Rachel signed up for Raya in 2015. The 29-year-old hair stylist from New York was in the midst of a breakup with her then boyfriend. A close friend had suggested she would find a better type of man among the actors, models and musicians on the specialist dating site rather than in the open marketplace on Tinder.
Two years on, Rachel, not her real name, is distinctly unimpressed. “A lot of the men on there aren’t that cute and aren’t that successful,” she says. “Most of the time they look like someone who has rich parents,” she adds.
Raya is an “exclusive” dating app that offers access to another echelon of society. Reports about the secretive app note its use by a dizzying array of Hollywood names.
According to members, entry into the club is a semi-arbitrary process that depends on your status in the celebrity hierarchy, your looks and your following on Instagram. Raya’s reported founder, a Los Angeles advertising partner, did not respond to a request for comment.
It stands in marked contrast to Tinder, which millions of people use each day.
Dating has been turbocharged in recent years as apps have made it possible to connect with dozens of people at a time in cities all over the world, simply by swiping left or right. But other apps have sprung up in Tinder’s wake that promise a more refined, exclusive and ultimately fruitful experience.
The Inner Circle is one of those apps. It was founded in 2012 in Amsterdam by David Vermeulen. “We try to focus on people who are inspiring and ambitious,” he says, adding it has more than 500,000 users worldwide.
The site uses Facebook and LinkedIn to help vet applicants; runs events, including an annual polo tournament in Richmond, near London, and has a low tolerance for bad photos. “I would say anything is better than a duckface in front of the mirror,” says Vermeulen, using derogatory slang that refers to pouting in photos. “A more serious picture is something we can appreciate.”
The thinking behind the site is that people are “Tinder-tired,” he says, and want to find others who have similar jobs and lifestyles without having to spend a lot of time swiping.
One 27-year-old banker in London who has used The Inner Circle says mass-market apps such as Tinder were “frustrating because you have to weed through a lot.”
She says the advantage of more exclusive sites was as simple as meeting people who appreciated the stresses of her job and understood “that you might be running a bit late on a Thursday evening,” she says.
“Someone who works 9 to 5 probably doesn’t appreciate me being in the office until 7 p.m. on a weekday.”
Rivals such as The League aim at the same demographic.
“You’re joining a community of triple-vetted people who are ambitious and intellectual enough to have a LinkedIn [account] and you’re seeing what they do and their background,” says founder Amanda Bradford, who started the company in 2014 and says it now has 250,000 monthly active users.
The filtering and branding is rather less important to one 23-year-old user, who is a developer in London, than The League’s tactic of offering up only a handful of matches each day.
He said the exclusivity was “kind of superficial.” The bar, he says, seemed to be going to a good university, having a decent job and being at least slightly attractive.
But he adds: “Everyone makes the most of each match that you get. It feels like you should put in a bit more effort.”
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This view is echoed by a 28-year-old London trader who has used The League. “People are more casual on other dating apps. They don’t take it as seriously. That kind of follows through in how they treat it,” he says.
Eventually, though, even the most glamorous dating apps may lose some of their shine.
Charles Damga, who runs an independent record label in New York, joined Raya last year in the summer, but quit before the year was out.
“You start with, ‘Omg, look, there’s a model talking to me’; you become fixated on the echelon level of the people on here,” he says.
But the excitement wore off: “You kind of realize those people are vapid or only live in Beverly Hills.”