If you’ve felt a lingering disturbance in the internet’s social order — a vague and unsettling sense that there is a raging party happening just out of view, that all the people cooler, richer and better looking than you are blowing off steam together in some electronic VIP hideaway — here’s some bad news.
That place actually exists. It’s called Raya.
It first appeared several years ago as a dating app aimed at people in creative industries. It has expanded into an invitation-only social network populated by movie stars, fashion designers, pro athletes, tech executives and too many Instagram models to count.
“It’s the Soho House of dating apps,” said Hayley Greenberg, 27, a social media manager in Los Angeles who joined Raya in 2016. “They have the really good-looking guys, the athletes, the actors, the guys that have like 500 followers on Instagram.”
The app costs $7.99 a month, but joining is no small deal. Prospective members are evaluated by an algorithm and human gatekeepers, who consider such factors as an applicant’s social media following and how many Raya members they know.
About 8 percent of applicants are accepted, making Raya a harder nut to crack than Harvard Business School.
Inside, the rules are simple: Don’t be a creep and maintain strict privacy. Users who take screen shots receive a stern pop-up message, and disclosing information about other members is strongly discouraged.
Snooty? Well, yeah. But Raya is filling a market niche. At a time when open tech platforms such as Facebook and Twitter are struggling to rebuild user trust after a flurry of scandals, Raya stands out as an example of a social network that is succeeding by emphasizing exclusivity over scale and turning privacy into a selling point.
There is something thrilling, and a little embarrassing, about this rarefied air. To go on Raya is to enter a strange and alluring world filled with thirsty elites, a place where humble-bragging is a high art (“I direct things,” reads the profile of one successful filmmaker; a well-known television actress describes herself only as a “carb enthusiast”) and where the average BMI seems to hover in the high teens.
Maintaining the mystique
Raya may be the first app that has successfully created an atmosphere of intimacy and trust while revealing almost nothing about itself. Its website contains no mention of investors, founders or staff members, and the company has never spoken about its origins. For years, members have speculated about who was behind it. A Hollywood superagent? A lonely tech billionaire?
None of the above. Four years ago, Daniel Gendelman, 34, was staying in Israel, recovering from the failure of his previous startup, a social discovery app called Yello. And he was striking out on Tinder.
“I was looking for coffee in a new neighborhood, and a little bit of a human connection with someone nice,” he said. “It was just a miss.”
He had hung around the creative upper crust, and he knew that celebrities avoided online dating out of embarrassment. He got to wondering: What if there were an app that felt more like a dinner party — an intimate, thoroughly vetted collection of interesting people having candid conversations?
He put together a small team and began to build. He called the app Raya, after the Hebrew word for friend, and seeded it with a group of his friends in Los Angeles.
“I tried to solve a big problem for a small amount of people,” Gendelman said.
Raya went live in February 2015 and took off quickly, boosted by an early user base that reportedly included actresses Raven-Symoné and Kelly Osbourne. (Gendelman would not confirm or deny any users’ names.)
The app — which has about 10,000 users worldwide and is available only on Apple devices — hasn’t bowled over everyone. Some users have described it as a meat market where A-listers and models are outnumbered by trust-fund try-hards and “photographers.” But it has generated buzz among media insiders, who have called it “Illuminati Tinder.”
Céline Bossart, 26, a freelance wine and spirits journalist, said that during the time she used Raya actively — she now has a boyfriend — the app lived up to its reputation for civility. “People are a little better behaved and more classy” than on apps such as Tinder and Bumble, she said.
Not just for movie stars
Gendelman is frustrated by the notion that it’s just a hookup app for jet-setters “that look a certain way or do a certain thing,” he said. Raya, he said, is “for passionate people anywhere in the world who have something they want to share with other members and can do it in a respectful way.”
Wealth is not one of the qualifiers, something many of the applicants have trouble picking up on. “There’s a lot of applications where it’s just a Lamborghini, a yacht and a private plane, and we’re just like, ‘See you later,’ ” he said.
Gendelman was asked about “Tony,” a hypothetical older man with no public profile and no Instagram following to speak of. If he applied to Raya, he’d be an automatic rejection, right?
Gendelman shook his head. “Is Tony decently interesting? Is he passionate?” he asked. “I’m not kidding — we’re interested in curating digital dinner parties, so to speak, and that comes in all forms.”
It’s not shocking that Raya exists. The popular and beautiful have always had private parties, invite-only conferences and VIP rooms. Why would the internet be any different?
If nothing else, it’s at least dangling the possibility that not all digital products have to connect the entire world — that the internet still allows for some secrets.