Joe Lavin

December 5, 2003

From Computoredge Magazine

Meeting Up in the Real World


The Internet may bring people together from many different backgrounds, but it can also be isolating. Sure, we meet people from all over the world, but what difference does it make if we never leave our computers? Now there’s a site working to bring people together physically for a change.

Meetup.com is a relatively new service that uses the Internet to organize face-to-face meetings between groups of people with similar interests. Formed in early 2002, the site gets people away from their computers and into coffee shops where they can discuss whatever they are interested in—anything from anarchy to the music of Britney Spears. For each group, organizers pick one day on which simultaneous “meetups” occur all over the world. For example, bloggers meet the third Wednesday of every month, Scrabble players on the second Wednesday, and parents of Goth children on the third Thursday. Potentially, more than 2,000 meetups can happen in more than 600 cities worldwide.

The staff selects several possible choices for a venue—usually a coffee shop or a restaurant. Members of each group then vote for the best venue. The idea is to make it as easy as possible for people to get out from behind the keyboard and into the real world to talk with others about their most fervent interests.

“So, Do You Come to Meetups Often?”

When I first went to the site, it seemed there was a meetup for almost everything. As a humor columnist, it was a dream come true. I could research just about any strange subject and then meet the people face to face. Ghost hunters on Monday, teen vampires on Tuesday, and fans of Dr. Phil on Wednesday. The possibilities were endless.

In reality, though, you need to have enough people in your area willing to attend. Meetups are generally cancelled unless at least four people sign up, so often there aren’t enough people for a meetup. That’s what happened when I tried to go to a CD Swap meetup; only one other person in Boston had signed up, so it was cancelled. Still, many meetups do occur, and no matter how obscure your interest, there’s always the chance that you’ll find others who share it.

The site caters especially to Web communities like Slashdot, LiveJournal, and BookCrossing, whose meetups are all thriving. In fact, I first attended a meetup while writing a ComputorEdge article about BookCrossing (April 18, 2003), a Web community whose members leave books in public places and then track the progress of the books online.

It’s a fun game, and the nine others who showed up were happy to talk about their experiences with it. At first it was a little awkward, as any meeting between nine strangers would be. We were all desperately in search of icebreakers. (“So, do you come to meetups often?”) Soon, though, we were happily talking about all our favorite books.

Howard Dean, Rock Star

While online communities like BookCrossing are establishing a strong presence, that’s nothing compared to the way political campaigns are using Meetup.com. If you’ve read about Meetup.com before, it’s probably because of presidential candidate Howard Dean. Many believe that much of Dean’s early success can be traced back to the site. Go there, and you’ll see that the Dean group now has more than 132,000 members. Granted, not all of those people attend his meetups. Still, when I signed up for one in Boston recently, there were so many others who signed up that the meetup had to be split into four different groups.

Even so, there were more than 100 Dean supporters at the one I attended. While the BookCrossing event was in a restaurant, the Dean people had to get a theater. A series of speakers told us why we should volunteer for Dean, and there was even a stand-up comic. Jimmy Tingle, formerly a commentator on 60 Minutes II, owns the theater and opened by doing 10 minutes of his act, with a particular emphasis on all his anti-Bush material. At the end, we were even treated to a short video of a recent Howard Dean speech. From the crowd’s jubilant reaction, it was as if Howard Dean was some sort of rock star.

With so many people there, we didn’t really get a chance to talk with each other, but there were many opportunities to volunteer. I could have signed up to work in the Dean office or go door to door in New Hampshire for Dean. I could have even signed up for something called a “Howard Dean Social” at a local restaurant the following week. Who knows? If you like Howard Dean and are looking to meet that special someone, it might be just the thing.

The Rest of the Field

I wanted to see if meetups for other candidates were similar, so I later attended ones for two other Democratic candidates, John Kerry and Wesley Clark. About 20 people showed up for the Kerry event in a local café. A man from the campaign did tell us about all the ways in which we could volunteer, but for the most part we just talked with one another about what we thought the Kerry campaign could do to win. This one seemed to be more about the attendees than Kerry himself.

Meanwhile, the Wesley Clark event was a little more like the Dean meetup. Here too, the meetup had to be split in four because of his popularity. Eighty people showed up at a restaurant for the one I attended. This crowd was nowhere as enthusiastic as the Dean supporters were, but in many ways this was the most efficient meetup of them all. Three of the campaign staffers simply stood at the front and answered questions from the group. Considering that Clark had just entered the race at the time, we all had many questions, and it was a good way to learn more about the candidate.

*****

Politics has given Meetup.com an unexpected boost in this run-up to the 2004 election, but the site is about more than just politics. Matt Meeker, Peter Kamali and Scott Heiferman came up with the idea shortly after September 11, 2001. Robert Putnam’s Bowling Alone, a book about how Americans have gradually lost a sense of community, had also just been released, and the founders were looking for a way to use the Internet to bring back some of that community spirit. So far, their idea seems to be working.


©2003 Joe Lavin

http://joelavin.com

This Week's Column
The Archives
Bio
joe@joelavin.com

But I Digress...
Click here to buy my book!


Related

October 7, 2003

Meeting up with the True Believers Part I
Thanks to Meetup.com, political campaigns have found a new way to organize. This site was designed to facilitate meetings between people with similar interests, but presidential candidates are getting the most use out of it. In an attempt to understand this new online breed of political activism, I recently attended a John Kerry meetup in Boston. In an attempt to be cruel, I dragged my friend Anna along. Don't worry. I'm sure she'll get me back later. ( More.... )





December 2, 2003

Meeting up with the True Believers Part II
For a candidate at one percent in the polls, Dennis Kucinich has quite a crowd at his Boston meetup. It's possible that most people have never even heard of Kucinich or his campaign for the presidency, but twenty-five people have shown up on a weekday evening to talk about him. Most meetups take place in a restaurant, but this one is in the small community room of a Boston apartment complex. Bill, one of the organizers, tells me that they've tried restaurants before, but it was tough to find one where they could play videos. Plus, he complains, "restaurants always seem to want you to buy something." ( More.... )