Texting Through a Pandemic With Obama and J.Lo

The Community app connects A-listers with their fans—an odd proposition in the era of Covid lockdowns

Illustration: Isabel Seliger for OneZero

I’m at the point now where I don’t even bother reading Post Malone’s texts.

Same with Diddy. Same with Paul McCartney. When Barack Obama’s name pops up on my phone I tap to see what he has to say, but he doesn’t text that often so it’s fine.

I have never met any of these people; none of them know me. Their contacts are in my phone because of Community, a startup that celebrities, businesses, and influencers of all stripes can use to text their fans.

People who purchase a Community phone number (or “leaders,” as the company calls them) can send and receive text messages to followers directly, away from the public arena of social media. Two years after the company’s founding, more than 25 million people have signed up to get texts from at least one brand or celebrity on Community, whose directory includes figures like Jennifer Lopez, Mark Cuban, and Deepak Chopra.

Figuring out exactly where Community is in its growth trajectory is not an easy task. The company declined to give specifics on pricing, revenue, the current number of leaders signed up for the platform, or how fast enrollment is growing. (There are roughly 1,000 numbers listed in the public directory, and Business Insider reported in January that the company claimed more than 6,000 leaders in all.)

The early days of the pandemic made it clear as the water under David Geffen’s yacht that we were not, in fact, all in this together

Community describes itself as a “software-as-a-service” company, with leaders paying a monthly fee based on their number of followers, features offered, and message volume. (Community declined to share figures; Variety reported in early 2020 that the monthly fee ranges from $100 to “several thousand dollars.”) Unlike Instagram or Clubhouse, Community gives you no way to interact with a community, per se. You can’t see who else has joined as a member, and there’s no sense of exclusivity or social capital — anyone can search the directory and sign up to get texts.

Until very recently, receiving those texts was free for all users. That changed with the beta launch of Community Plus, a subscription service that allows leaders to charge followers a monthly fee to continue receiving their texts and any special promotions within.

One of the platform’s most prolific leaders had been a company called we’re not really strangers (all lower case), whose main product is a “purpose driven” card game intended to spark “meaningful connections” between players. The company sent near-daily messages, each achingly earnest and often in question form:

“what are u proudest of urself for this week???”

“Are you avoiding hard conversations with yourself?”

Then on March 24, after more than a month of uncharacteristic silence, the account texted “Bestie… our groupchat got so big it broke.” Daily texts on Community had become “more expensive than wnrs can afford,” the message read next to the weeping-eyes emoji. To keep receiving texts from we’re not really strangers, Community users will now have to pay $1.99 per month.

A statement posted on the brand’s website stated that the cost to text their 1 million-plus followers had risen to $15,000 per message.

“I went dark because I took weeks trying to figure out other solutions (besides charging). I was left with two options: 1. Stop texting entirely or 2. Switch to a subscription fee,” the company said in an unsigned statement. By March 29, the website was updated with both instructions on subscribing to Community texts and a sign-up link for a free newsletter. we’re not really strangers declined to comment on its experience with Community. So did more than a dozen Community leaders OneZero contacted for this story, including some of those featured in its marketing materials. A spokesperson for Community offered to put us in touch with a leader; after two weeks, none materialized.

In media profiles written during the company’s first year of existence, Community leaders extolled the platform as a cost-efficient way to target subsections of their audience. The Jonas Brothers used the platform to invite Chicago-area fans to a secret show they performed at a small club after their concert that night, Kevin Jonas told Fast Company. The actor Kerry Washington texted fans in the Toronto area where to get a good green juice when she flew there for work.

“It’s something that feels more direct,” Washington told the magazine. “Nobody’s navigating this communication or filtering it. That feels really important. That transparency is what’s so attractive.”

Then the pandemic hit. All of a sudden, no one was touring or going to juice bars or playing shows at clubs. Text messages were no longer the way people communicated while heading to something else; they were the something else, one of the only means of social connection during the long and isolating year that followed. And Community, like everyone else, has had to figure out what their community should look like at a time when every relationship we have is mediated through a screen.

Community evolved from a project of co-founders Matthew Peltier and Josh Rosenheck, a messaging platform called Shimmur that never quite took off. After an investment from talent manager Guy Oseary and Ashton Kutcher’s venture capital firm Sound Ventures, they relaunched the company as Community in 2019. (In August, Peltier’s co-founders at Shimmur sued him and Community for $30 million, alleging that Peltier misled them about the company’s financial condition and kept the impending investment in Community from Oseary and Kutcher a secret when buying out their shares.)

Before Covid, having J.Lo or Mark Cuban nestled in your contacts alongside family and friends might have given an impression of intimacy. Members can text the “leaders” they follow all they want, even if there’s no way to know who is reading them and a vanishingly small chance of getting a reply.

The early days of the pandemic made it clear as the water under David Geffen’s yacht that we were not, in fact, all in this together. The backlash to the “Imagine” video, Madonna’s bathtub soliloquies, the family videos from J.Lo’s compound, and other awkward celebrity attempts to connect on social media may have given some A-listers pause before texting their thoughts directly to fans who may also have been checking their phones for updates on sick loved ones or filing for unemployment.

I wanted to understand a bit of what it’s like to be a person who absolutely must know what’s going on with Andy Slavitt

Over the last year, the company has shifted its focus from individual leaders to brands. Being able to message local customers directly about a flash sale, event, or (these days) sudden changes to opening hours is a useful tool.

In February, during Black History Month, the company launched Amplify, a program that gave Community numbers to 10 selected Black-owned businesses in Southern California and coached them on how to grow their audience.

Where Community could work best, it seems, is helping people who actually know each other connect in actual communities. Open rates for text messages tend to be higher than those for email — Community texts have a 95% open rate, the company said, and a 59% click-through rate.

Other entrepreneurs have taken notice of this as well, and the market for this kind of service is more crowded than it was when Community launched. A slew of companies allow businesses to send marketing texts directly to customers from new or existing phone numbers. Their websites tend to be dull, with no celebrity name-drops or user case studies, but lots more information on how the services work and how much they cost to use. Almost all of them offer pricing information right up front.

The thing that has distinguished Community is its buzzy nature, the idea that it’s not just a business marketing tool but a place where regular people can feel a personal connection to the celebrities and brands they follow. The illusion of a real relationship between famous names and the regular people reading their texts is an attractive piece of marketing, and much harder to actually deliver.

This fall, I texted the directory numbers of Amy Schumer and Kerry Washington, both of whom have spoken approvingly of Community in the past. I texted Barack Obama, Paul McCartney, Lizzo, Mindy Kaling, Ava DuVernay, Jennifer Lopez, Diddy, hedge fund titan Ray Dalio, and Jiffpom, a Pomeranian with 10.3 million Instagram followers who declined my interview request years ago and thus is something of a white whale for me. I texted The Home Edit, two professional organizers who wear fun sweaters and put things in clear bins; we’re not really strangers; and Andy Slavitt, formerly the head of Medicare and Medicaid in the Obama administration, who now advises the Biden administration’s Covid response team. I wanted to understand a bit of what it’s like to be a person who absolutely must know what’s going on with Andy Slavitt.

The messages trickled in at random over the following months. Obama sent me a video on November 1 encouraging me to vote for Joe Biden, and a Spotify playlist on November 17 inspired by his new memoir. The Home Edit ladies sent me updates about their new product lines and an apologetic message about a problem with their Instagram account I didn’t know they were having. Andy Slavitt sent a link to a tweet about his upcoming guest spot on a podcast. “Have the most wonderful Valentine’s Day ever. Love Paul [two pink hearts emoji]” Paul McCartney wrote on February 14.

I texted a question about Covid (can the virus evolve in a way that renders the vaccines less effective?) and got an answer back (yes, but that’s less likely to happen the sooner everyone gets the shot) from David Agus, a professor of medicine and engineering at the University of Southern California who, with an assistant, has been using the service to answer followers’ questions about the pandemic. It felt like a small window into what a platform like Community could be at its best. Most of the roughly two dozen accounts I followed sent nothing at all. Much like the contacts I actually do know personally, the people I followed on Community seemed to have reached a point in the pandemic where they didn’t really know what to say anymore, either.

I might have forgotten about the platform were it not for the effusive missives from we’re not really strangers:

“i’m proud of how hard you’re trying. it hasn’t been easy. but you keep going despite it all and that’s something to be proud of”

“you’re really cute and that’s not even the best part about you”

“If you’re struggling with your mental health I want you to know how proud I am of you no matter what stage you’re at and I hope you know what an amazing future you have in store”

Then one day, after a message that said “r u doing ok? Just checking in [heart emoji]” I picked up the phone and replied.

“Thanks for checking. Not doing all the great, actually,” I wrote, typos and all. (In writing this story I checked my calendar and inboxes to try to recall what, if anything, was wrong that day; I have no idea. The last 13 months have been like that.) “Who is this, by the way?”

I heard nothing back. Two days later, the automated messages resumed: “what are you overthinking tn? Or who?”

I exchanged texts with Bobby Hundreds, an artist and founder of the streetwear brand The Hundreds. Hours after signing up for his texts at the suggestion of a Community representative, I got a message: “Hello! How are you?”

“Good thanks!” I wrote back. “How about yourself?”

Two hours later, I got a reply: a link to buy tickets to the Family Style Fest presented by DoorDash, and a note from my new texting pal. “Hey! Since you’re on the West Coast, giving you the heads up that our Drive-Thru Theater event tix just went LIVE on Family Style. You know the deal: 2 movies playing this time (Jurassic Park + Mikey from Illegal Civ’s new movie premiere, North Hollywood), best restaurants in LA and collaborative merch w the coolest brands. Mar 26–28 in LA. Would love to have you!”

And then, two hours after that: “Doing great btw!”

Texts from people on Community feel like the worst of the text messages in real life: the people who only get in touch with they have something to shill, the people who send quasi-deep non sequiturs there’s no good response to, people who ask a question and then never acknowledge the answer.

This last year has forced most people to think hard about the meaning of community and to face what they most feared about losing it.

People ordered takeout and bought gift certificates they didn’t need in response to Facebook and Instagram posts from struggling yet beloved local establishments. They logged on to crowdfunding platforms to donate millions to people suffering from illness, climate-related disaster, and systemic racism. They took lessons on Zoom and YouTube and dropped into Clubhouse, Twitch, and Instagram Live to remember that they were, at least, all alone together.

What there hasn’t been much room for is the one-way relationship, the person who asks you to come to their show or their MLM party without seeming to care what’s going on with you. A platform that connects people to the things and places they care about may have a place in the world after Covid. Everything else is just spam.

Update: A previous version of this story misstated the year that Community was relaunched. This piece has also been updated to clarify details around Community’s pricing and the origin of its Amplify program.

Journalist with words at Time, Quartz, and elsewhere. Author of Ghosts in the Forest, a Kindle Single.

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