Picture this: it’s just past midnight on a Saturday, you’re the last to leave the pub and a pent-up energy is reverberating through you and your mates. Going home is a no-no, and there are two options: nabbing some tickets to a club night via Resident Advisor, or venturing to an illegal rave whose location and line-up are unknown, but soon to be revealed via not-so-mysterious app Telegram.
Over the pandemic, when stop-start lockdowns and nightclub closures stretched out for months, one of the only places to release ourselves – beyond that government-mandated daily walk around the park – was at an illegal rave, many of which picked up steam when appetites for forbidden partying soared.
Across Berlin, Paris and London, secret raves were organised via social media, feeding a Covid-induced craving for a proper knees-up. Telegram, with its iron-clad encryption, self-destruct timers for particularly sensitive messages and additional password protection within the app, created the perfect tool for off-grid partying, adding an extra layer of protection for undercover organisers. At the time of writing, the app counts over 600 million global users, and groups within it can include up to 200,000 members.
Co-founded in 2012 by Russian tech entrepreneur Pavel Durov and his brother Nikolai, Telegram was originally intended as a means of flying under the radar of Russian authorities who mercilessly monitored apps like WhatsApp. In its relatively short history, Telegram has become a lifeline for protesters, helping those living under authoritarian regimes to communicate more freely or access uncensored news. Now, party organisers have also latched on to Telegram as a valuable way of putting on nights on the sly.
Over the pandemic, the risk that came with illegal raving was much higher, with those organising them subject to huge fines and even arrest if caught, not to mention facing public scrutiny and fierce debate over the safety – and morality – of these events with coronavirus still rampant in the UK.
In the last few months, much of the world turned a major corner on Covid when clubs reopened – the final stage of returning to pre-pandemic normality, or something like it. While legitimate partying might be back in full swing, though, both legal and illegal DIY raves aren’t going anywhere – and neither is Telegram as a means of organising them.
We’ve all heard the stories from the late ’80s, when half the fun of going to illegal acid house raves involved chasing down addresses via strikingly designed – if haphazardly distributed – rave flyers and stickers in phone boxes. “The flyer not only gave you a vision of the party to come, but it was also the first part of getting to a rave, sometimes only the first stage of many in getting to the party destination,” says the anonymous founder of Phatmedia, the internet’s largest database for old school flyers.
“A map for the meeting point was often printed on the back, [and they] were picked up in Soho, Brixton or Camden record stores.” In many ways, using Telegram to communicate party-going information recreates the sense of thrill and adventure previously unique to these old school raves, with screenshotted maps and hastily drawn directions luring partiers to their journey’s end – or rather, beginning.
Crucially, though, Telegram also provides much-needed anonymity for party-planners, namely GutterRing, a collective who regularly run one of London’s most debaucherous get-togethers. Maddy*, also a Londoner, uses the app to organise her own intimate, secret boat raves on the canal.
“Telegram is taking us back to our party line roots,” she says. “The police sometimes rock up, so it takes away impracticalities [and means] I can send out the location on a secure server, to make sure punters are safe, the guy who owns the boat safe and to keep myself safe – because it’s all illegal!”
Before Covid, Maddy considered Facebook the safest platform for her purposes, using a private group and carefully vetting members before they joined. “Now, I think the social media landscape and ways of promoting parties have drastically changed,” she continues. “No one uses Facebook for events – Instagram and word of mouth are the main promoters. I also use Instagram Close Friends to broadcast to a guestlist of ravers who follow me.”
Maddy also points out that in the UK at least, people don’t have much incentive to download and use Telegram, so it doesn’t reach as many people: “at the end of the day, it’s just a messaging app.”
A cursory Google search for rave-centred Telegram groups reveals that many of them are based in Berlin, arguably Europe’s clubbing capital. Others who perhaps don’t have mates to go out with have used Reddit to seek out Telegram channels for drum and bass raves in London, or look for advice on heading to a Telegram-hosted party in the Catacombs of Paris.
Meanwhile, Berlin’s CTM Festival uses the app to give its network and audiences more choice when it comes to staying informed. “We tend to use Telegram more like a newsletter, pointing to key information at lower frequencies than channels like Instagram,” says Taïca Replansky, who manages the festival’s communications. “[It’s] a great way to get quick feedback from people.”
More often than not, when it comes to raving, Telegram acts as a contemporary rave flyer of sorts, or an extension of other popular social media apps to share crucial details about parties, illegal or not. Where Facebook feels old hat, Instagram too loud and WhatsApp too personal, Telegram, perhaps one of the last fairly benign platforms we’ve got left, slots itself right in the middle, chock full of dedicated channels and fresh faces to satisfy ravers’ search for a decent, memorable night out.
*Names have been changed