headlines in Page Six and the Daily Mail, with Jay dubbed “the woman who rejected Ben Affleck.”
In truth, Jay needn’t have worried that Affleck’s profile was false advertising. Raya is the rare social network that insures that all of its users are who they say they are. Since it launched, in Los Angeles, in 2015, it has gained a reputation as the “celebrity dating app” and “Illuminati Tinder.” Impersonation isn’t tolerated, nor is anonymity, much less any form of harassment. The app is private; aspiring users must undergo an application process that can stretch on for months. (One applicant recently reported that she was approved after a wait of two and a half years.) Demi Lovato, Channing Tatum, John Mayer, Lizzo, Cara Delevingne, and Drew Barrymore have all reportedly been members. Nicholas Braun is a stalwart. Simone Biles met her boyfriend, an N.F.L. player, on the app. Once accepted, members must adhere to a rigid code of silence—no exposing other people’s profiles and no screenshotting within the app. Even tweeting too much about Raya, or publicly mentioning another member, can be grounds for a ban. Which means that Jay’s peak moment on the app was also her last. After she posted Affleck’s video on TikTok, the company quickly kicked her off. “Our decision is final,” the fateful message to rule breakers reads.
Such strict regard for privacy is, of course, vanishingly rare in the world of social media. A recent investigative series in the Wall Street Journal helped illuminate how Facebook—which is used by nearly three billion people each month—exploits its stores of personal data to serve content that may be detrimental to its own users. We’ve become accustomed to the public exposure and punitive chaos of social media. It’s hard to conceive of it working any other way. At the same time, smaller-scale and less automated platforms have gained ground, offering the promise of refuge. Discord, an app for real-time chats that supports more than nineteen million active communities, creates silos for users based on topics of interest. E-mail newsletters on platforms such as Substack are forming digital communities that are often closed to nonsubscribers, with comment threads serving as D.I.Y. discussion boards. Even Instagram’s Close Friends feature allows users to regulate who can see particular posts. But Raya, which has grown consistently in the past six years, is perhaps the most successful experiment yet in the search for safer, gentler, more private forms of social networking. The company’s vice-president of global membership, Ifeoma Ojukwu, told me that Raya is interested in the challenge of “scaling intimacy.” She added, “By no means are we trying to be for everyone.”
Raya’s founder, Daniel Gendelman, rarely grants interviews, but he met me recently at La Mercerie, an influencer-friendly café in SoHo, to discuss his vision for the company. He wore jeans and a monochrome T-shirt with a thin chain necklace—hipster-entrepreneur chic—and exuded an air of calm curiosity. (“If you were to just hear the phrase ‘founder of Raya’ in a vacuum, you would assume the guy is a tremendous douchebag,” one member told me. “But Dan is surprisingly earnest.”) Sitting on a turquoise velvet sofa, Gendelman recounted Raya’s origin story. In 2014, he had landed in Tel Aviv, in the aftermath of a startup implosion. He was looking to connect with other young people there but became frustrated with apps like Tinder, where the focus is on dating or hooking up. A different kind of app could facilitate networking and friendship as much as romance, Gendelman thought. He looked around us at the downtown café-society scene. “There are thousands of tables just like this, with people with good intentions who care about the world, who want a safe, exciting place to communicate,” he said.
In Los Angeles, in 2015, Gendelman launched Raya (in Hebrew, the word means “wife” or, in its masculine form, “friend”) out of his apartment in West Hollywood. Most social-media platforms rely on selling ads. Raya, instead, charged a subscription fee of $7.99 per month (now $9.99). At the time, dating apps still carried something of a stigma, but Raya’s veneer of curation and privacy set it apart. TJ Taylor, an early employee, recalled his in-box being flooded with invitation requests. “You needed to be on Raya—if you weren’t, you were severely missing out and looked at as a social outcast,” he said. The app’s popularity was driven by FOMO—the sense that whatever was happening behind the curtain was better than anything happening in public. Gendelman told me that he recalls some observers grumbling that the famous names spotted on the app must be paid placements. “We never asked a celebrity to join, ever,” he said. On the contrary, the fuss over celebrities online dating obscured the app’s more mundane goal which, according to Gendelman, was to develop a kind of curated LinkedIn, a space that would foster creative-industry collaboration and companionship.
That model seemed to hold even greater potential with the advent of the pandemic, when social networks became vital tools for communicating in isolation. In 2020, Raya added a series of new features including its Directory, a kind of bespoke Rolodex that allows members to search one another by city, industry, or company (W.M.E., for example, or Uber). You can find a Raya-approved architect or graphic designer to plan a renovation or make a portfolio. According to the company, the Directory has seen more than a million searches to date. Raya’s increased emphasis on work might be less a pivot than a reflection of how, for a millennial clientele, love, careers, networking, and identity formation often flow seamlessly together. Erotic capital intermingles with economic capital. Two perfectly curated lives frictionlessly intersect. “In the age of everybody having a personal brand, Raya’s the place where people compare personal brands,” one former Raya user told me. (He was kicked off the app for tweeting about it but requested anonymity for this piece, because he had hoped to get back on.)
“Networking through LinkedIn is too cold,” Edith Vaisberg, an art adviser and curator living in Mexico City, told me. “You follow a lot of people on Instagram—it doesn’t mean you want to get it on with all those people.” Vaisberg initially joined Raya for dating but turned to it again, in the early months of the pandemic, and discovered that it was a place to connect with potential clients in the absence of the usual art-world travel circuit. She recalled connecting on Raya with a painter she’d long wanted to meet. Another time, she went to a barbecue at the home of a guy she met on Raya and met two of his friends with whom she’d already matched on the app. Neel Shah, an L.A.-based screenwriter who joined Raya in 2015, described the membership as “people you wouldn’t have known to invite to your dinner party, but, if they showed up, you would have been happy they were there.”
Raya wouldn’t disclose the size of its user base, but a spokesperson told me that it expects to receive its millionth application by the end of 2021, and is on track to reach four hundred thousand this year alone. The company likes to play down its exclusivity, but its admission rate is in the single digits. The rigorous selection process and ongoing community maintenance require expensive staff commitments. Facebook outsources the majority of its content moderation to outside contractors. At Raya, by contrast, a quarter of the forty-person staff is devoted to application review and community support. Prospective members are evaluated based on their existing digital imprints and social connections. Eighty-seven per cent of successful applicants are referred by existing members or have Raya members among their phone contacts. Those who have exhibited disrespectful behavior elsewhere on the Internet are automatically disqualified. Like an élite college, Raya accepts, rejects, or wait-lists its applicants; every application gets a personal response, as does any complaint or query from an active member. Gendelman noted that, elsewhere online, “You can watch people partake in screaming at another person, saying really nasty things, and that’s just accepted.” Again, he offered the café we were sitting in as a metaphor: “If I did that to the people at the table next to us, I’d get thrown out.” Nivine Jay, Ben Affleck’s erstwhile target, recalled a Raya date with a man who became aggressive. “I messaged Raya, and they kicked him off immediately,” she said.
Last month, Raya granted me access to a temporary account. Just like that, I was in. The app’s interface resembled a combination of Instagram, iMessage, and Airbnb with people in place of apartments. A Maps page showed who was active in my city. The Directory feature presented a continuously sliding scroll of search suggestions that seemed pregnant with lucrative networking potential: “Members in Public Relations,” “Members at YouTube,” “Art Directors.” Backdrops of soothing stock photography showed abstract patterns, hotel interiors, vistas of nature. I encountered the profiles of well-known journalists, actors, athletes, and a slew of consultants and marketers. Some had set their preferences to “here just for friends.” (According to Raya, ten per cent of profiles use that setting.)
What seemed to tie everyone together was a fluency in digital media, a consolidation of identity online. A central feature of each profile is a slideshow set to a chosen song clip. Instead of haphazard selfies, the slides often included professional headshots and stills from television appearances. The images did not dispel Raya’s reputation as an app primarily for hot people. Similar to dating apps like the League, Raya wards off the ennui of endless scrolling by limiting the number of profiles users can check out each day. Whether you’re looking for romantic or professional collaboration, you still tap a check mark or an “X” button to accept or reject each match. One profile I matched with, belonging to a designer of 3-D-printed lingerie, formed a kind of holistic life-style portfolio, with product photo shoots and in-progress fabrications interspersed with selfies. I couldn’t tell whether she was looking for a date or a design commission.
Tapping around the app, I felt a bit like I was walking through a cocktail party I hadn’t been invited to, and was in violation of the dress code. Facebook and Twitter thrust you into a dramatic collision with vast numbers of strangers, but Raya ushers you into a walled garden of the Internet, where the already well-connected can connect free of worries. The result is an unsettling kind of homogeneity, reminiscent of Facebook’s early days as a network exclusively for Ivy League students—an élite group further solidifying itself online. Gendelman spoke to me in lofty terms about Raya’s success at solving the problems that plague other parts of the Web. “Social networking is not a term we want to use. It really needs to be a community,” he said. But community is always for a limited number of people, a small group of insiders separated from a much larger group of everybody else. At a certain point, intimacy is no longer scalable. A private social-media platform like Raya can certainly be safer. It is also by nature less open and more stratified than we’ve come to expect social networks to be. The future may look more like hundreds of Rayas, each with its own paying members and rigorous community regulation. But those users who don’t fit the mold or can’t pay may be left outside the walls, to continue living in a digital landscape that looks even worse than it does now.
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