Around 8 p.m. on a recent Monday, about 35 people of disparate ages were sitting on the marble steps of the public atrium inside Two World Financial Center, listening to a 25-year-old in baggy jeans named Jordan Phoenix talk about Living. “This is the class where we figure out who we are and what we want to do with our lives,” he told his audience, a range of artists and professionals, employed and unemployed, 20-somethings and middle-aged divorcees who, like me, were drawn in by Mr. Phoenix’s aggressive pitch on the website Meetup.com.
As the post had put it: “This group is for you if you know you are capable of greatness, but are unclear and frustrated about how to get there.” The group, “Start Living in 2012,” had picked up more than 100 members in three days, which made it a very fast-growing meetup group indeed.
“I love that everyone here showed up,” Mr. Phoenix said. “Sixty-eight people RSVP’ed. Thirty people didn’t show up. Guess what? They’re not invited to the next meetup, because they’re bullshit artists.”
I had no intention of going to the next meetup. As much as I want to start living in 2012, I was merely a tourist.
Meetup is a website where strangers with common interests can organize get-togethers. In New York, where it started, it has become a compendium of microsubcultures. I have a small habit of peeking at Meetup every once in a while, just reading the descriptions and marveling at how nudists, Dungeons & Dragons players and “male cat lovers” talk when they’re speaking just to one another. (“We celebrate and cherish our cats. We are male. Sometimes we feel like no one understands us when you show them pictures of your cat or share stories about its adventures in your apartment.”) There are meetups for Satanists and ukulele players, swingers and “deep thinkers,” as well as a wealth of groups for people “just doing their daily shit,” as one Meetup employee put it. Voyeuristically, it’s richer than Craigslist’s missed connections and more authentic than New York’s sex diaries.
Meetup is a strange world for the average ironical urbanite. For me, socializing revolves around drinking, primarily with people I already know. And as much as I grouse about both of those facts, I had the same feelings about Meetup that I did about online dating: it’s something other people do.
My attitude was common, Scott Heiferman, the co-founder and CEO of Meetup, told me in a recent phone interview. “Anyone can look at Meetup and say ‘Oh, that’s really wonderful,’” he said. “And you say ‘what about you?’ And they say, ‘Well, that’s not for me. I’m not that kind of person. I don’t have those kinds of needs.’” Mr. Heiferman, of course, believes Meetup is for everyone. Recently, a misanthropic photographer dismissed Meetup as being “not for him.” “I don’t really like people,” he told Mr. Heiferman. But after joining a professional meetup group to trade leads, share vendors and collaborate on projects, the photographer admitted he’d been wrong. It was great for business, he said, and the people were great too.
“When people hear about Meetup for the first time and it’s outside the context of a tech meetup or moms meetup, they think it must be some dating thing,” Mr. Heiferman said. “Because why the hell would you want to meet people, if not to hook up or get money? Like, why on earth would you want to talk to anybody that you don’t already know, if not for sex or money?”
But about six months ago, my curiosity spilled over into the real world. I was scouring the site for a book club for my overworked mom; instead I came across the NYC Freegan Meetup, which was hosting a dumpster diving tour in my neighborhood that evening. My motivation was mostly anthropological. I didn’t mind taking home a few scavenged bagels, but really I wanted to meet these freegans and study their ways. But as my fellow dumpster divers and I delighted over an intact box of Godiva chocolate bars and passed around sleeves of perfectly good saltines, I found myself wondering, could Meetup work for me?
On Tuesday around 8 p.m., a companion and I walked into West 3rd Common, a low-lit bar with red banquettes where about eight people were playing cards on low cherrywood tables. This was the East Village Euchre Club.
The card players, all in their 20s and 30s, included students, a pair of engineers, a Rochester native who was also a member of the Brooklyn Euchre Club, and a long-haired martinet named James, who had brought the cards and made sure conversations didn’t distract players from the hand.
Meetups need at least four attendees to be a good experience, according to Meetup, the company. The norm is for a meetup to start really, really small, with one or two people, and either grow slowly or die out. Occasionally meetups will catch fire, like Start Living in 2012, and attract a bunch of members all at once.
The East Village Euchre Club had 15 people at its first game in September, and has hosted more than a game a week since then, enough to qualify it as a a SMUG, or Successful Meetup Group, in Meetup parlance.
Most of the talk was of euchre, a trump game popular in the Midwest, interspersed with rote introductions. What do you do? When did you move to New York? Three hours later, and we still knew very little about each other, but it was after midnight and the four players at my table were the last patrons in the bar.
Mr. Heiferman started Meetup as a lonely midwestern transplant himself. Quiet, political, and smart, he moved to New York in part to be near his favorite band, Luna, a punk collective with a cult following. “My entire experience of going out to see this band was, I would grab a bite to eat by myself and I would go to the show, and I’d stand there, and I wouldn’t talk to anybody,” he said. “Then I’d filter out, staring at my shoes. Maybe it’s just being shy, or I don’t know what, but there was no context for being allowed to talk to anyone.”
Then in September of 2001, everyone in New York suddenly had permission to talk to each other. The introverted Mr. Heiferman found himself having conversations with his neighbors, and he liked it. A few weeks later, he bought a copy of “Bowling Alone,” a chronicle of the disappearance of bowling leagues, church groups and other social clubs, and the accompanying effect on our health and democracy. Every new employee at Meetup is given a copy of “Bowling Alone.” In the book, the author cites the Internet as one of the causes of rifts between Americans. Mr. Heiferman and a friend, Matt Meeker, thought the Internet could be a solution.