Elite social media: where the internet’s 1 percent hangs out

by Lizzie Plaugic Apr 26, 2017, 9:30am EDT

Illustrations by James Bareham

The social network Best of All Worlds is five years old (ancient by Silicon Valley standards) and has just a tiny fraction of the users its contemporaries like Facebook and Twitter have. But Best of All Worlds isn’t failing. In fact, the social network’s founder doesn’t really want any more members. Best of All Worlds (or BOAW, as its members call it) is one of several exclusive social networks for the internet’s 1 percent — an elite, close-knit group that most likely does not include you.

Lack of accessibility has always drawn attention. Since the late 1800s, country clubs have provided a plush, invite-only space for the upper crust. But recently, many real-world country clubs have seen membership stall or decline. In 2016, Bloomberg reported that country clubs for golfers were suffering from the “golf recession” — rising membership fees and fewer amenities coupled with a declining interest in golf were frustrating long-term members while new membership stagnated.

But as brick-and-mortar country clubs have struggled to hold on to their Rolex-wristed loyalists, digital country clubs have seen rapid growth online. Over the past decade, exclusive social media networks, high-powered networking groups, and tiered dating apps have become common alternatives to their real-world counterparts.

Best of All Worlds launched in 2012. Think of it as a Yelp-Facebook hybrid for the elite, where a group of wealthy, famous, or successful users can meet people of similar stature, as well as find events, hotels, and restaurants that promise a familiar kind of curated luxury no matter where they are in the world. Founder and CEO Erik Wachtmeister has launched similar apps before — he says once, while on a wild boar hunt in Germany, the idea of an online meeting place for “global nomads” struck him. Wachtmeister says that unlike other social networks, Best of All Worlds delivers “privacy, intimacy and relevance” to its users.

ON THE INTERNET, NO ONE CAN SEE YOUR ROLEX

The idea that an app can increase your privacy and your personal relevance in tandem might sound strange to anyone who has ever received a Twitter reply from a belligerent stranger. But what BOAW seems to really be promising is the option to remain in a world you already know, even online. Suzanne Dour, a former investment bank marketing manager who was invited to be a member by Wachtmeister himself, says that Best of All Worlds’ “trusted and intimate setting” allows her to be more “open and spontaneous.” “I’m also more comfortable sharing exactly where I am and what I’m into,” she says.

The company is not yet profitable, but Wachtmeister says he expects to break even by partnering with commercial sponsors (who will advertise on the app, as well as offer deals and host events for members) for the launch of Best of All Worlds’ new iOS app in the coming weeks. The app’s tagline will be “Hang out with people you can trust.”

“Trust” means different things on elite social networks than it does on the rest of the internet, where most people would be happy to simply get better tools for filtering out death threats and Nazis. Here, trust is like rolling your tinted windows up as you drive through a certain neighborhood. It’s having the option to ignore people living lives wildly unlike your own. And this can seem ironic coming from the kinds of people who already have the least to fear online, and in the real world. On these social networks, trust and safety is about being around people who feel familiar to you — no matter who that excludes, which is almost everyone.

It’s worth noting that Facebook used elitism to earn its users’ trust in the beginning, by opening itself only to Ivy Leaguers. Now everybody and their uncle has a Facebook account, but that desire to be part of a sophisticated, almost mysterious club, remains.

BOAW’s promises of trust and escape are echoed by Andrew Wessels, founder of the UK-based social media platform The Marque. The Marque is mostly an online directory, where members can meet like-minded (and like-bank-accounted) people. The website is a jumping-off point for IRL connections: members usually organize events where they can talk freely among people of a similar social tier — without interruption from outsiders looking to elevator pitch their way to success. “It’s not a networking club,” Wessels says. “Basically our members spent their lives being sold to by people who want something from them. At our events, everyone feels so relaxed because they’re surrounded by peers.”

The price of relaxation? £1,000 per year.

Like Best of All Worlds, The Marque operates under an invite-only membership process, but an invite isn’t enough to get you in the door. After someone is recommended by an existing member, they must meet with Wessels or another Marque executive to determine their fit. Wessels, who says he has personally met almost every member of The Marque, tells me he recently spoke with a high-profile billionaire who was interested in membership. Wessels said the billionaire wouldn’t benefit from the club, and likely wouldn’t have time to contribute in a meaningful way. But there are no specific qualifications to get a metaphorical membership card. It’s a “success-based network,” Wessels says, but he is quick to assure me that not everyone is in finance. “There’s a very small group of people who don’t really have anywhere to go online,” Wessels says. “And that’s where The Marque comes in.”

THEY ACTUALLY CAN GO ANYWHERE ELSE ONLINE

Except they actually can go anywhere online — they just choose to go to The Marque. In some ways, these exclusive clubs seem almost more public than their popular counterparts, because they often involve connecting with strangers and don’t allow for anonymity the way most social networks do. It’s about being seen, and it’s about who’s seeing you.

Both Wessels, a former venture capitalist and banker, and Wachtmeiser, a Swedish count, insist that their platforms aren’t just for the ultra-wealthy — they’re for the ultra-influential. And yet in the world of exclusive online clubs, it’s fair to assume that influence means money. On The Marque’s public directory, which lists its members’ careers, the same job titles repeat again and again: CEO, partner, co-founder, president, chairman.

NOT RICH YET, BUT NOT NOT TRYING

For younger people who might have less money, but aspire to a similarly elite lifestyle, there are other options. These semi-elite social networks tend to feel like carbon copies of more popular, public apps. The €1,000-a-month (about $1,070 US) photo-sharing app Rich Kids, which launched last year, feels like what would happen if you added a membership fee to Instagram. Anyone can become a Rich Kids user for free, but if you want to share photos of your yachting holiday to Montenegro, you’ve got to cough up more than $1,000 each month. It’s a steep fee for the honor of posting your photos where anyone can see them. Given the wide availability of photo-sharing apps, the business model doesn’t make a lot of sense. But Rich Kids co-founder Juraj Ivan claims the app’s exclusivity means users won’t have to compete with other influencers for the chance to, well, influence.

Ivan told The Verge that the appeal of Rich Kids over an app like Instagram is that it literally lets you buy fame. “How do you get people’s attention on social networks? How can you bring people to your profile? There’s no shortcut,” he said in an email. “You can’t buy it. Buying fake followers and spamming others won’t make you famous, but [it will make you] annoying. Rich Kids gives you option to buy yourself a place on the spotlight.”

BUY YOURSELF SOME FAME RIGHT HERE

Unfortunately for Rich Kids, that spotlight, right now, is small. Ivan said membership is at a “five digits number.” He blames the app’s slow growth on the fact that after a week in existence it was banned from the App Store (it’s still on Google Play). On its website, the company claims the app never broke any App Store guidelines, but Apple’s App Store Review Team still found it “inappropriate.” Turns out, even the elite aren’t immune to Apple’s stringent review standards.

Twenty-seven-year old Rich Kids user Neil Mathew told The Verge that he still uses Instagram, which he views as “a goldmine” with “serious cash flow.” (Mathew tells me he makes money via Instagram as the “brand ambassador” of the UK dress shoe brand Manor of London.) For Mathew, the appeal of Rich Kids is not the chance to influence, but the privacy it affords him, although the app is actually public. Still, technically, Rich Kids’ relatively small user base is a more private group than Instagram’s 600 million.

DATING, SELECTIVELY

Another obvious place where exclusivity is desirable is in the dating world, and plenty of apps are banking on it. There’s Raya, the secretive dating app for celebrities, and Luxy, an app which once called itself “Tinder, minus the poor people.” Other apps are less explicitly interested in how much money you have, like Sparkology, which only offers college-educated romantic prospects, and The League, which has a team that will look over your LinkedIn account before they give you a chance to find love.

The League, which launched last year, currently has mere thousands of users, but there are hundreds of thousands more on a waitlist, according to Meredith Davis, head of community and partnerships at The League. The waitlist is intentional: Davis says potential users must go through a 4-to-6-week vetting process during which a team at The League looks over their education and career credentials. This process has been “heavily scrutinized,” she says, but unlike the elite Tinder Select, which invites members based on attractiveness, The League is measuring ambition.

Kate Wexler, who has used apps like Tinder, Hinge, and Bumble, says The League offers “quality over quantity,” unlike those other ones. She says she’s gone on a handful of dates scheduled through the app, all of which have exceeded her expectations. When asked about the idea that the entire point of dating apps is to expand your pool of romantic partners, Wexler says, “In a city like New York, with millions of people, you want to narrow the pool.”

SOMETIMES YOU WANT TO NARROW THE POOL, UNLESS YOU’RE MICHAEL PHELPS

And narrowing the pool is how all of these networks survive. Without any members, these apps would fail, but too many members could be equally damaging. Davis says that The League, although currently only open in a few cities like New York, DC, and Chicago, has already considered the possibility of a membership cap in the future. “If you open up the gates too soon, you risk devaluing the brand and the community you worked so hard to create,” she says.

A membership cap is also in the cards for The Marque, which Wessels says is largely favored by current members. (Of course it’s natural to favor a cap when you’re already in the door.) “We totally understand that if we get too big, it goes against what we are… the other networks are all too big.” The company recently decided on a cap: 500 members each in London, New York, and Hong Kong.

Wachtmeister also knows firsthand the chaos that can ensue when your exclusive club isn’t exclusive enough. His first iteration of Best of All Worlds — an invitation-based social network called A Small World — launched in 2004, just one month after Facebook. It was favored by royalty, entrepreneurs, and high-profile celebrities, and reportedly included people like Paris Hilton and Naomi Campbell. But by the early 2010s, the club had apparently gotten too big. In an interview with DOTW News, A Small World chairman Patrick Liotard-Vogt claimed you could buy an invitation on eBay for $1,000. Members were unceremoniously purged from the service (including a scandal-embroiled Tiger Woods) in an effort to drop membership numbers from 850,000 to 250,000. Best of All Worlds currently has 350,000 members, according to Wachtmeiser, who is also considering a membership cap.

“Large public networks… compel people to create barriers between one another,” he said.

One might point out that the entire point of an exclusive social network is to create a barrier, but the founders of these apps would likely argue that barriers can also be a good thing — at least, when they get to choose who’s inside them.

But carefully chosen barriers are not enough to ensure success: make it too difficult to join and your potential members might lose interest. The Netropolitan, a social network launched in 2014 with an initial membership fee of $9,000 followed by annual $3,000 fees, was considered a failure after only two months in existence. In a farewell note to members, founder James Touchi-Peters wrote, “In the end, there was not sufficient interest in our service among the targeted demographic.”

That’s the thing about an exclusive club: the idea inherently limits the number of people who might actually care enough to participate. In the real world, exclusive clubs have figured out ways to make their paradoxes (being private but seen, limited but popular) appealing and financially stable. But the web is built on a system that prioritizes growth over monetization. Raw scale is almost always the goal.

And that’s because social media (and most apps) have been built around two things exclusive clubs aren’t: accessible and cheap — if not free. People aren’t accustomed to paying for services online when they don’t provide a tangible good, and the biggest companies in Silicon Valley haven’t yet figured out how to change that.

These social networks exist in the same space where Mark Zuckerberg bragged about Facebook’s 1 billion users, and Uber was almost toppled by thousands of users collectively jumping ship. In a universe where user count can be a shorthand for ascendancy, exclusive networks make it more difficult to measure success — and measuring success is how we got here in the first place.

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