From the vault: 2006 profile of Meetup

Image representing Meetup as depicted in Crunc...

Image via CrunchBase

How’s this for a Throwback Thursday: an article about Meetup and other “social networking fads” that I wrote for the Toronto Star’s ID section back in 2006. Seven years later and it’s clear that Meetup isn’t a fad. As of this writing, there have been 99, 800, 071 RSVPs (and counting.) I regularly go to Meetup events in Toronto: ONA TorontoThird Tuesday and HackerNest Socials to name a few. They are still largely free and still an easy way to connect offline with other likeminded individuals.  Another thing hasn’t changed, despite the sometimes dated nature of the article below (Who remembers Howard Dean, anyway?) and that is the comments on community: Then, as now, people want to belong and it doesn’t really matter if that’s over the interwebs or over a pint. What Meetups do you attend? Feel free to name your favourites in the comments (and try not to be too biting about my bullish take on the prospects of MySpace — it was 2006, after all)

Hook up, head out

Meetup and other social networking sites allow people with similar interests to find each other

By Shauna Rempel

Special to the Star

“Whoa, I don’t see anybody here I know, ” a young man says, clutching his camera and squinting against the sun glinting in Alexandra Park on a recent Sunday afternoon.

Then he grins and plunges into the crowd, shaking hands and introducing himself.

Everyone’s a stranger here. But they’ve all gathered for the same thing: The Toronto Photography Meetup Group scavenger hunt. For three hours, dozens of people who have only ever met online will team up and take to the streets, bringing back pictures of TTC employees, wigs and sidewalk wedding proposals as part of the hunt.

“It’s a wonderful thing, ” assistant organizer Jerrold Litwinenko says of the Toronto Photography Meetup Group, which boasts more than 1,000 members – all of whom came together online. Meetup isn’t the first social networking fad to hit the Internet, of course – but it is part of a trend that is seeing people use the Internet to actually connect in person.

Instead of being for the anti-social nerd, stereotypically typing alone on his computer about plot holes in Star Wars, the Web has become a tool encouraging social events.

Mark Federman, former head of Toronto’s McLuhan Management Studies at the McLuhan Program in Culture and Technology, says the Internet’s true purpose is only now emerging. “The real effect of the Internet is to allow people to connect with content, but more importantly with other people who are making that content, ” says Federman, who now studies how people form and organize relationships.

“It’s the connection aspect that is now emerging and in fact is dominantly structuring our world, ” he says.

And one of the hotbeds for online hookup is right here in anti-social Toronto. “Toronto’s really hot for Meetup, ” says Meetup.com founder and CEO Scott Heiferman. “We have noticed Toronto is unusually high, relative to the population, ” he says, speaking by cellphone from New York City.

At last count, there were 228 meetups in Toronto with a median size of 55 members. That means Toronto, with about 2.5 million people, has nearly as many meetups as Atlanta, a city of more than 4 million. Meetup Toronto has 60 more groups than Houston, a city of similar size. Stephen Muzzatti, a Ryerson sociology professor, says it’s not surprising so many people go online to find each other in Canada’s most diverse city.

“We are all part of the same GTA. But our communities are all very removed from each other.” Add in an increasingly mobile population that is less likely to work 9 to 5 and it makes sense to use the Internet as a way to check in with the community. Meetup.com is “using the Internet to get off the Internet, ” Heiferman says.

It’s an evolution of online networks – which are as old as the Internet – just as the desire to connect with others is as old as society itself.

Meetup.com is far from alone online. Early 2003 saw the dawn of Friendster, which allows people to network and date through existing circles of friends. It enjoyed just a year and a half of super popularity before being outshone by MySpace. Not just for independent musicians any more, MySpace has reportedly gotten even more hits than Google, according to Comscore Media Matrix. And now MySpace is getting competition from Yahoo’s 360 social networking service.

Yes, it’s a social networking smorgasbord out there on the World Wide Web – and people can pick and choose to suit their lifestyle. Businesspeople can get LinkedIn, for example, which claims 5.2 million professionals worldwide, all connected (by varying degrees) in a net of former classmates, current colleagues, clients, etc. For its part, Meetup works much like a neighbourhood bowling league, church knitting circle or your grampa’s Legion meeting – except members start their socializing online.

“Half of the social aspect happens online, the other half happens at the events, ” says Litwinenko, 29. At least once a month, people with a shared interest, say, in learning Thai, meet up at a public place to discuss and practise it. Members have already posted their profiles and maybe participated in an online discussion or two, but the focus is about an offline event.

That’s the key, says Heiferman. “People don’t get as excited sitting staring at a computer screen.”

Started in New York after 9/11, Meetup now boasts nearly 2 million members worldwide. U.S. presidential hopeful Howard Dean raised the site’s profile in 2004 when he used it to rally grassroots support, with great success, at least until his unfortunate squealing incident.

It got another boost when eBay recently invested an undisclosed amount for a 10 per cent stake. A spokesperson for the online auction house said it was part of eBay’s plan to study community-building online, a plan that included a similar investment in the online classified site Craigslist and similar bulletin board sites Gumtree and Kijiji.

Most web-based social networking sites are artificial, says Boston-based author David Weinberger, because they force people to take real-life relationships – which are highly nuanced and constantly shifting – then recreate them, define them in simple, explicit terms and post them online for all to see. These sites often focus on building relationships online, rather than in real life, notes Weinberger, who wrote Small Pieces Loosely Joined, about the Internet’s effect on society.

“The thing that has driven the Internet in the first place has been the human desire to connect, ” concedes Weinberger. He says Meetup succeeds in creating a bond between people because members share a common goal, unlike a site such as Friendster, where people only have mutual aquaintances in common. And to many people who have grown up with the Web, it doesn’t make much difference if they socialize online or off, says Federman. People over 20 are more likely to seek online socializing with a real-life component, he adds.

Meetup’s members tend to be older, according to Heiferman, who is 33.

Other sites offer less formal ways of connecting. Craigslist offers several thousand free local listings of events, one-on-one language exchange, sports teams and clubs on its listings. Another Craigslist-style site now available in Canada is eBay-owned Kijiji – Swahili for village. And for those who find business networking sites a bit too impersonal there’s thelocalguru.com, a Toronto-based venture that helps entrepreneurs market their skills to their neighbourhood.

At 15, Naomi Prashker is the youngest member of the poetry meetup she organizes online. The Grade 10 student at North Toronto moved here from Bristol, England, two years ago and went online to see who in town shared her passion for poetry. Flash forward to a recent rainy Saturday and a meeting of half a dozen poetry group members at the World’s Biggest Bookstore.

One member is Steven Luscombe, who got involved with Meetup after he moved to attend Ontario College of Art and Design. The artist and musician had also recently been diagnosed bi-polar, so he joined a meetup support group.

But Luscombe doesn’t go any more, because he got close to a few members and they do their own support thing. “We hang out and play guitar, watch movies, go out to eat, ” the 27-year-old says. “They’re friends.” But, he adds, the friendships were “just a by-product” of the need to get support for bi-polar disorder.

Another side effect is a sense of belonging to one’s community, says Heiferman, who notes people aren’t likely thinking that touchy-feely when they join. “People don’t wake up and say… ‘I’m going to use the Internet to help my life, ‘” he says. “They’re kinda looking to solve problems.” Like how to deal with being a new mom. Or learning Spanish. Or, like 27 Torontonians, they want to share their admiration for Michael Jackson. And there they find community, Heiferman says.

It may just look like a “gathering at a Starbucks to shoot the shit” but there’s a little more to it. “It sounds a little corny and hippie or whatever but really it’s all about people helping each other out, ” Heiferman says.

Kijiji Canada team leader Janet Bannister says Kijiji does the same thing. “It helps people meet a need and that’s not a fad the way some people say social networking sites are.”

But it doesn’t matter if people connect in their online community or their actual neighbourhood, says Federman. “What they’re getting out of it is the same thing they got 100,000 years ago, ” he says. “To know that we’re not alone in this world.”

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