Internet, but for sexy people

The holiday season is here, and with it the age-old question: What’s the best way to invite people to my party?

Facebook invites are no longer sustainable. People aren’t using Facebook anymore, which means they might not see your event unless you specifically tell them to go find it there—awful. For a large party, I like to email. For a small celebration, why not simply create an event in your calendar and add your loved ones without even asking? And for something really wild, I don’t see what’s wrong with making a flyer and putting it on your Instagram or texting it to everyone you know. (A friend of mine once sent me a picture of Chris Farley and Kenan Thompson playing with ketchup, overlaid with the text “Taste different and interesting ketchups with your friends!” It was a great invitation and a great party.)

But all existing options have their downfalls. Emails can end up in spam; flyers can be seen by random and unwanted people; paper invitations are ridiculous and attention-grabbing, like owning a typewriter. Partiful, a new site, is positioning itself as the latest and greatest solution to the party invitation problem. Popular with youngsters and hippers tech crowdit’s “Facebook events for sexy people,” according to his bio on Instagram. This statement is funny: In an email, Partiful co-founder Shreya Murthy called it “a bit of an inside joke with our hosts and guests,” adding, “If you use Partiful, you’re automatically sexy” and it’s bold too. Facebook events have been the invitation to the party for at least 10 years. For some, myself included, that feature was the ultimate reason they bothered to use the site. Now his time is up.

“Facebook events are ugly and boring,” read the description on a fake invitation to a “Facebook Event Funeral,” shared on Partiful’s Instagram last year. “Partiful is beautiful and will reign supreme.” The main image of the invite was that of a skeleton making the loser sign on his forehead; Murthy commented “rest in passé” with a coffin emoji. A growing company profile ran inside The New York Times‘ Style section in September, under a headline that suggests Partiful is the “least embarrassing” option for invites. “It’s just fun, it’s fresh, and it’s very Gen Z,” one of Partiful’s “hundreds of thousands” of users told the Times. (Another shared the theme of a recent party he used to throw Partiful: “Don’t think, be sexy.”)

I hadn’t seen this story when I first deduced earlier this fall that Partiful was cool, when a friend used it to invite me to a housewarming party. The header image was a BeReal photo of my friend and her boyfriend. They looked great. So I typed in my phone number, created an account, and used Partiful to send the invite my housewarming party. I selected a navy blue shade, came up with a title (“dinner in a new apartment”, all tiny, cool) and uploaded an image of my new library, zoomed in on its two copies of Infinity It is (Him and her). Freddo?

Functionally, Partiful won’t shock anyone. It works like Facebook Events in that when someone RSVPs to a party, they can see a complete list of all other attendees, displayed near the event details and above a comments section. The notable difference is that a host invites people to a party by sending them a link, rather than a notification in the Facebook app. And she reminds them to come to her party via automated text messages, rather than notifications in the Facebook app. Partiful will remember your event history and number, and allow access to a “Mutuals” page, which lists “everyone you’ve ever partied with” along with the number of parties you’ve attended. It is an essential social network tied to your phone number.

The real difference from the event-app past is, of course, the branding, as is the case with many things. Just like now there is a explicitly right-wing version everything from YouTube to coffee to soap, there’s now an explicitly “hot people” version of everything, from vaccines to canned fish. Instagram has always been kinder to sexy people, but now there are fragmented sites: chat room app Geneva is basically Discord for sexy people; hot people fleeing twitter are considering Hive. Partiful looks great and if you use it to throw your party, so will you.

“Partiful embodies aesthetic as an adjective,” Murthy told me. It distributes gradients, GIFs arranged in grids and shooting white stars to achieve the effect of a polished front page web. The designer who developed the brand identity describes the photographic style used by the company as “retro, slightly offbeat, festive”. The font is sans serif but playful. The colorful choices for invitation backgrounds—”aurora”, “aquatic”, “galaxy”, “dusk”- conjure, like the market research firm YPulse she says, “fuzzy nighttime luxe vibes.” (“Night luxe”, otherwise known as “going out at night”, is this thing that Generation Z invented– a corrective to the Millennium era of wellness glorification of “stay at night”.) In addition to memes and photos of random young peoplePartiful uses modern and classic party imagery to set the tone, for example, a photo of a young Kate Moss holding a couple of toy guns and smoking a cigarette.

The site was born during the pandemic and then rode the wave of enthusiasm for the return to social life. “Parties are often dismissed as a frivolity, but they’re actually incredibly important for building social bonds,” Murthy told me. “The pandemic has made it particularly clear how important (and irreplaceable) in-person time is to our well-being.” He declined to name the investors who contributed $7.4 million in seed funding to the company, but Partiful has since closed a $20 million funding Serie A group, led by the famous venture capital firm Andreessen Horowitz. Partiful is led by several women, including Murthy and her co-founder Joy Tao, who previously worked at Palantir, the super-secret data analytics company co-founded by far-right billionaire Peter Thiel (a fact that did not appear in the New York Times history). When I asked Murthy about this, she said it’s not something she and her team hide, because it appears on their public LinkedIn profiles: “It tends not to be a focal point, since enterprise analytics software is quite far from the holidays”.

Murthy told me that Partiful is “not focused yet” on making money, a hallmark of VC-funded social apps in their infancy. The site is free. Partiful website provides a normal privacy policy which offers significant guarantees and transparency on the processing of user data, while leaving the mandatory space for the company to “collect and use your personal information for marketing and advertising purposes”. Murthy told me Partiful “has no plans” to monetize its business by selling user data or its internal analytics of user data, and seeks to gather only the information it needs to power its services. (He pointed out that Partiful doesn’t ask for full names or birthdays, and that the site doesn’t use advertising cookies.) It could become a more robust event planning platform: “There’s a great opportunity to facilitate the purchase of the goods and services you need to an event,” Murthy said. (To start, the company was opened a waiting list for Partiful-branded Kodak disposable cameras.)

As a reaction to Facebook, Partiful is timely. The rise of Web3, the uproar on Twitter, and raw disdain for Mark Zuckerberg’s vision of the metaverse, along with other signs of widespread disillusionment with the 2010s social media ecosystem, have led to a bubbling optimism about to the possibility that people may live, somehow, very differently online than they currently do. On his LinkedIn, Murthy describes Partiful as a service built to serve “your real-life social network” and “your most significant relationships,” as opposed to “your thousand IG followers.” Without changing very radically (your Partiful profile can be linked to Instagram, Snapchat and Twitter; Andreessen Horowitz is hardly the newcomer), it suggests something more intimate than an invitation shared via one of Meta’s products, something more modern than email and something cuter than “awkward group chats and flyers with screenshots.” Something more fragmentary, more interesting and increasingly private.

More importantly, Partiful is part of a larger aesthetic shift, Murthy said. “We don’t want things to look like the products we used ten years ago. Everything happening now feels fresh: we want bright dopaminergic colors, engaging saturated images, bold typography, irreverent details. I think anyone who’s fed up with the old guard is gravitating towards a very different kind of visual language.” Is that a radical departure and an idea that’s obviously worth $20 million? Maybe not. But it’s, certainly, “Facebook events for people sexy”.