The nice thing about Facebook is that it's only your friends, right? Rather than competing to communicate on an open Aol-style chatroom, we can use the social media network to connect only with those we know we want to connect to. There's a reason the enforced randomness of Chatroulette died out quickly—the novelty of hanging out with strangers wears off. But what if we could bring those same digital platform social dynamics into the real world?
Technology has allowed us to dodge many of the random encounters life used to entail. We know whose home we're staying in through AirBnB; we plan out our romantic encounters far in advance, or at least in detail, on OKCupid or Tinder; and we're even cloistering ourselves into private online social media in the form of GroupMe and Slack chatrooms. Now, tech companies are figuring out that we also want those limitations set on the rest of our lives. I'm talking about a very, very old concept that's being re-designed and re-branded for the Internet era: private clubs. Not nightclubs, per se, but the old style of members-only social clubs, the kind of you might see in an old-school Italian or Greek New York neighborhood, but updated for a new generation.
These are meant as spaces for work, unlike online social networks, but their real product isn't so much an office as it is interconnection, a sense of belonging.
Examples of these clubs already abound in global cities. Soho House might be the earliest; the chain of plush combination office-restaurant-lounge-boutique hotels started in London in the '90s, but has been slowly expanding into places like Berlin, Chicago, New York, and Istanbul. Alice Gregory's recent profile of the company in GQ underscores its air of elitism mixed with a certain acceptance that "creatives"—graphic designers, producers, writers, itinerant and perhaps aspirational entrepreneurs—often don't hold down regular jobs or hours, and could use a place to hang out all day.
A co-working office space might act as a gateway drug, but these new institutions are more focused on providing a deeper, more intimate social experience. It's not about nine-to-five colleagues, but all-hour friends and collaborators.
The community is self-selecting: Gregory's Soho house account elides the fact that new members have to know pre-existing ones to get in. Thus the space becomes a kind of real-life Facebook, where all your friends hang out, but with pools and free cocktail hours. NeueHouse, an even more exclusive version of Soho, functions on the same model. These are meant as spaces for work, unlike online social networks, but their real product isn't so much an office as it is interconnection, a sense of belonging.
Soho House has its own internal social network for members, as does WeWork, the burgeoning provider of office space for start-ups (which is also a self-selecting community, though not as self-consciously upmarket as Soho or Neue houses). Other clubs skip the office and go straight for the socializing. Magnises is ostensibly a provider of heavy-duty, faux-luxury metal credit cards. But in reality, its product is networking with other members, and access to a penthouse hotel space on the Lower East Side in Manhattan, where card-holders can "unwind after work, attend an event, and make a new connection. It's your home away from home," as the website explains.
Targeted toward Millennials, Magnises costs only $250 a year; Soho and Neue run into the thousands. Co-working spaces like WeWork, however, can easily cost more while providing fewer social benefits in the form of lifestyle amenities (though this is an area of expansion for the company). A space like Brooklyn Boulders, a climbing gym that incorporates workspace and lounges into its facilities, runs up to $115 a month, though it knocks out the need for a separate Crunch account. While all these businesses offer various incentives to get into their programs, it strikes me that the product is mostly the same: IRL social networks, communal spaces that perhaps work to replace the civic centers, churches, and bowling alleys we once had.
While social groups used to congregate in the same bar or the same neighborhood every night, these new clubs promise an even more cloistered, restricted experience, which also extends online with the help of their proprietary apps. Facebook and Twitter have enabled the earlier stages of Internet-augmented socializing, making friends on the Internet in semi-public communities.
The next round of socializing will transpire in private. These clubs, co-working spaces, and social, multi-functional daycare centers promise to fulfill any requirement we might have within a single space (much the role Facebook currently plays for the Internet).
With Raya, the secret, "illuminati Tinder" for semi-famous hipsters, and a Small World, the long-running, recently rebooted social network for international creatives, there's already a surge of privacy and exclusivity-minded digital platforms. Now that we're used to knowing where we can find our friends online, the same habits will bleed over into the rest of our lives. In fact, WeWork is in the process of launching its first "Club" in addition to its WeLive apartment developments, as Brendan O'Connor reports in the Awl.
As participants in the manifold platforms, our principle choice will be in deciding which group to join. But the coolest clubs, as always, are the ones we don't even know about.
Disruptions is Kyle Chayka's weekly column for Pacific Standard about personal technology and the way it influences our daily lives.