Daniel Gendelman, founder of Raya, at the company’s headquarters in Los Angeles. Picture: Kendrick Brinson/The New York Times

Los Angeles - If you’ve felt a lingering disturbance in the internet’s social order - a vague and unsettling sense that there is a raging party happening just out of view, that all the people cooler, richer and better looking than you are blowing off steam together in some VIP hideaway while you waste your life on Twitter and Instagram - I have some bad news.

This place exists. It’s called Raya. Maybe you are one of the more than 100 000 people on the waiting list?

Raya first appeared several years ago as a dating app aimed at people in creative industries. It has expanded into an invitation-only social network populated by movie stars, fashion designers, pro athletes, tech executives and too many Instagram models to count.

“It’s the Soho House of dating apps,” said Hayley Greenberg, 27, a social media manager in Los Angeles who joined Raya in 2016 and used it for several months. “They have the really good-looking guys, the athletes, the actors, the guys that have like 500 followers on Instagram but got accepted because they’re a DJ.”

On Raya, Greenberg said, “everyone’s someone.”

The app costs $7.99 (about R110) a month, but joining is no small ordeal. Prospective members are evaluated by an algorithm and human gatekeepers, who consider factors like the size of an applicant’s Instagram following, how many Raya members he or she knows and other, less quantifiable attributes.

About eight percent of applicants are accepted, making Raya a slightly harder nut to crack than Harvard Business School.

Inside, the rules are simple: Don’t be a creep, and maintain strict privacy. Users who take screen shots receive a stern pop-up message, and disclosing information about other members is strongly discouraged. Stassi Schroeder, a star of Vanderpump Rules, has said that she was barred from the app for publicly discussing her match with Olympic swimmer Ryan Lochte.

Snooty? Well, yeah. But Raya is filling a market niche. At a time when open tech platforms like Facebook and Twitter are struggling to rebuild user trust after a flurry of scandals, Raya stands out as an example of a social network that is succeeding by emphasizing exclusivity over scale, and turning privacy into a selling point.

Last month, after pushing Raya for answers, I received a text from a man who said he wanted to meet in Los Angeles and out himself as the company’s founder.

Software engineer Sarah Lee works at her desk alongside her dogs, Lani and Cho Cho, at the Raya headquarters in Los Angeles. Picture: Kendrick Brinson/The New York Times

The man said that telling Raya’s story would be cathartic and that it was time to set the record straight on what the app was really about - what kinds of people it was meant to bring together.

‘Someone Who Can Change a Life’

Daniel Gendelman, 34, is handsome and thinly bearded. He wore a white T-shirt and ordered plain oatmeal when I met him recently in a Venice Beach restaurant.

In 2014, he was staying in Israel, recovering from the failure of his previous startup, a social discovery app called Yello. And he was striking out on Tinder.

“I was looking for coffee in a new neighbourhood, and a little bit of a human connection with someone nice,” he said. “It was just a miss.”

Gendelman had hung around the creative upper crust and he knew that online dating didn’t work for everyone. Celebrities avoided it out of embarrassment. Artists and musicians didn’t necessarily want to be on a platform that lumped them in with bankers and lawyers.

Instead, Gendelman thought, what if there were an app that felt more like a dinner party - an intimate, thoroughly vetted collection of interesting people having candid conversations? He put together a small team and began to build. He called the app Raya, after the Hebrew word for friend, and seeded it with a group of his friends in Los Angeles.

“I tried to solve a big problem for a small amount of people,” Gendelman said.

The app - which is only available on Apple devices, naturally - gathered buzz among Hollywood and media insiders, who called it “Illuminati Tinder” and begged to be invited. One desperate applicant offered $10 000 in cash for a Raya account. Others put together elaborate résumés, complete with press clips and glowing testimonials.

Among actual Raya members, reviews are mixed. A friend confessed that she loved it and had used it to score several dates, including one with a Grammy-winning musician.

“It felt nice to be accepted,” said Terence Telle, a model in New York who joined Raya last year. On other dating apps, Telle said, women often accused him of being an impostor using fake photos to get dates.

Their suspicion may have stemmed from his eight-pack abs and frankly ridiculous jaw line. He did not have that problem on Raya, where everyone has eight-pack abs and ridiculous jaw lines.

“It’s way better,” said Telle, who is now dating someone and has stopped actively using Raya. “I matched with a lot of models and even one celebrity.”

The New York Times