The entrance to Parlor stays hidden by design; the all-black door has no number, no sign. The inside of the 5,000-square-foot club matches its outside: all black, no windows. I’m sent to a curtained-off lounge with velvety black couches along the perimeter. Large black and white Roxanne Lowit paparazzi photos hang on the walls. The ambience is swanky, with an Eyes Wide Shut vibe.
People who belong to Parlor go through a multi-step application process and pay $1,500 a year plus a mandatory quarterly beverage spend of $250. But I’m here with a different group–as a member of A Small World, a private online community, which is having its weekly IRL event, a “cocktail soirée” at the Manhattan space. For $105 a year and $10 per ticket, ASW members get access to this otherwise unattainable scene for a couple of hours, plus one free drink.
I’m on time, which is ridiculously uncool for the A Small World crowd, and nobody is there. “It can be kind of a crapshoot,” Julie Gu-Scallen, a company marketing exec said, when I asked how many people would show up.
After about half an hour of chatting with Gu-Scallen, I head to get my free drink. The only option is a light vodka with generic mixers, frat-party style. For a club that costs $1,500 to join, the hors d’oeuvres are lacking: A platter each of egg rolls, filo dough triangles with mystery filling, shrimp, and tuna. I pile the fried delights on my plate, sip my vodka grapefruit, and prepare to mingle with very important people.
This scene represents the polar opposite of most social networks, which celebrate openness and scale. But outside of the Facebooks and Twitters of the world exist a small but growing number of digital country clubs, online groups that are private, exclusive, and intriguing to a plebe like me. Some groups require elaborate applications; most just charge exorbitant fees. Over the last two months I applied to, joined, and attended events for four different online clubs, and saw how the other half lives.
This exclusive (and theoretically fabulous) world of elite social networks, like ASW, first came to my attention with the September launch of Netropolitan, a self-described “online country club for people with more money than time.” Netropolitan costs $6,000 dollars to join, with additional annual membership dues of $3,000.
But special online networks have been around as long as regular ones. A Small World launched back in 2004, soon after Facebook, when Zuckerberg’s site was still exclusive to universities. Founder Erik Wachtmeister, a Swedish count with disposable income, created ASW as a way meet people traveling to elite getaways like, say, Aspen or St. Tropez. At the time it was hailed as “My Space for Millionaires.” (Wachtmeister is no longer with the company.)
In the last 10 years, various sites appealing to different, but still wealthy, demographics have popped up, selling their version of Internet club. Around 2007 there was a mini “Facebook for the few” boom, documented by a New York Times trend story, each network touting more exclusivity then the next. Diamond Lounge launched, for example, to “avoid aSmallWorld’s growth pains,” reported The Wall Street Journal.
People with money are an ideal demographic. “We’re dealing with a group of people that moves in social migration around the planet,” said Joe Robinson, the chief executive of A Small World in 2007. “From the point of view of a Mercedes-Benz or a Piaget, that makes this an enormous marketing opportunity.” And, indeed, luxury advertisers flocked to these sites.
Many of the companies from that boom have since shut down. “Rich people don’t just want to talk to rich people,” Andrew M. Sacks, president of the Affluence Collaborative, a research firm studying affluent consumer behavior told the Times last year. And, without the truly affluent on these sites, the big name advertisers bailed.
But new networks with new plans to capture the attention and money of a lucrative set of users have surfaced in their wake, most of them not reliant on ad dollars. ASW, for example, survived by rebranding a year and a half ago as an ad-free service, with a membership fee.
Netropolitan creator James Touchi-Peters, a former Minnesota Philharmonic Orchestra conductor, says he made the site because after two years of research he couldn’t find an online social network for people like him. “The whole point of the whole thing is that it’s lonely at the top, and it is,” he said followed by a cackle. “People in leadership positions feel socially isolated. That’s the gist of this whole thing,” he told me over the phone.
Citing the privacy of its members, Touchi-Peters would not let me tour the site or talk to any members, providing two unrevealing screen shots of the service. I couldn’t afford to join and my attempts to contact Netropolitan users were fruitless.
Perhaps that frustration made getting into IVY (formerly known as IvyConnect), my first foray into the upper echelons of Internet society, feel about as good as getting into college. “OMG OMG OMG I got ACCEPTED to Ivy league social network,” I chatted to my editor. But the excitement faded as I applied to more networks–it turns out that it’s not that hard to be a part of the Internet elite.
Despite the name, IVY does not limit membership to those with an Ivy League pedigree. The organization co-opted “Ivy” to signify status and limits members to “people who are aspiring to make the world a better place, but who also really care about other people and are very warm in their approach,” CEO Beri Meric told me.
Nothing I did in the application process signaled my particular aspirations to “make the world a better place” or “care about people.” When the online form asked “primary reasons for applying,” I lied, scraping this quote from this Fast Company article about IVY: “I want to meet new people without having to go to grad school again.” During the phone interview, when asked if I had any interests outside of work, after a long pause, I said “I know this sounds lame, but I do yoga.”
Entree into these online communities often comes down to willingness to pay. Netropolitan is at the extreme end of the spectrum: Fork over nine grand and you’re in, no additional vetting required. IVY, which says it maintains a wait list to join its 10,000 members, costs $780 for the year, and will go up to $1,000 soon, per Meric. (Meric also said IVY offers scholarships for special cases.) ASW accepted me based on my LinkedIn profile and one open-ended question. To activate the profile and meet my 50,000 new friends I just had to pay $105, which, full disclosure, I never did. I couldn’t (and did not) complete the FoundersCard application without giving credit card information for the $795 membership fee.
Every social network I spoke with denied accepting (or denying) people based on affluence (or lack of). “It’s not necessarily about wealth per se,” said Gu-Scallen of ASW. “Of course we ask the income question, but income is not really a qualifier.”
With the exception of Netropolitan’s exorbitant fee, which Touchi-Peters hilariously said “is not actually to separate people from affluence class,” but to “vet people on seriousness and purpose,” I believe that these networks don’t actively filter based on salary. The fees aren’t exactly bank breaking. ASW costs about as much as Netflix for the year. Still, they exclude those of a certain socioeconomic status in more subtle ways. The “types” of people these organizations look for probably have money but more than that, a reason to reject conventional social networks–looking for a job or a mate. ASW describes its members having “a certain amount of disposable income,” said Gu-Scallen; mostly it sounds like the network looks for people who like to (and can afford to) travel the world. IVY accepts well-rounded types who would fit in at Ivy League schools, an obvious class signifier, although they don’t want to be turning away paying members who didn’t happen to actually attend one.
The digital societies don’t quite have analog comparisons, although the phrase “digital Soho House” came up a few times, referring to exclusive bar and hotel chain. Unlike a physical country club, membership doesn’t offer access to a pool or a golf course, which is a reason the fees are considerably lower than brick and mortar equivalents.
Instead, members get access to the exclusive online network of peers. The websites work a lot like a mix of Facebook and LinkedIn, allowing for posting and messaging. The only thing striking about the designs are the lack of ads. Page design doesn’t have to account for a sponsored interruption; it’s mostly rows and rows of profile pictures.
From what I saw of Netropolitan, it has a heavy messaging component. ASW also has a prominent message board. From that Times article it sounds like ASW used to draw a swankier crowd; the piece cites a conversation about buying a private island in Fiji. Most of the discussions now revolve around ASW events, traveling, and the ASW benefits. (ASW membership offers access to deals on goods and services.) Some of the threads verge into topics of the somewhat rich, like “Anyone knows a good taxi driver who talks a bit of English that I can use him for everyday commute to work and also after work to move around town?”
But wouldn’t an actual rich person use a private car service?
I didn’t have much luck interacting on IVY. A few people friended me; nobody responded to my messages. When I asked Touch-Peters to give me an idea of what happens on Netropolitan, he said “So far they [the conversations] are surprisingly ordinary — a lot of pictures of kids and a lot of pictures of vacations.”
Despite having web components, the real draw is offline events, like the evening at Parlor. (Netropolitan doesn’t yet have events, but Touchi-Peters said it’s a logical next step.) That’s where members get to mingle at a super-exclusive venue with a group of theoretically special people. I personally saw a guy swirl and then sniff his plastic cup of red wine to ensure he got the full tasting experience.
Gu-Scallen, my escort at Parlor, told me to take note of how friendly ASW members are–people will just come up to you and start talking, she said.
With my drink and apps in hand, I sit down on a couch; at that point the room has filled up with a couple dozen bodies. Nobody comes up to talk to me.
It’s always a bit awkward to start talking to strangers with whom the only thing you have in common is an Internet club. Ambassadors from the company try to dissipate this natural unpleasantness. A fellow IVY member told me that the IVY staffers spend time memorizing slides of the people coming to a given event. Indeed, when I arrived the representative, who I had never before met, said things like, “You used to live in DC, right?”
The events that I attended often dissolved into a meat market vibe. Yet, none of the networks call themselves dating sites because it’s not great business. In fact, IVY grew out of a failed Ivy League dating site.
But still, some people came to make friends. At IVY, there was the young woman who lived all the way out at the end of the F train in Queens, who wanted to maintain a social life in the city. Or the film director who traveled a lot and wanted to branch out of her incestuous social circle. And of course, there was the startup bro with some big ideas who wanted to network.
And then, at Parlor, there was Thad.
I spotted Thad hovering by the food, silently popping egg rolls into his mouth. He was not speaking to anyone. An hour after my first sighting, I went over to see what Thad, noticeably grayer than the rest of the crowd, might be getting out of the night. To my knowledge, I was the first and only person to talk to Thad up until that point.
Thad told me A Small World put on some pretty good events. He works in real estate and manages his daughter’s band. He claimed he was having a nice time, in the corner, alone. That may be true, although Thad’s M.O. completely contradicted the goals of the group to which he paid dues to join.
So, who, then, are these social networks for–lone wolfs like Thad? Or fabulous achievers who can’t be bothered with Facebook riffraff? After exploring the online and offline worlds, I think these networks make the most sense for people who have few friends living nearby. In particular, ASW holds appeal to ex-pats looking for community in a foreign city. Touchi-Peters described one of his target demographics as “wealthy people who live in small cities and towns.” In other words, people like Touchi-Peters, who “don’t have local real world social network at all or very little.” Even IVY drew a lot of people who just moved to New York. The most interesting demographics at their event was ex-military folks.
In that way, these networks are a lot like fraternities for grown-ups, just as Greek letter organizations provide an instant social life for people who are new on campus. As an adult, though, do we need that kind of security? “What is it really that they’re giving people that is not necessarily available in another place?” wondered Nicholas Syrett, a history professor at the University of Northern Colorado, who wrote The Company He Keeps: A History of White College Fraternities.
Elite online networks do provide access to places like Parlor. But, really, in the end, the people make the networks. “Somehow–this sounds so bad–you have to feel like the social life you have is somehow beneath you and you need something that is somehow elevated,” added Syrett. That’s certainly why people join. Once in, though, I’m not really sure why they stay. By the time I was done picking through the cold cuts and cheese squares from my last elite event buffet, a stiff cocktail and a hot meal seemed downright luxurious. Maybe it goes without saying but the real gatekeepers to the world of the rich and fabulous don’t bother making social network sites and then adding fees: Privilege flows through birthright, professional accomplishment and invisible social connections. No number of online mixers will turn an average Joe into a Great Gatsby.