"I have tits – give me free stuff": the WTF world of elite social networking

It's a small world after all, finds Melinda Hughes.

In April 2013, A Small World, the self-styled elite social network (or "global community"), decided it was going to be a little less social by chucking out some of its members. It really was as sudden and as blunt as that; their email to the lucky few not removed said: "We have decided to terminate the accounts of anyone who undermines the unique spirit of openness that serves as the cornerstone of ASW—and sets our community apart… The reality is simply that our growth has inadvertently allowed certain members to degrade this trust, and those are the people we’re exiling, effective immediately."

An overhaul ensued and thousands of members were kicked off the site to bring numbers down to 250,000. A new "Members Privilege Programme" was introduced in May, with discounts on hotel rooms, fashionable clothes and spa treatments, a free luxury airport car service, cutting-in privileges in nightclub queues… And for the first time, there was a membership fee (£70), to pay for these discounts and freebies. A Small World wants to see the colour of its members’ money as a guarantee of interest and responsibility.

But there have been roars of discontent from those thrown off, who allege expulsion by algorithm rather than actual offence, a subversive Facebook group set up in riposte and harsh emails from A Small World’s staff churning up further ill feeling.

Core members of A Small World whose posts had been reported as abusive (whether they were or not) found themselves in social Siberia. Israel-based Uri Schneider, an active member who organised ASW parties including the Middle East Peace Party, was surprised at his expulsion.

He joked on Facebook that "if we open a group on Facebook called ASW Nostalgia it will be the last nail in ASW's coffin… Within five minutes Antoine Sorice had done just that and ASW Nostalgia was formed. Within an hour, the group had clocked up a thousand members." Schneider and Sorice, along with Alexander Schaumburg-Lippe, administer the group, whose manifesto is "Anything except politcally [sic] correct and non offensive bullshit".

This group, which now has over 1,700 members, quickly acquired a nickname. Having clearly infuriated the management of A Small World with the group, which complained about and ridiculed A Small World, Schaumburg-Lippe received a scathing email from them: "We wish you farewell. We do hope you continue to enjoy talking about ASW in a group that oozes the charm and sophistication of a hippopotamus in heat." Members of ASW Nostalgia now affectionately call each other hippos.

The Facebook site is not exactly a garden party with tea and cucumber sandwiches sans crust: it’s more like a self-help group crossed with a raucous yacht party at Cannes-time crossed with a fight club. For every video of Mohammed Ali training, there is a photo of a gleaming new Bugatti and an offensive internet meme (a woman throws her arms into the air and the text reads "I have tits – give me free stuff"). One post asks: "As aSW was not a dating site, how many members did you sleep with?"

There is also plenty of mockery of ASW. One member posted a story called "How to spot a gold digger like it’s your job’" with the note, "Added bonus with your new ASW card…". Another wrote: "Newsflash, newsflash, newsflash: ASW has about 12,000 members. You do the math ;)" referring to the initial paucity of ASW members who wanted to pay for the service.

Not all members of ASW Nostalgia are happy with this. One complained: "I think many of the things posted in ASW nostalgia are really inappropriate and does not live up to ASW standard. What happened to the real ASW?! Disappointed former member."

Pictured above: A screenshot of the ASW Nostalgia group, which now has over 1,700 members

In reply, another member wrote: "I have noticed a rythym on here..there are brilliant days when the posts are brilliant and the discussions fascinating, on those brilliant days after some hours there are usually , ahem, one or a few usual or shockingly unusual suspects who have fights, they get over it and become best friends or keep hating each other , then there are a few stupid days where people post pictures of jet bathrooms and donkeys in spanish squares, then it gets good again..just when I'm ready to sign off a great day happens..so patience.." (All sic.)

Antoine Sorice defended ("Well actually that is not quite correct, but I understand why it may appear that way. The appropriate stiuff get's deleted immediately by nostalgia's webmasters...") as did Alexander Schaumburg-Lippe ("Well, the quality waxes and wanes, and we certainly had better times in the beginning. But that was to be expected. We had an outburst of creativity for a while, and now a lot of people have fired their best shots. I'm not discontent with what we have, though"). (Again, all sic.)

What has happened, in short, with the memes, the mockery, the offence and the defence, is that ASW Nostalgia has become a lot like… ASW.

Formed in 2004 by Eric Wachtmeister, A Small World was an innovative online community. It was fun, fast-moving and in between postings such as "Who has a seat on their jet to St Tropez?" there were political threads, often controversial and provoking heated debate. On the whole, it was good, clean fun and you were only one click away from supermodels, aristocracy and celebrities. It also proved a useful tool when travelling as there were often get-togethers in cities all around the world.

However, as soon as the floodgates opened in late 2005, with ten invitations issued to each member, things quickly got swamped. Like a hot restaurant in London, the fast crowd moved on. All that was left were heavily monitored threads about watches, parties and Ferraris posted by wannabes and City traders.

Pictured above: A Small World's new registration page

By 2006 it had lost its exclusivity, but the ASW brand was nevertheless strengthening and Wachtmeister sold it to Harvey Weinstein, who recently said that it was his worst investment ever: "I managed to take a brilliant idea and turn it into a disaster. Boy did I screw that one up." In 2011, he told The Daily Beast that ‘I clearly was in way over my head" and "the other social sites kicked my butt. I sold the company for a loss to a techie who immediately improved services and has turned the company around."

That techie was Swiss entrepreneur Patrick Liotard-Vogt (a hirsute cross between Michael Bolton and Mick Hucknall), who had been chomping at the bit to gain control of ASW. The relaunch, with its new business model, has happened under his watch, and according to Steerpike in the Spectator, it is now combining philanthropy with its social hauteur: an event at the Gstaad Palace Hotel with Weinstein, Carey Mulligan and Otis Ferry raised nearly $100,000 for the Alzheimer’s Society.

As the Facebook page became more popular and more outrageous, ASW’s management became more forceful in their criticism and more enticing in their persuasion.

Serena Alvarado, ASW’s events director, emailed Uri to complain: ‘You started a hate group on the internet. As the founder of a hate group, you are responsible for the slander written of the members in this group, the sexist, disgusting comments people are posting. Hate groups are responsible for terrible crimes and tragedies in our culture. You should be ashamed of yourself. I am embarrassed for you and your wife and child. The world would be a better place without people like you spending your time and energy being nasty and hateful about other people.’

I find it surprising that ASW is quite as concerned as it is: while it’s clear that they don’t want their brand tarnished by association, ASW Nostalgia is only a chat forum with intermittent member meet-ups – the proper ASW offers global networking parties, large scale events, an online magazine and exclusive ties to luxury marketing, as well as the new benefits.

Pictured above: One of the images a Hippo posted on the Facebook group

Then, according to Uri Schneider, the new CEO of ASW, Sabine Heller, called him to complain and cajole. Heller, Schneider posted in the group, ‘demanded that we change the [group’s] name or shut it down – calling it trademark infringement etc’. She also conceded, he says, that an ‘algorithmic mistake’ could have led to blameless members being expelled and would accept people back ‘based on our recommendations of who is worthy’. And most placatingly, ‘She offered me an official ASW “events ambassador” title or something among these lines. :) As if I'm not busy enough with this group already ;)’.

There followed over 1,100 responses to Schneider’s post, a mixture of disbelief and annoyance at having been thrown out of ASW tout court, insults aimed at Heller and glee at the trouble caused by ASW Nostalgia. The hippos were enjoying muddying the water too much: the group continues in full spate.

Meanwhile, a new exclusive online community has been launched by Erik Wachtmeister, the founder of ASW. Best of All Worlds, whose homepage doesn’t even hint at what it might be or how you can join, wants to ‘empower global social discovery within an intimate and trusted community. Not endless online noise. Discover people, common passions, and compelling information for tomorrow, not yesterday, in worlds of shared interests and friends.’ BOAW aims ‘to return relevance, trust, and usefulness to the online world’.

Pictured above: The landing page for Best of All Worlds

Wachtmeister, learning from ASW’s mistakes, scored a minor coup sure to enrage his old site and delight the Hippos: he has offered them their own forum and membership of BOAW with no boundaries on expression. (He may come to regret this, given the muck chucked about in ASW Nostalgia.)

So what of the original exclusive social network? Well, with its new charge it’s no longer really a social network at all: ASW has mutated into a global concierge service with social benefits which might give Quintessentially a run for its money. The field of concierge service: now that’s a small world.

This piece was written by Melinda Hughes

It first appeared on economia.

A screenshot from A Small World's website. Photograph: Getty Images

This is a story from the team at Spears magazine.

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Trade unions must change or face permanent decline

Union membership will fall below one in five employees by 2030 unless current trends are reversed. 

The future should be full of potential for trade unions. Four in five people in Great Britain think that trade unions are “essential” to protect workers’ interests. Public concerns about low pay have soared to record levels over recent years. And, after almost disappearing from view, there is now a resurgent debate about the quality and dignity of work in today’s Britain.

Yet, as things stand, none of these currents are likely to reverse long-term decline. Membership has fallen by almost half since the late 1970s and at the same time the number of people in work has risen by a quarter. Unions are heavily skewed towards the public sector, older workers and middle-to-high earners. Overall, membership is now just under 25 per cent of all employees, however in the private sector it falls to 14 per cent nationally and 10 per cent in London. Less than 1 in 10 of the lowest paid are members. Across large swathes of our economy unions are near invisible.

The reasons are complex and deep-rooted — sweeping industrial change, anti-union legislation, shifts in social attitudes and the rise of precarious work to name a few — but the upshot is plain to see. Looking at the past 15 years, membership has fallen from 30 per cent in 2000 to 25 per cent in 2015. As the TUC have said, we are now into a 2nd generation of “never members”, millions of young people are entering the jobs market without even a passing thought about joining a union. Above all, demographics are taking their toll: baby boomers are retiring; millennials aren’t signing up.

This is a structural problem for the union movement because if fewer young workers join then it’s a rock-solid bet that fewer of their peers will sign-up in later life — setting in train a further wave of decline in membership figures in the decades ahead. As older workers, who came of age in the 1970s when trade unions were at their most dominant, retire and are replaced with fewer newcomers, union membership will fall. The question is: by how much?

The chart below sets out our analysis of trends in membership over the 20 years for which detailed membership data is available (the thick lines) and a fifteen year projection period (the dotted lines). The filled-in dots show where membership is today and the white-filled dots show our projection for 2030. Those born in the 1950s were the last cohort to see similar membership rates to their predecessors.

 

Our projections (the white-filled dots) are based on the assumption that changes in membership in the coming years simply track the path that previous cohorts took at the same age. For example, the cohort born in the late 1980s saw a 50 per cent increase in union membership as they moved from their early to late twenties. We have assumed that the same percentage increase in membership will occur over the coming decade among those born in the late 1990s.

This may turn out to be a highly optimistic assumption. Further fragmentation in the nature of work or prolonged austerity, for example, could curtail the familiar big rise in membership rates as people pass through their twenties. Against this, it could be argued that a greater proportion of young people spending longer in education might simply be delaying the age at which union membership rises, resulting in sharper growth among those in their late twenties in the future. However, to date this simply hasn’t happened. Membership rates for those in their late twenties have fallen steadily: they stand at 19 per cent among today’s 26–30 year olds compared to 23 per cent a decade ago, and 29 per cent two decades ago.

All told our overall projection is that just under 20 per cent of employees will be in a union by 2030. Think of this as a rough indication of where the union movement will be in 15 years’ time if history repeats itself. To be clear, this doesn’t signify union membership suddenly going over a cliff; it just points to steady, continual decline. If accurate, it would mean that by 2030 the share of trade unionists would have fallen by a third since the turn of the century.

Let’s hope that this outlook brings home the urgency of acting to address this generational challenge. It should spark far-reaching debate about what the next chapter of pro-worker organisation should look like. Some of this thinking is starting to happen inside our own union movement. But it needs to come from outside of the union world too: there is likely to be a need for a more diverse set of institutions experimenting with new ways of supporting those in exposed parts of the workforce. There’s no shortage of examples from the US — a country whose union movement faces an even more acute challenge than ours — of how to innovate on behalf of workers.

It’s not written in the stars that these gloomy projections will come to pass. They are there to be acted on. But if the voices of union conservatism prevail — and the offer to millennials is more of the same — no-one should be at all surprised about where this ends up.

This post originally appeared on Gavin Kelly's blog