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Why Raya Is the Soho House of Dating Apps
So the other night I was at a party, talking to a friend of a friend—one of those special types of New York artists who never actually make any art. I started telling The Artist about this sweet ER doctor I’d met on Tinder, when he choked on his mojito. “Ugh, Tinder— really ?” he scoffed. “Are you not on Raya ?” He was referring to the “elite” dating app that accepts only people in creative industries, unless you’re superhot, in which case: Who cares what you do? I shrugged and told The Artist that I just prefer Tinder—I’m a populist, not an elitist, ya know? I voted for Bernie Sanders in the primaries, that sort of thing. The Artist laughed condescendingly. “I guess Tinder makes sense, if you're into . . . basic people.”
I’d been in this situation before. Multiple times, snooty friends of mine have turned up their noses at the mention of Tinder, assuming I would use a “normal” dating app only if I’d never heard of Raya, or if—shock, horror—I’d applied and been rejected. The consensus seems to be: Why go to a party that lets everyone in, when you could go to the party that accepts only a select few?
To gain access to Raya, which launched in March of 2015, you have to apply, and then an anonymous committee assesses your creative influence—aka your Instagram—and decides whether you’re cool enough to be in the club. (Hence why Raya is often called “Illuminati Tinder.”) The app has been growing in popularity, mostly due to press about its celebrity accounts—Joe Jonas, Kelly Osbourne, Skrillex, the hot one from Catfish , Matthew Perry (lol), Elijah Wood, and, of course, Moby have all been spotted.
But do we really believe that exclusivity makes something better? Sure, it’s sort of cool to swipe past lesser celebs while drunkenly prowling for sex on your phone, but you’re probably never going to sleep with those people. And the celebrities don’t represent the whole. In reality, Raya is full of C-List models, social-media managers who for some reason have a ton of arty photos of themselves emerging from the ocean, people named Wolf, people whose bios say things like “racing driver living between Monaco and Tokyo,” and, like, a million dudes who claim to be successful fashion photographers, but in reality have less Instagram followers than some dogs I know.
The problem, of course, is that whenever something is defined as being elite or exclusive, it tends to attract status-conscious douchebags. And while there’s a part of all of us that wants to be VIP or to get backstage or whatever, to participate in a system that prioritizes status in intimate interactions seems like a step too far. Essentially, Raya is the “you can’t sit with us” of dating apps.
Last weekend, while drinking vodka from a water bottle on Fire Island beach, I was complaining about the pervasive Raya worship to my friend Alan, a 33-year-old filmmaker. Alan has been in an on-and-off relationship with Raya for more than a year now (currently off). “Tinder lets everyone in, so you have to swipe through an amazing amount of garbage to find someone in your bracket,” Alan said, applying sunscreen to his nose. “It’s not that I'm anti-exclusivity or against narrowing things down, but Raya just seems to attract the wrong people. It’s the Soho House world of elitism: They want to draw young, cool artists, but they actually just attract rich people, and dudes in advertising who collect vintage cameras as decorations.” As for the girls on Raya? Alan rolled his eyes. “It’s an endless stream of photos of girls doing splits on the beach, or a photo from the one time they modeled for, like, Vogue Rawanastan or something.”
Alan’s main pet peeve about Raya is that, the few times he met girls through the app, what he’d thought was genuine flirtation turned out to be a networking ploy—they were just actresses who wanted work. “Raya’s not a dating app, it's a social-climbing app,” Alan told me. “I think it's good for surfer bros and models, but I don't think many people are actually dating or hooking up on Raya. To me, it felt like more people were trying to connect professionally, but in a way that felt really gross and not transparent. It’s not like LinkedIn, where everyone understands that you're there for work, and you can apply for a job. Instead, Raya creates the promise of something romantic, but it’s actually just people trying to be around other cooler people.” He shrugged. “If all a Raya date is going to get me is one more Instagram follower, well, I just don't need that in my life.”
My experience has been somewhat similar. I’ve been on Raya for a year, but it’s the only dating app that I’ve never successfully met anyone through, compared with Tinder, Happn, and Bumble, which have all led to various degrees of dating, friendship, and casual sex. And Raya is the only app on which a match has asked me to tweet a link to their Kickstarter. Obviously, part of the reason we all want to be successful is so we can fuck better people. Work and sex are inextricably linked. But to institutionalize sex-as-networking is pretty disturbing. On Raya, how do you ever know if someone’s in your bed because they truly like you , or whether they’re just fucking you for your followers? The (minor-Internet-celebrity) struggle is real.
Besides its exclusivity, there are a couple of additional things that differentiate Raya from other dating apps. While most apps are location-based, Raya shows you users from all over the world. Rather than being restricted to dating within your neighborhood, like the commoners of Tinder, Raya’s users are global citizens—in a special bicoastal club. People on Raya don’t take the subway; they fly to meet each other. Or at least, that’s the impression the app wants to give off. Another distinction: Raya profiles are displayed in a video—a slideshow of your images plays along to a song of your choosing. Unfortunately, literally no one looks fuckable in a slideshow. Especially when it’s a slideshow of like five shirtless pics (one with a BFA watermark on it) to the soundtrack of Eminem’s “Lose Yourself,” something I endured during the research process of this article.
My friend Sarah Nicole, a 30-year-old writer to whom I often bitch on the phone, also thinks there’s a BS factor to Raya. “People on Raya aren't hotter,” she said. “They’re just richer, or have better clothes, or they look better in their photos because they’re more likely to have been taken by a professional. Raya has a lot more to do with class than with other stratifications like attractiveness. It’s not an app that's explicitly for people who are rich or white or in other ways privileged, but it’s for people who are only comfortable around their own kind, who already share their values, their aesthetic. I’ve met a lot of people in New York who are intensely tribalistic, and that's what Raya caters to.”
And this is what really irks me about the app—it confuses wealth and status with creativity and coolness. Raya says it values creative achievements, but they’re not interested in all creative people—they’re interested in a particular type of particularly uncreative creative people. On Raya, I can’t find Jewish nerds who write for The Paris Review and stay in on Saturday nights to read Walter Benjamin instead of going to Paul’s Baby Grand. You can’t find hot young OccuPeeps. Recently, the app rejected a friend of mine—an Iranian-American Doctor of Philosophy. Why? Because Raya is like being back in high school, where the hierarchy of popularity is superficial and undeserved. Basically, people are praised for being conventionally attractive, having rich parents, hanging out at the “right” places, and wearing the “right” clothes.
“If you hang with a group of really popular kids anywhere, you often can't understand why they are the popular ones, and they don’t know either,” Sarah said. “But their popularity is ensured by their complete acceptance of their popularity. Raya is an app that’s supposed to reproduce that sense of cliquishness—it’s like, for whatever reason, these people are approved as members of a club.”
Like in high school, the thing about cliques is, they breed conformity. On Tinder you have total autonomy: You’re presented with a bunch of random people and are free to choose who you think is hot or interesting. Raya is mob mentality: It’s an app about liking people that other people like. Sarah put it well: “On Raya you don't have to be insecure about who you like, because someone has already looked at them and decided that they’re good enough. It removes the ‘embarrassing’ element of desire by adding a layer of mediation—your choice has been pre-approved by other invisible people in this network of cool.”
Hair: Takashi Yusa; Makeup: Mariko Hirano
Sciortino in Missguided Bardot crepe bodysuit in white, $24, missguidedus.com
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