How one dot-com is boosting civic participation in America

A conversation with Myles Weissleder, VP of communications at Meetup.com.

The Internet is often blamed for being a too-easy substitution for real life. I know I tend to spend more hours of quality screen time than I do with quality family time. However, the Net is simply a medium to reach out to the world community at a click of a mouse.

Thanks to New York City-based Meetup.com, the Web has now become a place to easily hang with home town netizons in a real-world location just around the corner.

Meetup.com has helped facilitate over 1.2 million people attend gatherings with like-minded folk in their own neighborhood. Finding topic that turns you on is easy with about 4,000 interests listed at the Website, including Vegetarians, Poker Players, Graphic Designers, Entrepreneurs, Slashdotters, Parents of Only Children, Laid-off Workers, Elvis Presley Fans, Atkins Dieters and many political fans. In fact, it’s the political meetups that have put the company front and center during the campaign season. Meetup recently won a Pollie Award, presented for Public Affairs Excellence for “Technology Product/Innovation of the Year” by the American Association of Political Consultants.

Myles Weissleder, Meetup.com’s VP of Communications, took a few minutes between his own meetups to talk about the company’s history, vision and shares what Goths, pugs and Howard Dean have in common.

Q: For those under a rock who may not have heard of Meetup.com, what does it do?

Weissleder: Meetup.com is a free service on the Internet that helps people connected with their like-minded neighbors. Essentially, there is an international Meetup day on just about any imaginable topic that takes place once a month in thousands of cities around the world on the same night. Folks are meeting up at their local cafes and coffee shops and restaurants and bars and connecting with their neighbors. We set out to hopefully revitalize the local community.

Q: When I think of Meetup.com, I think of former political candidate Howard Dean. I know you’re more than that. Tell us what you really started out to do.
Weissleder: Let me give you a quick little history lesson. We were largely inspired by this fantastic little book called “Bowling Alone” written by Dr. Robert Putnam, a Harvard sociologist. Dr. Putnam theorized on how and why civic participation in America is an all-time low. One of the statistics that really resonated with us was 40 years ago 40 percent of Americans were involved in some sort of civic activity outside the home, along the lines of the Lions Club or Kiwanis Club or a bowling league or PTA meeting. Folks were getting out and about. Fast forward to today and the number is more like 4 percent of Americans are getting out and about. There are a number of reasons for this, largely attributed to the fact that folks have to work more, commute to work longer, spending a lot more time in front of screens – televisions and computers – basically spending a lot more time alone vs. interacting with your neighbors. This book and that statistic were largely the impetus for the creation of Meetup.com.

Q: Were there other factors?

Weissleder: Another anecdotal part of the primordial stew was when Scott Heiferman, our fearless CEO, was dragged out to a party on some random sidewalk in New York City in celebration of the then-new “Lord of the Rings” movie, where all of a sudden all these Lord of the Rings geeks found each other on some random sidewalk in New York. Scott was thinking, “Wow, that’s cool that these random strangers are connecting here.”

Then came 9/11 where people were clamoring for some local activity. Folks were actually looking at each other in the eyes again. Those three things set a design challenge for how to create a platform that helps connect people locally.

The Internet does a great job of how you can have a conversation with someone in Spain on how to make tortillas through a message board or a chat room. But the Internet, until now, really failed miserably at helping people connect locally, so we chose to build this tool, this platform, that will connect anyone with their neighbors over any interest. You name it!

Q: Why don’t you give us some examples of the various and sundry, odd and quirky “Meetups” you’ve seen.

Weissleder: Oh, goodness. Right now we’re experiencing about 5,000 Meetups taking place every single month. They range from – it’s hard to say quirky, because one man’s quirky is another man’s passion – so some of the more interesting topics are we have a large Wiccan population that uses Meetup. The Goth community is finding some great successes through Meetup. I just received an e-mail the other day about two Goths that met each other through Meetup and now are getting married! There is a neat little heartwarming story there. Some of the surprising Meetups that we didn’t forecast are languages. Once a month there is a regular Spanish speaking – or Italian or Russian – Meetup taking place in your town to practice the language. That’s something you can’t do on the Internet. The same goes for the doggie Meetups. We have Pug Lovers and International Pug Meetup Day. If you go to Austin, Texas on Pug Meetup Day, there are going to be 100 pugs in the park. Dogs can’t play with each other on the computer. You gotta bring them to the park. We helped bring that together.

Q: What about political Meetups?

Weissleder: It was Howard Dean and some of the other Democratic potential nominees that really tapped our service and helped put us on the map. It can be said that we really helped put Howard Dean on the map at his peak. He had just shy of 200,000 people registered for his Meetups. His largest Meetup total was about 1,000 Meetups taking place around the nation.
The funny thing about this is we did not build Meetup as a political tool. The politics kind of found us. I think of we had built this as a political tool, we would have fallen on our faces. Plenty of smart people have tried and failed to do this before. The fact that it’s a platform that just nails down the “where” and the “when” was all that was really required for people that were passionate about a candidate. It really took off and opened some eyes in the political world.

Q: You just launched Meetup version 2.5. What features does it have?

Weissleder: We’re making it easier for people to communicate with each other between various Meetups. There are more robust message boards to continue the conversation.

We set up a minimum requirement of five RSVP’s or else a Meetup will be canceled. Now, we understand there may be four very hungry, very eager people who want to meet up over a particular topic but just don’t have that fifth person that pushes it over the top. Now with the message boards they can still Meetup. We set the minimum at five primarily for safety reasons. Sometimes, even though five people say they’re going to show up, only one or two do. We can’t control the “flake factor” out there. I’ve been to Meetups before where only a few people show up and at first you’re a little disappointed but at the end of the night I left thinking I made a great connection tonight. So for me, the Meetup was a success.

Q: What’s the process for someone to set up a Meetup on your site?

Weissleder: It’s really lickety-split – it’s so easy! Chances are that the topic or interest of the Meetup you want to have already has a day set up for it. There are over 4,000 topics listed. In the case that it’s not there, we make it easy for people to suggest different Meetups as long as it passes really simple criteria such as it’s not too localized in nature, it has to have some broad appeal, is not designed to hurt physically or emotionally, is not hate-centric or adult-themed, then it’s probably going to fly.

Let’s say your topic is already in there. All you do is put in your zip code, create a username and password and then vote for a local venue. You’ll see a list of options, ranging from a local coffee shop to a bookstore. A week prior to that Meetup date, you’ll be requested to RSVP for the venue with the most votes. Democracy rules here. As long as five or more people RSVP, the meeting is a go. All you have to do it show up and have a good time!
You can see all Meetup interests and curiosities here:
press.meetup.com/watch/archives/000638.html.

The full audio interview with Myles Weissleder of Meetup.com can be heard this Saturday, May 8, on KLAY 1180 AM at 11 a.m. or Tuesday, May 11, on KVTI 90.9 FM at 10 p.m. It will also be available at WebTalkRadio.com starting May 8.

Dana Greenlee is co-host/producer of the WebTalkGuys Radio Show, a Tacoma-based nationally syndicated radio and Webcast show featuring technology news and interviews.

WEBTALK GUYS RADIO
This Saturday, May 8, WebTalk Radio show guests include Myles Weissleder, VP of Communication at Meetup.com. Also, David Berkowitz of eMarketer.com will discuss the impending Google IPO. WebTalk Radio is heard at 11 a.m. Saturday on KLAY-AM (1180) and 10 p.m. Tuesday on KVTI-FM (90.9).

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