My friends at Meetup have had a rocky week. Nobody likes to be told that they have to pay for something that used to be free, and I’m especially sympathetic to organizers who already feel like they’re working hard to run their Meetup Groups. It’s a tough service to charge for. Nevertheless, I’m counting on my old team to weather this. We need what Meetup provides more than we realize.
Scott, the founder, has always done a great job of starting conversations with smart people, and one of my favorite parts of working there was the chance to hear their thoughts. In an iWorld, there are few services that push people to form community groups the old-fashioned way–face-to-face. It’s so rare that it drew people like Esther Dyson, Pierre Omidyar from eBay, and Senator Bill Bradley, each of whom patiently coached our young company (and continues to). Every few months, Clay Shirky, Steven Johnson, Doug Rushkoff and others would gather in the Meetup lounge–on inflated, furry chairs–and share their work on the behavior of groups, the future of community organizations, or social networking.
Robert Putnam gave the most interesting talk. He’s the Harvard sociologist who wrote Bowling Alone, a book Americans hadn’t known they wanted to read. Chart by chart, statistic by statistic, Professor Putnam patiently mapped the decades-long decline in community participation in this country, which had once been such a nation of joiners. The slice of the country that still reads books looked up from TVs and computer screens and read his headlines.
The news was that Meetups save lives.
Social capital: it’s who you know, not what you know. (But you knew that.) Your contacts determine more about your career success and your earning potential than your academic achievements. The best predictor of low crime rates in a neighborhood is not income, or education levels, or cops on the street, but the number of neighbors who know each others’ first names. If you are socially isolated, it shortens your life expectancy as much as smoking does (so the smoking groups who huddle outside Manhattan and Dublin bars probably come out even.) Every ten minutes added to your daily commute cuts your social capital by ten per cent.
But joining a group–any group–cuts your risk of dying prematurely this year in half. Half!
Year on year, since a high in the early Sixties, every form of participation in American life has declined. That means card-carrying memberships, church attendance, and volunteerism, but it also means the habit of entertaining friends at home, or going for picnics, or taking part in a sports league. Forty years ago, Americans reported that they went to five picnics a year. Now it’s two. (I went to two picnics in Prospect Park last year. After each of them I gushed about wanting to do it every week. But I didn’t.)
Professor Putnam showed a graph of the number of people who agreed with the statement “Most people are trustworthy.” By the 1990s, it looked like it was hurling itself off a cliff.
It’s both relaxing and exhilarating to sit with a great teacher or a great novel. You sense that they are taking you somewhere new, and you trust them to bring you along. The real lesson Professor Putnam brought for us was that this gloomy state wasn’t new. It had happened before, almost exactly a hundred years ago, when mass mechanization separated people from their families, sent them to cities, and caused the existing institutions to falter. In a response to modernity almost as energetic as _Ulysses,_ Americans invented a huge number of the community associations we recognize today. The Boy Scouts. The PTA(Parent Teacher Association.) The Rotarians, Elks, Kiwanis, and Toastmasters. The Little League. All were artificial inventions, over a fifteen-year span. Today, Professor Putnam studies Meetups to find out if they might come to fall into the same category.
Here’s my own modest theory. It took us a few decades after the car and the TV ruled our lives to realize that being sedentary made us depressed and shortened our lives. The first joggers looked crazy–where are you going in such a hurry? But then Nike showed us the waffle-soled shoe. The strange notion of “health clubs” was slowly accepted. We invented machines that resisted our muscles as well as farm tools once had. Jane Fonda helped the home video industry almost as much as pornography. These days, this entirely invented need has become a bazillion-dollar global fitness industry.
We may dread a gym session, but we know it’s good for us. So we set aside the forty minutes three times a week, and hope for the glow of reward. As artificial as a Meetup can feel–and I confess it never felt anything other than weird to me to meet a bunch of strangers in a public place–it may be part of a related wave of orchestrated engagement. We may start scheduling efficient bursts of human contact, so that we can stay mentally healthy enough to get back to the glowing screens that really call us. Our primate brains seem to need a social workout–so why not a social gym?