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Cheap Thrills: The Allure of Exclusive Dating Apps

The idea of an app that carefully curates prospects—everyone’s a ten!—is undeniably appealing, even if it leads nowhere. Even more seductive, however, is the status symbol becoming a member of Raya provides.

By Alexandra Pauly.

Art by @artfucker.

I’ll be the first to admit it: I use my parents’ Netflix and New York Times login, a friend’s HBO GO account every Sunday to watch Big Little Lies, his family’s Optimum password to keep up with the Real Housewives and I never, ever tip on Uber. I even resisted upgrading to Spotify premium until this year, my iTunes library subsisting on bops downloaded from listentoyoutube.com (if you know, you know). So why do I spend $8 a month on Raya? 

It’s obvious that Raya—and its allure—deals in the glittering currency of exclusivity, or at least the prospect of it. 

In case you haven’t heard: Raya is a private, members-only dating and, thanks to a recently added feature, professional networking app. To apply, potential users submit their Instagram handle and email. With the help of an algorithm, a secret committee comprised of 500 “trusted members” of the Raya community review applications and, in a timeframe ranging from days to months, accept or reject each one. Not much is publicly known about the app’s employees, its business model and even its users—Raya prohibits screenshots, though a number of the app’s high-profile users have been outed. Though the app’s gatekeepers refuse to reveal much about its operations and insist that application acceptance isn’t based on looks or Instagram clout (“we’re interested in curating digital dinner parties, so to speak, and that comes in all forms,” founder Daniel Gendelman told the New York Times), it’s obvious that Raya—and its allure—deals in the glittering currency of exclusivity, or at least the prospect of it. 

I’ve been on Raya since December 2018, thanks to a Friend Pass from a coworker who also happens to be a pre-existing member. I’d been on the waiting list—effectively rejected—for months before that. I’d always thought Raya’s premise was silly at best, elitist at worst. But I couldn’t help feeling a swoop of excitement when I received a “Welcome To Raya!” email minutes after being referred by my generous coworker. Though I’ve matched with plenty of people on the app, I’ve messaged with only a handful of them. As for Raya dates, I’ve only been on one. Considering the number of Tinder matches that have led to IRL interactions, Raya pales in comparison. I suspect, and have heard the same suspicion voiced by other users, that most Raya profiles function as a kind of business card—not necessarily something to be actioned on, but rather a proclamation: here I am, I was accepted, I am special, now what’s special about you? 

Logically, I should delete Raya. One date—the prospects of which fizzled out when, after making plans for a second, he texted that he wasn’t able to see anyone at the moment—over the course of seven months hardly amounts to a stellar experience. But in a digital dating landscape that provides endless options and ruthlessly fuels our search for the Next Best Thing (see: “The Next Best Thing Syndrome: Is Perfectionism Stopping Us From Finding Love?”), the idea of an app that carefully curates prospects—everyone’s a ten!—is undeniably appealing, even if it leads nowhere. Even more seductive, however, is the status symbol becoming a member of Raya provides.

Other “exclusive” dating apps such as The League and Luxy have more clear-cut criteria for becoming a member. For example, those looking to join The League submit their LinkedIn profiles (education and career as focal points), and Luxy reviews applicant tax returns (a salary below 200k a year won’t cut it). The ego boost Raya provides is not tied linearly to concrete achievements—though a prestigious alma mater and high yearly income can’t hurt—but rather, the sum of all these parts and more, a mysterious amalgam of desirability that must triumph over an algorithm as well as the popular vote of a supposedly diverse group of hundreds of already-anointed Raya members from around the world. 

Though Raya charges a monthly fee, users don’t become members because they’re paying—they’re members because of who they are, a lofty and pretentious conceit that money can’t always buy.

In an age where online dating and hookups are accessible to virtually everyone via apps such as Tinder, Bumble, Grindr, Her, OkCupid and on and on, it only makes sense that these companies capitalize on the Great Search for Love with paid versions (Tinder Gold is $30/month, Bumble Boost $25, Grindr Xtra $10). Though Raya charges a monthly fee, users don’t become members because they’re paying—they’re members because of who they are, a lofty and pretentious conceit that money can’t always buy. Raya’s model of exclusivity based on so-called desirability—determined by applicants’ social media profiles and number of contacts who are already members (admittedly, shallow indicators of a person’s qualities)—rather than the ability to pay a premium fee is a logical continuation, the next step up, of dating app capitalism. Of course it’s elitist and of course it’s superficial. So why do I pay for Raya? Because I’d be lying if I said I was immune to the allure of feeling special.

Alexandra Pauly is a New York City-based culture and fashion journalist. Her work has been published by StyleCaster, Galore, WestwoodWestwood, The Untitled Magazine and of course, Salty. When she’s not writing, you can find her unearthing hidden gems at Goodwill, papering her apartment with magazine tear sheets and debating the most iconic moments of RuPaul’s Drag Race. You can find her on Instagram at @paulybyalexforalexandrapauly.

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