October 3, 2008

‘Meetups’ Use Internet to Get People Off Internet

By Bonnie Pfister

Bowlers in Canonsburg. Hikers in Apollo. Herbalists in McKeesport.

The Pittsburgh area is home to 191 Internet-based "Meetup" groups -- informal gatherings of like-minded folks who share interests and passions.

Other Web-based social networking efforts, such as Facebook and MySpace, involve online connections in which participants might never meet, and might live half a world away from each other, but Meetups "use the Internet to get people off the Internet," according to the Web site.

Although popular search engines Yahoo and Google have launched similar groups, Meetup.com was created in June 2002 specifically to foster face-to-face contacts and a sense of community. Politically neutral, it received an unanticipated popularity boost in 2003 when Democratic presidential contender Howard Dean used it to connect directly with supporters.

"It's been a lot of fun," said Susan Jackson, organizer of the Pittsburgh Dining N'At Meetup, which recently sampled new eateries in Aspinwall, the South Side and North Hills.

The group began in May 2007, and Jackson took the reins earlier this year. A native of Louisiana who relocated three years ago for a job in Evans City, she discovered Meetups as a way to meet other people in a casual, low-pressure environment.

"There are newcomers to the region and people who have just moved back," Jackson said. "It's a really nice mix of people."

Visitors to the site pick a topic, then enter a ZIP code to see if a meeting is scheduled nearby. If so, they can register for free with an e-mail address to learn the time and location of the Meetup. If not, they can take the initiative to organize a Meetup, paying a monthly fee of about $19, which can be recouped from participants at subsequent events.

Would-be visitors RSVP and gather at a public place, usually a coffee shop, bar or restaurant.

Nationally, Meetup logs nearly 2 million RSVPs a month for more than 100,000 meetings in 3,600 cities. Groups include Chihuahua owners, stay-at-home moms, ghost trackers and Dungeons & Dragons players.

In the Pittsburgh area, popular groups bring together poker players, pug owners, those wanting to practice their Spanish (or French, or Czech) speaking skills, and people looking for company while trying out the latest restaurants.

For some, Meetups are a way for lifelong Pittsburgh-area residents to find people with similar interests.

"Paganism is something that one did not mention in the open in the past," said Rose St. John, organizer of the Beaver County Pagans & Paranormal Lovers group. "You hear of people going to bars to meet others. I don't believe there is a pagan or witches club/lounge/ bar."

St. John, who began the group in 2000 when she ran a New Age shop in New Brighton, began organizing meetings through the Meetup Web site in May. It has allowed her to connect with about 40 people.

"Most of our members have lived in the area for quite some time. They just never knew of anyone else to share ideas or knowledge," she said. "It's funny to find out many of us are just in the next town over."

The popularity of the Meetup concept has helped Susan Miller grow membership in the Women's Small Business Association, a group designed for mentoring and networking.

"It puts you at the top of the search engines," said Miller, 40, of Emsworth, founder of the 10-year-old Pittsburgh Candle Co. "Meetup is a great way to organize meetings, track who's attending, set up ways for them to pay and communicate with members, and do marketing. It's a great resource."

Susan Hyre, a member of Miller's group, met fellow golfers while on the road for her work with a Canonsburg construction firm. She has organized golfing outings, and is launching a Meetup group to make a tour of regional bowling alleys.

"Some people are afraid of the Internet," said Hyre, 50. "It's like anything else: you have to be cognizant of what you're doing. If you've got just three people who want to meet you at some bar you never heard of, think about it."

"But it's just another way of meeting people," she added. "What's really cool is, Here I am in St. Louis, and I'm finding groups to go golfing with."

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