–Alexis de Tocqeuville, 1805-1859
My company helps strangers who share an interest to find each other in real life. They tell us where they are and what their passion, cause, or passing fancy is, and we tell them where to go to meet a local group. If you never imagined there were fellow Wiccans or Bush Supporters living near you, you might be surprised. More than a million and a half people have already signed up around the world.
There’s a hunger beneath that statistic. Our lives pin us behind glass screens like dead moths. We spend hours staring at computer monitors, windshields, televisions, and X-boxes. We look at our children through camcorders. We are soft, warm primates bred for touch, but these screens are cold and hard. Too much of this and we become miserable, and suspicious of our neighbors. That’s why I’m glad to help smuggle a few brave souls into the world of live bodies and loud opinions, even if only for an hour or two a month.
We used to schedule these monthly get-togethers automatically. It worked well for a few years, but people grew tired of obeying a distant computer. Inevitably, our callous New York algorithm sent the vegans to a steakhouse, chihuahua owners to a biker bars, and shy pagans to stand outside cafés that had been closed for years. So we learned the hardest skill for young managers–delegation. At the start of September, we invited, cajoled, and coerced 40,000 members into volunteering as local organizers. We figured they might know where to go.
As a company, we don’t yet do a good job of telling our members what’s going on, or–more importantly–finding out what they wish we knew. We build stuff in a rush and hope they’ll find it, and forgive the bugs. To atone for these start-up sins, last week we invited our new organizers to join us for beers in Florida, Texas, New York, and California so they could tell us how they were doing.
The Great JetBlue Organizer Listening Tour was flawlessly conceived as an exercise in the Method School of product management. We had to put aside our geeky introversion, leave our comfortable cube farm, and introduce ourselves to large groups of real, live, unpredictable strangers, who expected to be led. I wanted pharmaceutical help just thinking about it.
At a dubious roadhouse outside Orlando, two dozen Floridians turned out to welcome us over chicken wings and three-dollar pitchers. Half their October Meetups had been cancelled due to hurricanes, and outside the palm trees were ratty and wet. In New York we played to a hometown crowd of eighty, who were–well, New Yorkers. I would explain this further, but I have a job to keep.
In balmy Houston, thirty organizers showed up to greet us at a downtown Irish bar. These days we Euroliberals think we can finish any sentence that starts “Texans are…” It’s an expertise based on ancient re-runs of _Dallas_ and on a president who claims his swagger is what Texans call walkin’. I was glad to have my lazy, big-haired notions tipped over by group as broad as America.
They were Kerry supporters, Townhall conservatives, Bush supporters, Democrats, Americans Against Hollywood Lies, Oil Awareness activists, and Americans Against Bush.
They organized Artists’ Trading Card swaps, anime groups, Starquest meets, and Dungeons and Dragons sessions.
They ran playdates for their pugs, beagles, and prairie dogs.
They led an abuse survivors’ network, a makeup artists’ group, a staph infection support group, and a breast augmentation discussion group.
They taught investment education. They ran Spanish, Portuguese, Arabic, Catalan, and Hebrew conversation groups.
There were macrobiotics enthusiasts. TV show fans. Poker players. Maxwell fans. Furries.
They were old and young, fat and thin, loud and shy. They were mostly white.
We thought there was a fair chance they might riot.
Instead, they leaned forward over beer and and decent pizza, read nametags, and shared ideas. See here, some of these political folk were bound to own beagles or speak Spanish–could they share member lists? Had anyone else tried calling the local TV stations to promote their events? How did y’all get the members to RSVP? What in the hell was Furtopia, anyways?
The former Christian radio talkshow host debated privacy with the artist trading card organizer. The pug owners showed pictures of their Hallowe’en party, where twenty pugs showed up in costume–bug-eyed pumpkins massing in the dog-run. An Ann Coulter fan wondered if she could help the pugs campaign to repeal the leash laws with city government.
Scott, our founder and CEO, told them how the company got started. It’s not a bad story, as origin myths* go. After September 11th, New York felt close-knit. (A useful tip: when New York people mention September 11th, it hushes even Texans. Briefly.) People talked to strangers. They seemed to care about one another. Soon enough, they went back to their brusque, big-town style, but the experience made him wonder what had happened to American community. American was founded on the right to associate, but how did that fit in a country that no longer lived in small towns, where people worked longer hours than anywhere else and relaxed in front of a TiVo recording? He looked for books to find out more. Robert Putnam had just published _Bowling Alone_, a scholarly book that mapped the decline of community partipation through the second half of the twentieth century. It made for lonely reading.
two three days older than me, and we are too young to remember the prime of the PTA(Parent Teacher Association), the Rotarians, and the bowling leagues. For our generation, community takes place online. So that’s where he turned to see if he could prod local community back to life.
The four or five guys who crammed into the first shoebox office were modest. They didn’t know who would be interested in this thing, or if anyone would. First came the goths, the witches, and the pagans, thrilled to find the Others in an unfeeling world. Then Slashdot sent a herd of Linux geeks in tradeshow t-shirts. Then Howard Dean had the genius to remind the American people that democracy belonged to them. With his blessing, and Meetup’s website, they packed libraries and cafés and hand-wrote letters to undecided voters. They planned to take back the country, one bake-sale at a time. They fanned out to ask for money, and they got it. If Meetup could just pick a goddamn venue that would hold them, they thought, they could run the world. They made the cover of _Time_ and _Newsweek_.
It didn’t work out for Dean, but the Deaniac mobilization shifted politics as much as Nixon’s five o’clock shadow.
Our slice of Houston liked being part of something bigger. Here they were, Tocqueville’s citizens: energetic, open, and avidly associating. Before the evening ended they were planning the Houston Meetup Meetup–a meta-group for organizers where they would discuss the art of meeting. They were cheerful about getting t-shirts.
I feel less American every year that I live here, but they are an appealing lot all the same, even the Bush voters. Over a Guinness a funny, spiky woman explained to me how Hilary Clinton had tried to shut down the internet. I liked her. Did she realize that she was talking to a pinko, job-stealing immigrant prone to fantasies about Hilary’s husband? I felt that she likely wouldn’t mind. It was that kind of evening.
Houston itself was a horror. The humans there have evolved mobile metal armor to defend against steel and glass towers and coiled un-freeways. Their preoccupation with traffic and driving distance is as boring as New York’s obsession with rent. “We’re the fourth largest city in the US,” they instructed over and over, in this state where size does count. Back at the hotel I studied television and missed my two-legged, villagey metropolis. But maybe that’s why Houston–and all these other car-and-TV cities–needs these unwieldy, messy, inefficient, _human_ Meetups more than Brooklyn, where meeting strangers comes for free.
I’ll test this grand theory further in Palo Alto on Thursday.
_*Scott rightly points out that it’s not a myth because it’s true._