Social media has penetrated every aspect of our daily lives, permanently changing the way we interact, both online and offline. At their first creation, social media companies promised more meaningful and accessible connection with others, but the reality now reflects the opposite as increasing research reports more alienation and polarization among users. For example, a study that analyzed 14,000 college students over the last 30 years showed that today’s students are 40% lower in empathy than their counterparts of 20-30 years ago, as measured by standard personality tests. Students were 40% less likely to agree with statements such as “I sometimes try to understand my friends better by imagining how things look from their perspective” (Swanbrow, 2010). Another study found that the correlation between social media use and perceived social isolation in young adults was linear (Primack et al., 2017). This increasing evidence behind antipathetic and un-social effects of social media shows us that on-screen can never replace face-to-face interactions in fulfilling our basic instinct and need for social connection.
Building human relationships is unpredictable and challenging, but the increasing effort to replace this social element with predictable and easily removable digital interactions on Snapchat and Instagram seems ultimately futile. Physical space is defined as “a place used to comprise a physical space and the people within it” (Turkle, 2011). The permeation of social media and expansion of digital in this physical space however challenges this definition when people may be physically present but mentally absent. Can we call this a true physical space? How can software be redirected to foster, not replace, real life human interactions and help shape more meaningful physical space?
Numerous companies and open-source software have emerged across verticals from professional networking to dating to answer this question. The inherent network effect of the problem made few far more successful than others, Meetup being the most prominent and diverse platform in the meeting exchange network platforms. The company was founded in New York City in 2002 by Scott Heiferman and Brendan McGovern, after Heiferman was inspired by how people in New York City came together to connect with strangers in the aftermath of September 11 attacks. (Jeffries, 2011) It has now grown to 32 million members, almost 290,000 groups in 182 countries with more than 3.9 million monthly RSVPs. It allows anyone to create and join interest-based, geographically defined groups, called Meetups. Meetup essentially facilitates electronic-to-face (e2f) communities, defined as groups that are created and organized online to interact physically in geographically defined ways (Weinberg and Williams, 2006). Meetup adds further dimensions to this definition by allowing people to organize based on various topics, levels of structures, and task durations (Lai, 2013). It is a new type of hybrid structural and virtual community: one that is integrated and neither exclusively offline nor exclusively online. The company’s purpose and aim, according to the company website, is the following:
“Meetup brings people together in thousands of cities to do more of what they want to do in life. It is organized around one simple idea: when we get together and do the things that matter to us, we’re at our best. And that’s what Meetup does. It brings people together to do, explore, teach and learn the things that help them come alive. For example, people run marathons, thanks to running Meetups. They write, thanks to writing Meetups. They change their careers, thanks to career Meetups. Because at Meetups, people welcome each other. They talk, help, mentor, and support each other – all in pursuit of moving their lives forward.”
All members can be both “organizers” and “members.” Meetup follows a subscription model, in which organizers of groups are charged monthly based on the size of the groups. The organizers then decide freely on how to cover the costs and the platform helps members raise money through local sponsors, donations, or ticket prices. By restricting the user space to only the organizers and members and leaving out third party advertisers other than local sponsors, Meetup allows proactive building of an intimate space that is directly between and for the engaged and voluntary members. This closed boundary allows Meetup groups to better mirror real human communication that social media platforms like Facebook and Instagram fail to do; unlike these platforms on which users broadcast information with largely vague and low-effort feedback, Meetup required high-level commitment to show up and engage.
Each Meetup group serves to accomplish a specific activity/task while embedding a shared goal of connecting people in genuine physical space. The impact of any electronic-to-face communities can therefore be examined from two perspectives: its efficacy in both expanding social circles and accomplishing a specific activity/task. Meetup is not the first phenomenon of its kind; for example, members of WELL, Whole Earth ‘Lectronic Link, one of the oldest virtual communities, organized regular face-to-face gatherings since 1989 (Rheingold, 1993). Meetup, however, is unique in that it doesn’t require users to first establish online connections or to have specific interests that congregate them together in the first place. Members are loosely grouped by geographical location then shown various group options to join. This low-prerequisite and diverse-option nature of Meetup groups is appealing to users who seek to easily expand their social circles but through a targeted interest and channel. For example, using Meetup has been particularly popular among new settlers to find and establish friend groups after relocation. Evaluating the impact of attending meetups would therefore require a measure of how members have either broadended or deepened their real-life social networks.
While Meetup’s impact on social capital is not as well understood as that of popular social media platforms, one study studies and concluded that attending Meetup groups showed stronger bonding social capital, which comes from close, frequent, and repeated connections between homogeneous people but weaker bridging social capital, which comes from episodic interactions between those of different social circles. Shen and Cage, in their study of member interactions on the Galactic Watercooler online forum and offline meetups, concluded that “people join an interest-based community to connect with like-minded others, they find the friends they seek, then strengthen these loose ties and tend to stay embedded within closed social groups” and that physical meetups function as an accelerator of this process (Shen & Cage, 2015).
It is interesting that the company recently announced a policy update that removes all dating and single-centric Meetup groups on its platform, thus clearly defining the scope of bonding social capital to friendships but not intimate relationships. On the company help site, it’s stated that “groups focused on dating services are not aligned with Meetup’s goal of building lasting connections among the group as a whole.” Furthermore, any single groups such as “30-something Singles of Toronto” would not be considered specific enough. This policy indicates the specific purpose that Meetup aims to serve in bridging specific enough social connections and letting them bond in groups, but not in intimate and exclusive forms.
The other criteria for measuring Meetup’s impact is its efficacy in helping members pursue specific interests, or as Heiferman puts it, “in spawning community.” There are numerous stories on how Meetup has sparked genuine change in local communities by empowering few individuals to meet up and create opportunity. For example, Code Crew Meetup began in New York when two non-coders decided that they wanted to code in a study group. From a seven people group, Code Crew grew into a 11,000-person organization that hosted more than 200 learning sessions.
One particularly successful yet controversial focus of Meetup is political activism. In 2004, Howard Dean demonstrated how he could utilize Meetup, along with other innovative online marketing vehicles like blogs, as the core campaign strategy for his Democratic Party presidential nomination campaign. In less than a year, he went from an unknown candidate to the front-runner appearing on the cover of Time magazine in August 2003 while “[empowering] hundreds of thousands of consumers/citizens to participate in the political process through community ‘meetups’” (Weinberg and Williams, 2006). The presidential meetups proved particularly effective in further engaging already active advocates of the candidate to donate, recruit, and volunteer in the campaign.
This example of how an internet platform was used to form a proactive support group offline, even in 2004, is only a minute hallmark of how social media affects political participation today. While Meetup as a company maintained a non-partisan stance on various political activism that took place through this platform, it took a very interesting shift this year after Donald Trump’s Immigration Ban, which sparked two major protest Meetups with over 300 participants at San Francisco airport in January 2017. The company came out with an official posting to support San Francisco-based #TheResistance Meetup and to denounce the president’s policy changes. It added its own contribution to resistance by starting a “company-wide resist-a-thon” to create more than a thousand #Resist Meetup Groups. The company not only made these groups free for all, but it also sent out a public email to 30 million members and partnered with activist organizations, such as Women’s March, Human Rights Watch, Planned Parenthood, and the Anti Defamation League. The company’s official Facebook post about creating #Resist meetups was met with an uproar of angry comments that condemned a large profit-driven platform taking an official and clear political stance.
The company, being a private entity, does not disclose funding and revenue information to the public but it did an approximate analysis of its economic impact beyond revenue in 2013 based on more than 2 million RSVPs and 330,000 meetups that happened every month. The analysis concluded that around 13 million USD is spent by Meetup members, with an average of about 6 USD per RSVP across all events, contributing to approximately 100-150 million USD in economic value that year. The number of RSVPs have grown double since then and perhaps the data they collect have changed, but its massive economic scale of fostering offline interactions reflects the potential of technology to create both social and economic impact in the physical space, from the users direct payment for its services without any indirect contributions from advertisers. It also implies that members are willing to invest time and money in integrating into real life communities, despite the increasing time we spend on screen. The platform has been growing rapidly and proving successful in various countries, but there is room to further steer this electronic-to-face movement in more user-friendly and approachable. Firstly, Meetup faces the tough event organization problem of receiving the expected number of attendees. The commitment rate of confirming to actual attendance might be very low because going to meet a mass group of strangers for the first time, despite sharing a specific interest, poses a tough personal challenge to overcome for many new members. Perhaps breaking down the attendees into smaller sub-groups prior to the event and motivating them to learn about each other is one way to lower this entry bar. Another problem is the ambiguous interaction requirement of attendees. Depending on the nature of the event, members may leave the event with deep understanding of and empathy with every other member, or without having made a single interaction. Providing some sort of structure in maintaining a consistent participation level for more social capital could encourage more members to engage and build social capital. Having too many options and duplicates of an interest might be another problem that prohibits than empowers users to choose a Meetup group to engage with.
In today’s dilemma of growing social isolation despite hyperconnectivity, Meetup provides an exemplary solution of how technology can steer digital connections to thrive in physical space. We are increasingly witnessing the limited extent to which screened time spent on email or social media satisfies our basic needs for human connection and belonging. By interweaving the convenience and easy access of digital connection, the innate fulfillment from human connections, and satisfaction from pursuing personal interests, Meetup could transform virtual communities to physical communities that “help us be at our best” as the company promises. In the era of digital everything, building friendship is an inevitable and obvious market for technology to dominate. If this is inevitable, we as a collective digital users could not deny it but rather actively strive towards more novel, genuine, and empathy-provoking medium of connecting with one another, perhaps one meetup at a time.
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Jeffries, A. (2014, July 28). The Long and Curious History of Meetup.com. Retrieved October 28, 2017, from http://observer.com/2011/01/the-long-and-curious-history-of-meetupcom/
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