To gain entry into the most exclusive club in Los Angeles, there is no need to wear a trendy outfit or to slip the bouncer a Benjamin. In fact, there isn't even a line.
Instead, admission requires the approval of a scrupulous jury of 1,500 women. And if those women decide to let you into their secret club, a Facebook group called 'Girls Night In,' all 1,500 of them will become your very best friends.
'Girls Night In'—or GNI, as its members call it—is like a giant online slumber party, one that never ends, slips into your pocket and can be called upon at any moment in the day that you need it. It is a constant stream of brutally frank chatter about relationships, work, sex, race, gender and, yes, cats, along with a bizarrely large quantity of nude selfies. It is made up mainly of women in their 20s and 30s who live in the Los Angeles area. Among its ranks are Instagram-famous models, former reality show contestants, celebrity makeup artists and the quasi-famous girlfriend of a very famous singer.
Lest you be confused (or hope to try to join it), you should know that it's not actually called 'Girls Night In,' but rather changes names constantly based on a rotating series of inside jokes. Getting in requires recommendations from at least three women already in the group. "If you meet a nice girl in a bathroom while you are drunk i am really happy for you and for her but that's not cause to add her to this group," its rules advise. The rules of membership read even stricter: "EVERYTHING POSTED IN THIS GROUP IS PRIVATE, TOP SECRET AND SHOULD REMAIN IN THIS GROUP. SHARING INFO OR POSTS FROM THIS GROUP WITH OTHERS WILL RESULT IN EXPULSION FROM THE GROUP AND PUBLIC SHAMING." Amazingly, people honor the no-sharing rule.
If you get invited into 'Girls Night In,' it will probably change your life. It's like joining a sorority—a digital sisterhood where women vent, fight, offer advice, trade tips, crack jokes and critique each other's selfies. It's an interactive, communal diary, and a support group for womanhood. But most important of all, it's a focus group for your life. If you're wondering how to respond to a text from a dude, whether you should buy that jumpsuit you're trying on at Fred Segal or if your boobs looks smoking, just post your inquiry to the group for real-time feedback.
“It’s like your 1,000 best girlfriends on a group text,” founder Annaliese Nielsen told me. It's a female hive mind and it might be the future of friendship.
Nielson, 32, has always been fascinated by meeting people on the internet.
"As soon as we got a computer all I did was use the internet to talk to other people," she told me. "I was popular at school and had a ton of friends, but I was extremely interested in using the internet to talk to strangers."
Nielsen, who started the altporn site Gods Girls in her twenties, now runs Crushee, which is like a dating site but for finding new friends. The consummate party girl, Nielsen plans weekly 'Girls Night In' meetups at bars and night swims at the Roosevelt Hotel's popular pool in the summer. With her voluminous blond hair, Nielsen radiates glamor, yet also comes off as extremely down-to-earth. Group members routinely describe her as "fascinating,"
Two years ago, Neilsen spun 'Girls Night In' out of another Facebook group called Girls Night Out that had begun as a few hundred girls from the L.A. party scene but ballooned into a monster group with tens of thousands of members. Nielsen wanted to create a place on the internet where women could feel safe talking about anything.
"Sometimes when you ask your best girlfriends for advice they’re so biased toward you," she told me. "If you’re being shitty to a guy they probably won’t even tell you because they’re ‘on your side.’ People who are a little more removed from each other can be more objective."
In some ways, Nielsen's vision was not so different from how people have always used the internet. From the early internet network Usenet to LiveJournal in the aughts to Facebook and Twitter now, online social networks are where we turn for support, commiseration and advice.
What's different about 'Girls Night In' is the outsize role that the group plays in its members' lives: many of its users submit their every decision, large and small, to the group, for its members' feedback in real time. Many members post up to 10 times a day, and comment on other posts dozens of times more. (Women who don't comment regularly are booted from the group.) Rather than turning to one or two really good friends for advice, the women of 'Girls Night In' consult a carefully curated crowd, constantly.
"It's my life," one 32-year-old member told me, echoing the comments of many others. "I rarely go on 'normcore' Facebook, as we call it. The group is my community, it is my support system. I almost always have the page open and am engaged in it most of the day between real life."
Facebook isn't actually uncool. You just can't see how the cool kids are using it.
Six years ago, Facebook debuted groups, along with the option to make them either "closed" or "secret." To join a closed group, you need permission from the group's creator. Same for secret groups, but secret groups also don't show up in search. According to Facebook, most of those groups are small groups of friends and family composed of less than 100 people. But bigger secret groups like 'Lolo's Logic,' 'Binders Full of Women Writers' and 'Girls Night In' are digital clubhouses where the network's most interesting conversation and genuine social interaction now take place, instead of in public.
Private Facebook groups like 'Girls Night In' are a fenced-off corner of the social media world where people speak honestly using their real names without fear of repercussion. You can post a boob shot knowing commenters will tell you how great they look but not repost it anywhere else on the web. You can air your angst about being married but still being upset about your ex-boyfriend of six years ago getting engaged. You can post a question knowing it will get a flurry of responses, and that they will be honest ones from people whose judgement you trust.
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When I joined 'Girls Night In,' I felt a little like Lindsay Lohan's Cady Heron in "Mean Girls" eating at the Plastics' lunch table for the first time; it was like entering a completely different social world. I came to think of it as "Girl Internet"—and "Girl Internet" has a lot of rules.
The number one rule of "Girl Internet" is that no one can share what someone else posted outside of the group. The members agreed to let me join to write this story on the condition that I agreed to honor the group's rules of secrecy unless I had permission to do otherwise. Nielsen told me that when the group first started, lots of women were removed for things like telling a guy about something that a member posted about them or tattling on someone to their boss.
"Now that the group is a fairly integral part of a member's life," she said. "I think they value it more than they value whatever they could gain by gossiping about it."
I whiled away hours on the group Facebook page and spoke with more than two dozen members. Most of them told me that they spend up to six hours daily interacting with the group, and that its members now make up the vast majority of their offline social network, too. Multiple women told me the group's dominance in their lives had created rifts with their best friends and romantic partners.
"My boyfriend is upset because I'm always on my phone," one of them told me. "It's the same issue a lot of couples face in this new age of technology. But instead of just being glued to my phone, it's all messaging with GNI friends. Whenever there's a question of 'what are you doing' or 'who are you talking to' the answer is always GNI. Always."
It's easy to see how it can be addicting. When I posted to the group to introduce myself, the post racked up hundreds of likes and more than 200 comments within an hour. There is always someone to give you instant advice or an ego-boosting "like" on that rant about your shitty day. If you post a selfie of your new haircut, hundreds of people will probably like it. It's friendship on demand—if one person isn't around to give you a virtual hug, inevitably someone else will be.
The other day, a woman posted to the group that a police officer had pulled her over. He didn't ticket her, but did later Google her, found her number and texted her.
"I called the LAPD and reported because i felt so violated," she wrote. "idk… did i do the right thing? i just wouldn't want this to happen to anyone else."
She told me that she felt guilty reporting him, because he hadn't given her a ticket, and wanted reassurance from the group that she'd done the right thing. She got that reassurance in the form of angry emoji, sad emoji and 53 comments equally outraged by her encounter.
Often the inquiries are moral (whether to keep a gifted cobra skin bag), practical (how to get mac-n-cheese off a suede couch) or just plain funny ("should I get a fake baby so I can drive in the carpool lane?"). Querying the group is better than just Googling or checking Yelp.
'Girls Night In' will happily be your therapist, too. A filmmaker who goes by Rae Threat told me that the group helped her accept her body and deal with an anxiety-causing case of psoriasis.
"I'm a completely different person from before I joined the group to who I am right now," she told me. "I go out and don't double-check my face for redness anymore. I don't think that I'm too fat to feel beautiful. I happily greet people instead of shying away."
Women in the group told me that it had helped them get jobs, informed them about politics and taught them how to be feminists. People talk about how to deal with being raped, cheated on or how to deal with their daughter being assaulted. During a recent medical emergency, one member posted that she needed help and hundreds of commenters rushed to assist her, online and off.
"I can post about the terrible and amazing things that happen in my life and I have a support system," she said. "I cannot imagine my life without this group."
Members are well aware that to outsiders all the selfies and gossipy chatter might make them come off as silly or vain.
"Yes, we have nude threads, which may seem narcissistic to some people, but considering how much women are judged and made to feel bad about our bodies, these silly threads can be a big confidence boost," Chara, another member told me. She told me that she has used the group as a place to vent about an ex, as well as a place to find emotional support after she was raped.
Often, I was amazed by the kindness women in 'Girls Night In' extended to each other.
Terra Shapiro, a hairstylist and salon owner, told me that when she needed a cosigner on a loan to buy a car, 10 girls she had never met offered and one wound up actually cosigning the loan. After another woman's house burned down, Nielson said the group raised more than $20,000 to help her. Recently, the group pooled money to pay the vet bills for a member's sick bunny. After Nielsen posted that her grandfather was ill in Malaysia, she woke up the next morning and a flight had already been booked for her by the group.
As members have moved out of L.A., it has spawned spin-off groups in San Francisco, London, New York, Chicago and Miami as well as more than 20 groups devoted to subtopics such as cooking, intersectional feminism and Bernie Sanders.
Frequently members discuss what it's like to be so "close" to 1,500 other people. It is isolating in a way—the group has its own language and political point of view and a specific kind of moral code. To be part of the group's hive mind, you need to fit in, and that means adopting group-wide social norms. At least publicly, the women all seem to support Bernie and abortion and Kim Kardashian's right to post as many nude selfies as she likes. Members who stray from these norms sometimes find themselves alienated or even chastised. Sometimes it eventually causes them to leave.
"There aren't really Republicans," a member named Natasha told me.
As I scrolled through post-Botox selfies, bad date tell-alls, and heart-wrenching confessions of traumatizing childhoods, it seemed at first that 'Girls Night In' was a group of women who were simply addicted to oversharing. In 'Girls Night In,' there is no thought or feeling too mundane to post.
But over time, I realized that 'Girls Night In' is just the natural end result of constant connectivity. This is what happens when you are surrounded by people who are always up to hear about your day and offer support. The desire for that constant, supportive communication is why services like fake girlfriends exist and why millions of people in China regularly talk to Microsoft's digital assistant Xiaoice. 'Girls Night In' offers the same appeal, except from real life humans who you don't have to pay.
While working on this story, I would sometimes have a funny thought, a joke I might want to text to my group of girlfriends but, because it was either the middle of the workday or the middle of the night, I'd reconsider. Then I would wonder what it would be like to post my inner monologue to 'Girls Night In' and instantly achieve the praise I was seeking.
Sometimes, in real life, it can be hard to connect—friendships exist across a log of missed calls, awkwardly unliked Facebook posts and unanswered texts. We've all probably felt the disappointment of texting your bestie with something urgent and then not hearing back for hours. But in 'Girls Night In' the expectation of connection is always fulfilled. Perhaps, in our increasingly connected culture, all of us really need 1,500 best friends, too.