Meetup

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?

6 thoughts on “Meetup”

  1. Sure, social stuff is good for us – no argument there. But there’s absolutely no way I need Meetup for that. I was a Meetup member of a whole bunch of groups, but I resigned my membership as soon as I got that email telling me I’d have to pay for Meetups. I mean, WTF? What on earth do I want to give these people money for?

    You’re right: I don’t want to pay for something that has been free. But that’s only half of it. I hate bait and switch schemes, and this feels like one. And the services Meetup provides? I can do it all myself so very easily.

    A while back I got numerous letters from Meetup, trying to convince me to take on the VOLUNTEER group organizer role for Meetups. Nowhere in that mail did they mention that organizers would be expected to start collecting money from group members and sending that money back to Meetup. I’m pissed off enough as a (former) Meetup member. I’d be way more pissed off if I had volunteered my time to organize Meetups, and then found out about the money collecting thing. Sheesh.

    It’s just so easy to organize a group these days. The old ways still work *just fine*. Or put a simple note on Craigslist once a month, and you’re done! And it’s free.

    I’ll be interested to see what happens to Meetup now that they’ve started charging. Maybe bajillions of Meetup members will see enough value to send in their monthly fees, but I won’t be among them.

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  2. I’ve worked in customer service at two companies when they changed went from free to fee. No one likes the covenant change.

    People get angry and a lot of them leave. But you don’t get angry unless something is important to you. And what do we pay for other than what’s important? (like US Weekly or fancy jeans).

    Anyway, it seems like what MeetUp has in its favor is that they’re not charging for community, they’re charging for the convenience of easy access to community.

    Like bottled water.

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  3. What, no more warm fuzzies? šŸ˜‰

    That $9/$19 monthly fee sounds colossal, but it’s divided across groups that range in size from 5 to 75, so the actual revenue that comes in isn’t huge. Several of those groups were charging 10 bucks per member per month and run for profit; many more were shoestring coffeeshop get-togethers where people ordered tapwater. It’s a really difficult service to price and pitch.

    As for not paying: well, I respect the decision not to buy something that you used to get for free, but a bait-and-switch complaint seems ungracious. When a small company says they can no longer afford to spend someone else’s money to give you something you don’t value financially, that’s their right. You’re not obliged to buy, and they’re not obliged to borrow money to serve you for free.

    I won’t pay, because I don’t use the service, but it doesn’t mean I’m mad at Meetup for helping me find free Spanish conversation exchanges for a few months. And if the NY Spanish Language Meetup Group doesn’t want to pay 25 cents a member a month, well, then they can go to Craigslist too. I wish them well whatever they do.

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  4. “But joining a groupĀ—any groupĀ—cuts your risk of dying prematurely this year in half. Half!”

    Does JOINING do it? OR just belonging / continuing to belong? OR must one actually participate?

    Do I get “better mileage” out of joining one group per year for five years, or joining all five the same year? What would be the respective values of belonging to ten groups concurrently for a year, five groups concurrently for two years, one group for ten years, …?

    —-

    As to Meetup charging, why is it a flat, per-group fee, not pegged to group size?

    There ARE other net-based mechanisms for coordinating group activities, and I know of at least a handful of Meetup groups that are moving over to one or another of them.

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  5. My guess is that if you’re weighing up the statistical trade-offs rather than interacting with the people, you’re not going to get much health mileage out of being in a group, period. But if you’re genuinely interested in the data on social capital and life expectancy, Putnam has released them here:
    http://www.bowlingalone.com/data.php

    And of course there are other places to go for co-ordinating group activities. Who ever said there weren’t?

    As for the basis of Meetup’s charging decision, you’d have to ask them. I imagine that at least in part it’s because it’s hard to measure the difference between joining and participation, and they may have decided simplicity outweighed other factors.

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