Even if it hasn’t fully reconstructed the tradition of community in America, 11 years later Meetup is at least a window into hidden corners of the city. It’s also a directory of the best public meeting spaces. The bustling Citicorp Atrium on Lexington and 53rd, which has free wifi, is a favorite. Every white table was occupied with couples, students or homeless men munching sandwiches, as I made my way toward a meetup in the corner on a recent Wednesday evening.
An older gentleman in a Coney Island sweatshirt, possibly in his 60s or 70s, was seated at a table with a plump blonde woman, Brenna, and her soft-spoken co-organizer, David. I introduced myself and scooted over a metal chair as David passed out a detailed worksheet. “NYC Hoarders-No-More Meetup Group,” it said. We were joined by a tattooed hoarder from the Bronx who sleeps in his living room because his bedroom is stuffed to the ceiling with junk, books, and defunct scuba gear. “I’m an atheist,” he said. “But I pray for a fire.”
A few more hoarders showed up as we worked our way through everyone’s updates. Brenna had thrown away about ten New Yorkers, some greeting cards and a notebook with amateur song lyrics that she had found on the sidewalk; Adrian, a former bank vice president, had made significant progress in the kitchen (“The freezer part is cool but the refrigerator part is out of control”).
Every week, the hoarders bring in some debris to discard. As they sorted, we talked about Meetup.
“I think there should be a values score on Meetup so you can put in your values and find meetups based on that,” said a grandfather-aged gentleman with wispy ear hair and rubber bands around his wrist.
“I love Meetup—I’m in a bunch of them,” said the Bronx hoarder. “I co-organize the New York City Depression Meetup. It has 900-some members.”
He joined the site for a scuba diving meetup and was on it for a year before he realized the site had other relevant offerings; now, he regularly checks the site whenever he develops a new interest. “I joined an evolution meetup and the book we read was Richard Dawkins, “The Greatest Show on Earth,” and I fell in love with it,” he said. “After that, I started going to atheism meetups.”
David, who is a member of 15 meetup groups, asked him to write down the name of the depression meetup.
Meetup tends to be addicting. “I am very active on Meetup, in that I join a lot of Meetup groups to see what people are doing,” one Start Living in 2012 attendee wrote in an email. “Meetup probably e-mails me an average of five new groups a day for me to look at, and of those I may sign on to receive updates from one or two a week. Off the top of my head, I’ve been to meetings of a Beekeeping meetup, a Content Strategy meetup, an Artists Accountability Group meetup, and an Online Dating Conference meetup.”
It’s interesting to see what will motivate people to meet up. The site first got traction when the founders started inventing holidays. Mr. Heiferman and Mr. Meeker scoured the Internet for groups and special interest blogs. Then they sent the groups an email about an upcoming made-up celebration—International Pug Lovers Meetup Day, for example—and explained how to join a local meetup or host one. Today, there are 39,427 members of 179 Pug Meetup groups in 149 cities around the world. The biggest demographic on Meetup is moms. Political groups are also big, as are singles groups and New Age-y interests like “energy healing.” Group activities like language practice, sports and networking events are popular. There are even a few pickup artist-themed meetups, like the NYC Wingmen.
On a recent Friday night, I ventured out to an electronic rock show on the Lower East Side for a meetup of NYC Bands for Bands, a sort of networking group of musicians who go to each others’ shows. One musical couple started the group five months ago in order to meet promoters’ demands that their band bring a crowd. But filling up the club is part of it, Micha, a musician in a plaid cap, told me; he comes for the camaraderie. “I can’t imagine myself not going to this for as long as it exists,” he said.
With the glaring exception of the New York Tech Meetup, which has more than 20,000 members, meetups seem to have a natural size limit. Once a group gets large enough, it starts to replicate or “cell divide” according to set patterns, Mr. Heiferman said. “It’s an almost Darwininan ecosystem,” he said. Lance, a stay-at-home father, started the NYC Dads Meetup in 2008 as a group for at-home dads, but it’s expanded. “We’ve got dads of all stripes,” the group’s co-organizer Lance, told me at a NYC Dads drink-up at Heartland Brewery in Union Square. “Guys who lost their jobs, guys who chose the role. We’ve got gay dads joining now.”
The group now has a popular blog, a long list of sponsors, and business cards. But Mr. Heiferman, who is a member of NYC Dads, decided neither it nor any of the other 50 parenting meetups on the Upper West Side was quite right, so he recently started a splinter meetup for parents of children on the aged 9 to 16 months. It now has 29 members.
I felt I had just scratched the surface, even after a week of random meetups. I didn’t get all my first choices. Organizers of the NYC Vinyl Meetup did not email me back quickly enough; I picked the hoarders group over the A Course In Miracles Meetup Group, devotees of the cult classic spiritual text. I got a few rejections. “The 3 p.m. sword balancing is for folks that have 2-3 years of belly dance experience,” wrote the organizer of the Manhattan Tribal ATS Tribal Belly Dance Meetup NYC, somewhat of a relief. I was also excluded from a private dinner held by the Psychedelic and Entheogenic Society, fans of Timothy Leary, although most of their meetups are open.
There was a spate of meetups on Saturday morning—running, walking, breakfast clubs—that I slept too late to check out, opting for Exciting NYC Mandarin Chinese Learners at 2 p.m. at the Chinatown Y. The class was $40. This is not unusual; independent teachers use Meetup to coordinate and advertise classes, and some business-oriented events also charge a fee. Meetup has made this easier by integrating PayPal. Every meetup group organizer pays $10 a month.
For the final outing in my week-long experiment, I caught a nighttime gathering of the New York Parkour Meetup. I was soon in pain from banging my body as I tried to hurdle over stacks of mats while our limber instructor heckled at us to do flips. Luckily, this session took place inside the colorful gymnasium in the Field House at Chelsea Piers, and not at the Sanctuary, the group’s concrete Upper West Side practice area.
I walked out into the icy night exhausted—partly because of the exertion, partly because I had just spent the last week hanging out with strangers. In that moment, I thought, if I never, ever saw another human, it would be too soon. At least until Tuesday. That was Euchre night.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story incorrectly identified a New York punk band as Lunar; the band is Luna. Betabeat regrets the error.