Searching for Community: Combating Loneliness with Interest-Based Clubs

Mike Raab
Mike Raab
Apr 18 · 7 min read

The healthy rise of membership clubs and the new “Third Place”

According to many, there’s a growing loneliness epidemic in America. Even in a world where we’re more “connected,” to one another, it’s not difficult to understand why. In 2019, more people are living alone than at any other time in U.S. history; the median age of first-marriage is higher than ever before; employees are telecommuting or working remotely at record levels; and participation in religious organizations (historically the largest belief-based communities) is at an all time low.

These trends, coupled with the ease of on-demand entertainment, food delivery, and e-commerce amount to an all-out assault on the notion of “the third place,” or really — all three “places.”

For those unfamiliar, the notion of “the third place” was popularized by Ray Oldenburg in his book The Great Good Place. Oldenburg defined the first place as the home and those that one lives with; the second place as the workplace; and the third place as “where you relax in public, where you encounter familiar faces and make new acquaintances.” Third places included coffee shops, gyms, bars, religious communities, shopping centers, parks, and anywhere else where people gathered. The third place was thought of as important to find a community of your choosing (outside of home and work life), that established a sense of belonging. Further, the third place provided a place to meet, befriend, and collaborate with people who hold similar interests or beliefs.

While home and work were not considered by Oldenburg as social spheres, they’ve become even less social and more isolated over time. With more people living alone and working remotely today than at any point in history, Americans are spending more time alone — both at home and at work — increasing the importance of the social functions of the third place.

There’s a terrifyingly prescient quote attributed to writer David Foster Wallace by David Lipsky, who chronicled their road trip together during DFW’s book tour for Infinite Jest in 1996:

“… the technology is just gonna get better and better. And it’s gonna get easier and easier… and more and more convenient and more and more pleasurable… to sit alone with images on a screen… given to us by people who do not love us but want our money. And that’s fine in low doses, but if it’s the basic main staple of your diet, you’re gonna die.” — David Foster Wallace

Over 30% of U.S. Households consist of a single person
Source: U.S. Census; 5.2% represents 8 million workers
Fewer Americans are participating in religious communities

It’s hard to argue that David Foster Wallace was wrong. It’s even more terrifying to realize that people are increasingly dying due to drug overdoses and suicide — which may be side effects of loneliness.

Suicide rates are rising in the U.S., and smaller communities are more vulnerable

While the internet and social media are full of “communities,” — whether made up of Instagram, Reddit, Fortnite, or other interest-based forums — there seems to be no substitute for in-person interaction for human mental health.

A 2018 study by Cigna titled “U.S Loneliness Index Report” revealed some illuminating insights:

  • 1) People who have daily meaningful in-person interactions are significantly less likely to feel lonely. Only 53% of Americans say that they have meaningful in-person interactions on a daily basis.
  • 2) The younger you are, the more likely you are to feel lonely. Rising ages of first marriage have contributed to a larger population of single young adults (while this is likely a positive lag for the likelihood of successful marriages, it may contribute to feelings of loneliness and isolation). Social media has also potentially had a net-negative effect on the mental health of younger generations, as Instagram essentially functions as “a feed of things you weren’t invited to.” (credit to Ann Miura-Ko).
  • 3) The number one contributing factor to loneliness according the Cigna report is that “interests and ideas are not shared by those around me.” Essentially, “I don’t have people to talk with about things I like. I don’t feel like I belong.

So, at a time when people are increasingly isolated and alone at home and when working, the third place — a physical location for individuals with similar interests, goals, and beliefs to meet, interact, collaborate, and support one another — has become even more imperative for mental health. Where can people turn when they need a support system?

A few organizations — including The Well, The Wing, and Union Member House — are confronting the loneliness problem head on, creating physical membership communities based on similar lifestyles and interests targeted primarily at young adults.

The Well is building a community around health & wellness lifestyles, with physical locations that include fitness classes, educational courses, meditation rooms, yoga studios, social spaces, and even healthcare practices / providers. The Well was founded by Rebecca Parkeh, Sarrah Hallock, and Kane Sarhan, who collectively have experience in hospitality (Starwood Capital Group), health products (Bai Brands; Vitamin Water), and wellness (Deepak Chopra Radical Well-Being; Global Foundation for Eating Disorders). The community is backed by investors including Will Smith, Priyanka Chopra, Ariana Huffington, and Deepak Chopra, and will open its first location in New York in 2019, followed by clubs around the world in Los Angeles, San Francisco, London, Tokyo, Hong Kong, Mumbai, and Singapore.

Originally launched in New York in 2016, The Wing’s stated mission is “the advancement of women through community.” The Wing already counts 6,000 members across locations in New York, Washington D.C., and San Francisco, with new locations scheduled to open in Los Angeles, Chicago, Boston, London, Toronto, and Paris in 2019. Clubs include co-working spaces, conference rooms, cafes, libraries, lactation rooms, beauty rooms, showers and more, along with a mobile application for its members to stay connected with each other. Founded by Audrey Gelman and Lauren Kassan, The Wing’s investors include Kerry Washington, Valerie Jarrett, Alex Morgan, Airbnb, WeWork, Sequoia Capital, NEA, Upfront Ventures, and BBG Ventures.

Another organization, Union Member House, is creating club houses in mid-sized U.S. cities, which are often underserved by prestigious membership clubs and co-working spaces located in the largest U.S. cities, such as SoHo House, Equinox, and WeWork. Union’s goal is to be a meeting place for a diverse group of members who are excited to connect with new people. In addition to co-working spaces and a coffee house, Union transitions into a bar in the evening and programs events that interest members, such as Jazz nights. Union also actively matches community members who share common interests and goals with each other, based on information that is gathered during member on-boarding. Union Member House was founded by Sonny Caberwal, who comments on the company’s website:

I believe that meeting the right person at the right time can change your life, because it’s changed mine. Almost every successful thing I’ve ever done is because I met someone who challenged me to think differently, or made an unlikely introduction. The problem is, many amazing people don’t have access to a space or network that connects them with people outside of their social circles. What if that wasn’t the case?” — Sonny Caberwal

Union’s first location is open in Durham, North Carolina, with locations in Austin, Texas and Madison, Wisconsin set to launch in 2019.

While these new communities and interest-based clubs won’t solve the loneliness problem overnight — you still need to live in proximity to a club and be able to afford membership fees in order to benefit — they’re a promising step forward in bringing back meaningful in-person interactions at a time when people spend more time alone than ever before. I hope and expect for many more iterations and expansions of the interest-based membership club to become pervasive in big cities and small towns alike, bringing humanity back together in the new third place.

If you enjoyed this, check out some of my other articles: The Future of Podcasting is Subscription, The Cameras are Coming, and The Future of Car Travel: Advertising and Retail?

This story is published in The Startup, Medium’s largest entrepreneurship publication followed by +444,678 people.

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The Raabit Hole

Musings on life, entertainment, and technology. Note: opinions expressed do not necessarily represent the views of the author in the future.

Mike Raab

Written by

Mike Raab

I write about media, tech, and life. Currently VC @ Sinai Ventures in SF. Formerly digital TV strategy @ 21st Century Fox in LA.

The Raabit Hole

Musings on life, entertainment, and technology. Note: opinions expressed do not necessarily represent the views of the author in the future.

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