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http://www.shift.com/content/web/444/1.html MEET MARKET Meetup.com allows people to easily arrange offline get-togethers for like-minded netizens. But does it really work? Al Mousseau crashes two Meetups to find out. | Dec.23.2002 |

I walk into Future Bakery on Bloor Street. It’s rather chilly out, and I’ve come out of the cold to check out a meatspace “Meetup,” a gathering of facetime-inclined netizens organized via the recently-created, New York-based Meetup.com. The top three get-togethers in Toronto are all weblog-related: Slashdot, arguably the granddaddy of all blogs; LiveJournal, a site for hosting online journals (a blog by any other name); and Weblogger, whose titular relationship to blogging is self-evident. Fark clocks in at number seven. Yet another free blog-hosting service, Xanga, rounds out the top ten most populous get-togethers in Toronto. To get a feel for what Meetup offers, I’ve pencilled in three of these meetings on my calendar. Although the first (for Ultima Online users in the Greater Toronto Area) simply doesn’t occur because of lack of response, I’m meeting Toronto bloggers tonight at Future Bakery, and a week later I’ll stop in at the Rivoli for the Slashdot crowd.

So I’ve trekked up Yonge and across Bloor to attend the third-largest event, as ranked on Meetup.com, in Toronto. As I emerge from the doorway, I can clearly see a sign that says “Meetup: Bloggers.” I can also see that I’m one third of this group.

Bloggers Tim Campbell and Zhan Huan Zhou make up the rest of the trio. Seated around a small table, they describe their own blogs and experiences with Meetup. Campbell, a self-described “software bohemian,” started his own blog entitled “!?” when he felt his posts to the collaborative news/humour site Fark stopped being significant. “My stuff was just getting lost on Fark.” Zhou maintains several blogs, and is a Masters student in biomedical engineering.

The conversation ranges from domain-name squatting (“Delete.com has recently become available, and is for sale by an Australian domain name company!”), to a list of local blogs (gtabloggers.com), to daily browsing habits. But talk is mostly directed towards topics unrelated to weblogs. The relative merits of living in Vancouver, Toronto and Montreal surface. Attendees’ commutes are briefly glossed over. University education and its benefits, such as ample gaming time, get a mention. In fact, this sounds more like a few guys shooting the breeze than a conversation that a group of independent pseudo-journalists might cook up. Campbell says this is typical of his experience with other Meetups as well: “At the Fark Meetup, we went practically the entire night without anyone even mentioning Fark. It’s just an excuse to get together and talk.

“If it weren’t for Meetup, I wouldn’t have met any of the GTA bloggers.”

At this point, two young women in bicycle gear approach our table. The word “blog,” with its amputated-portmanteau quality, has piqued their interest. “What’s a blogger?” Needless to say, a lengthy explanation follows.

After they walk off, Tim remarks, “This sign is a real chick magnet.” I chuckle to myself and ask him and Zhou about their experience with Meetup. While both are supportive of the Meetup concept, they both had sharp criticisms of its current execution. “I think Meetup’s stupid. No one comes out,” says Zhou. “There are so many parallel groups, like the GTABloggers and Yahoo! Groups, that get together on their own. It doesn’t have to be a specific date or anything, so if someone can’t make it they can change the date.”

Tim’s main complaint is the site’s layout. “I mean, we can agree on one thing: Does the design suck, or does it suck? When every page of your site needs a FAQ, that’s a sign that you’re in trouble. Plus, I can’t tell when I’m logged in or logged out, nothing’s clear. It says on their site that they’re hiring. They should hire a graphic designer, as soon as possible.”

Tim then goes out for a smoke. As the door closes behind him, another young woman approaches our table to ask what a blogger is. I shake my head, thinking to myself, “Damn, what if this thing really is a chick magnet?”

The basic idea behind Meetup, as explained by public-relations representative Myles Weissleder, is to help gatherings of common interest groups around the world. Based in New York, the idea behind Meetup crystallized during the shock following the September 11th catastrophe. “A large part of the impetus to create Meetup stemmed from the general feeling of ‘community disconnect’ in NYC after 9/11. It’s also a ploy from a bunch of self-proclaimed computer/internet geeks to help people get away from their computers and their TVs and back into the real world — something that we tend to forget exists.”

After departing from the friendly intimacy of the bloggers, I’m still curious. On another night of the month, I visit the Slashdotters. I can’t climb the Rivoli’s stairs without the loud music reminding me of Tim’s complaint about events here — it’s loud and hard to talk. After I step into the room, a man with a Blackberry greets me and cheerfully tells me that this is the largest Slashdot Meetup in the world. In fact, according to Weissleder, this is the largest Meetup in the world, period. One of the previous meetings drew fifty-nine confirmations from registered users on Meetup.com, setting an all-time record on the site. Tonight, my appearance brings the grand total of attendees to nine, which will later hit a high watermark of twelve.

The seemingly lackluster turnout rekindles some doubts I had about the entire Meetup concept. On its website, the company predicts income will come from two sources: retailers who host Meetups, and “upcoming extra-cool features” that should increase future revenues. But Meetup.com does not carry any advertising, so is money actually being made? According to Weissleder, “We’re making a little bit of money. We’re young (launched in June 2002) and fully expect it to take some time before we start raking in the bucks. [But] seriously, we’ve got a business model that is being proved every day. We’ve been funded by some angels and are closing a round of smart VC money as I [speak].” The Meetup site mentions prospective venues paying for placement during the venue selection process, but the low numbers beg the question: How big do Slashdotters (and bloggers, and Ultima Online players) tip?

When I take a look at the Slashdot tables, stocked with plates of spring rolls and glasses of beer, Myles’ business model seems a little more plausible.

I sit down, and conversation is already in full swing. The air is buzzing with talk about the Washington sniper and media scapegoating of videogames. Attendees avidly discuss an article posted on Penny Arcade, a popular gaming site, which meant to predict such phenomena, but eerily coincided with it instead. Conversation moves on to luminaries in the Linux and Open-Source communities, such as people’s opinions of Richard Stallman, and personal experiences with meeting Linux creator Linus Torvalds.

The group’s composition is entirely male and overwhelmingly knowledgeable. The conversation really starts to heat up when new features of the most recent Linux kernel upgrade are mentioned. Soon, esoteric terms and jargon fly around the table like a whirlwind. Excited chatter fills the air. “They’ve totally rewritten the SCSI stuff. The buffers are completely new. And the UML — Oh! the UML!” The very mention of User Mode Linux steers the conversation into a cavernous vein. Soon, the Slashdotters are elbow-deep in a discussion of virtual Linux kernel simulation, a concept akin to simulating multiple operating environments, each stacked within another, like a series of nested Russian Matryoshka dolls.

Around the other side of the table, two highschoolers are describing a unique way of taking care of their curriculum’s forty hours of artistic activity per term requirement. They’ve convinced their instructor that a weekend-long interactive webcast of them hanging out is artistic enough to qualify, and they’re discussing technical minutiae of streaming with the other techies seated in the booth.

This evening, no random young women stop by the booth and tables to ask what Slashdot is. However, there is no sign at this Meetup. Still, as I look around the table and listen to the aural, real-time equivalent of Slashdot postings, one thing is clear: Chick-magnet or no, Meetup has managed to fuel personal encounters of like-minded people who may never have met otherwise. Whether it will survive or become profitable in the future is unclear, but it’s certainly fascinating to watch.

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