I read something this week that put the number of cults operating in America at any given moment around 10,000. It’s hard to get an accurate number, I’m guessing because there’s a level of secrecy needed to keep the followers at the ranch and the police off your back. They fly beneath the radar until we see them on the news, either dead or going down in flames as their leader gets wheeled off to the slammer. I’m here today, though, to raise awareness of a cult that exists in plain sight, sticking its tongue out at fitness enthusiasts everywhere. This cult, of course, is known simply as Strava. And I am its newest member.
Strava, to the uninitiated, bills itself as a “social network for athletes.” Once inside, you can expect a timeline-style experience that has become the norm for social networks, rife with things like profile pages, comments, likes, groups, achievements, leaderboards, and challenges. Except in this version of a social network instead of sharing pictures of poorly lit meals or, god forbid, your kids, you share your “activities”– that is running, biking, walking, etc.
It has become the go-to place for most of my friends to log their runs. They talk about it over beer; crack jokes laden with Strava-lingo; impatiently tap their feet waiting to acquire a GPS signal. I had become an outsider, and goddammit I had to get on the inside. But once there, what I saw was alarming.
I did some research on how to identify a cult. Below are a few signs of a cult I handpicked using only my two eyes and a healthy confirmation bias.
Please prepare to question your existence.
Confessions are a key part of any good cult. Because eventually some members are going to get wise to your scheme, it’s up to the brass to use your own secrets against you to keep you on the inside. Do you know where most people put their secrets? That’s right, they scribble them down in a diary and stuff it under a mattress. But what if that diary was instead automatically uploaded to the “cloud” and made public for anyone to see? Seems like Strava has all your secrets from how you felt that day to the routes you routinely run, all the way down to your heartbeat. God help you.
Separating group members from family and friends forces them to rely on fellow cult members for all emotional needs. Strava accomplishes this through exclusivity. Do you often find yourself thinking that non-Strava folks just don’t understand? Do you shun them the way iPhone users shun people who send green text messages? Are you frustrated when you complete a run with someone who isn’t on Strava?
To further promote isolation, cults will replace everyday words with special jargon or create new words altogether. This makes talking to non-members undesirable and tedious. Before I was initiated into Strava, I endured conversation after conversation about “Kudos” and “Segments” and “Achievements” and “Activities.” Instead of engaging with the speaker, my eyes would glaze over and I’d eventually walk away, leaving them to pat the back of the other Strava member. If I hadn’t joined, I imagine I would have eventually been phased out of that friend group altogether.
This is a tactic to keep group members in line. A sense of not being “good enough” permeates the ranks, while an exclusive inner circle enjoys unknown perks and maintains a good deal of secrecy. This creates a hierarchy and an aspirational loyalty to the cult. The obvious way this is happening on Strava is segment leaderboards, receiving achievements for nearly any run you complete, and finding emails in your inbox with the subject line “Stephan ran 10 miles today.”
But how often are you barred from certain perks within the app, only to be instructed these things are for PREMIUM MEMBERS ONLY?
“Maybe one day I’ll be a premium member,” you say to no one in particular.
If you’re a Strava member, I imagine all four of these scenarios apply to you. But it’s not too late. I infiltrated Strava and exposed them for who they really are in order to save you. I am the Leah Remini of Strava. But unlike Remini, this story won’t end in my own 60 Minutes interview. If you ever need me, I’ll be out there on the roads, faceless and segmentless, but god dammit I’ll be free.