Democracy on a Silver Platter, and No One is Biting
On Spring Street, in Manhattan’s posh Soho neighborhood, surrounded by bistros and shops, the ever-present Starbucks coffee shop pokes out its fluorescent head as the evening destination for members of the 20 Million Loud Meetup group. Shouts for chocolate chunk cookies and fat-free cappuccinos are accompanied by holiday music and the aroma of coffee beans. The industrial space of high, pipe-lined ceilings is made classic by Greek-inspired Ionic columns that suggest a modern link to an ancient democracy. Leaders and members of Meetup.com intend to revive that culture’s legacy of civic involvement.
It isn’t election season anymore, but Meetup.com members of 20 Million Loud—an organization that advocates political involvement and led a youth voting drive piloted by MTV during the 2004 presidential election—post that they still have something to say on the community-based website with international reach. The sentiment is in line with the 500,000 Americans who have signed up to attend political Meetups. These meetings bring together people who share an interest or cause, in an effort to form lasting, influential and local groups that meet consistently.
A white wreath decorates the Starbucks’ entrance, and customers look lost as they open the door and search the room for a familiar face. It is 7:40 p.m., Dec. 7 and there are no signs of a group, despite the fact that the “Meetup,” or the scheduled group meeting, is for 7 p.m. The 19 registered guests who R.S.V.P.ed “yes,” and the six who responded as “maybe,” (out of a total of 910 members registered for the New York City’s 20 Million Loud group) did not pour into the Starbucks to discuss politics as promised.
Afterward, a message on the 20 Million Loud member website from Olivia of White Plains, N.Y. resonates with frustration and hope. “I am eighteen years old and to tell you the truth—it’s time to start direct action and do something about this society that we live in—so this is why I am on this thing....” But she wasn’t at Starbucks that rainy night, as the puddles swelled outside the would-be Acropolis.
She and others who post on the website reveal a longing to make an impact. Some refer to the need for a safe haven of voices. But these voices often stay home even while Meetups already provide a forum to actively communicate. As the Meetup.com company is set to enter its third year, gatherings continue to face challenges in gaining a steady choir—for now.
“In the 1960’s, nearly 40 percent of Americans were involved in some sort of civic activity outside their homes,” Robert Putnam wrote in his 2000 book “Bowling Alone,” which documents the rapid decline of American community engagement. Today, he writes, “only 4 percent of Americans are engaged by these same civic infrastructures,” due to demands of television, computers and hectic work schedules.
Putnam’s statistics inspired the CEO and founder of Meetup.com, Scott Heiferman, to forge a computer platform that encourages community involvement through the convenience of the Internet, but doesn’t use it as an excuse to stay home. “People are looking for connectivity to their neighbors,” said Myles Weissleder, Meetup.com Vice President of Communications. That feeling was no greater than after the September 11 attacks, and Heiferman understood what was lacking in America’s modern social fabric: the string that bonds us. And Meetup.com was born.
Democracy seems to be Weissleder’s favorite word—he uses it every few sentences—especially when discussing Meetup.com. He describes the members of each topic as a group with common interests working towards a shared goal, and the network the group creates as a grass roots success story based on a democratic structure. “This is a great tool if you want to change something or save something,” Weissleder said.
Less than two years after it launched, Meetup.com exceeded one million members without a penny spent on marketing, and with a staff of only 25 employees. Heiferman’s goal of creating “a computer of people,” has earned him the title of Technology Review’s Innovator of the Year for 2004. To date the network has signed up more than 1.5 million people worldwide for one or more Meetup groups, and facilitated more than 60,000 Meetups since it was founded on June 14, 2002.
However, as the failed Starbucks rendezvous proved, membership does not necessarily signal activity and scheduled Meetups don’t always occur.
On November 2 at the Skylight Diner in midtown Manhattan, Aishia Wilson, 26, a creative writing student from Long Island, sat at a winding bar for about an hour waiting for other group members to show up. But no one came. She was involved with a different Meetup topic, Rock the Vote, a non-profit organization dedicated to empowering youth and encouraging political engagement.
“There are 30 to 40 people usually,” she said. Wilson registered 50 to 60 voters with the non partisan group of mostly twenty-somethings, who met once a month to educate themselves on national debates and discuss voter registration tactics. “Our voices as young people are not being heard,” Wilson said. No one else came to speak though.
Despite the challenges of assembling 20 Million Loud and Rock the Vote Meetups, other groups in the Manhattan area have enjoyed considerable attendance on other dates. According to Meetup data, more than half of Americans registered for political Meetups have attended.
Meetup launched with 400 topics, and initially appealed to specific groups of techies and the disenfranchised—witches, ex-Jehovah’s Witnesses, and so on. Then the stay-at-home moms and board game fans came to the site too. “And then politics found us,” Weissleder recalled. Today there are more than 5,000 topics, and over 1,500 are political.
It began when Howard Dean followers suggested the presidential candidate as a Meetup topic. “We put Howard Dean on the map, and he helped put us on the map,” Weissleder claimed. Initially no one in the company’s office knew who he was, but soon the group became the network’s strongest contingent. In less than two weeks time they registered between 400 and 500 people. The site then launched Meetups for every election race—some took off and some didn’t, but they were available. “This is a bottom-up thing,” he said. “It works best when people are self-organizing, versus a top-down mandate.” The Dean people—eventually becoming the grassroots organization Democracy for America—still have the highest numbers on the site. Their numbers are rivaled by Townhall.org, the online voice of the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank. Meetup.com, despite the presence of such partisan groups, is itself faithfully nonpartisan.
But as author Robert Putnam notes, even with community interest, consistent involvement faces the classic collective action problem: enforcing the commitments a group collectively chooses to implement. Their private decisions undermine the collective effort, even if they wholeheartedly agree with the goal. So other Rock the Vote members might choose to ignore their work with the knowledge that Aishia Wilson is following through on her pledge.
“All we do is set up, help people set this up, and we get out of the way,” Weissleder said. He relates Meetup’s method to the accomplishments of Pierre Omidyar, chairman and founder of eBay, who doubles as a Meetup.com board member. “His eBay success came from him realizing that the people hold the power,” Weissleder recognized. Meetup.com is an instrument to combat the collective action problem when people take advantage of such forums.
Weissleder believes in the “power of a group gathering,” and that doesn’t just encompass politics. “Chances are pretty high that what you’re looking for is in there,” Weissleder said. Meetup.com staff is pushing hard to direct attention at other topics as well; ranging from Harry Potter to Goth, Dungeons & Dragons to knitting. Languages have grown in popularity also—French, Russian, Portuguese. But there is a standard of decency at Meetup.com, as everything passes through a human filter that deletes “hateful or hurtful messages, and overwhelmingly adult themes.”
Heiferman, 33, and Weissleder, 34, worked together for 10 years before the Meetup endeavor; they headed the first online direct marketing agency, i-traffic, which was acquired by Agency.com in 1999. In the time between i-traffic and Meetup.com, Heiferman went on a hiatus that included working at McDonalds, “to learn what America’s really about in that respect,” said Weissleder. “Imagine,” he supposed, “a CEO in the Internet era doing that.” In 2002 Heiferman turned again to technology and co-founded fotolog, the leading photo weblog platform used by over a half-million people today. Weissleder moved to the West Coast after the sale—over 2,500 miles from Meetup.com offices in Greenwich Village. When Heiferman pitched him the position for Meetup.com he was enthusiastic, exclaiming “just don’t make me leave California!”
And the team was back together again.
“We just want to help make the world a better place,” Weissleder said, while noting Meetup.com’s growth and recognition. “I don’t sleep anymore because it’s so exciting.” Meetup.com is successful because it effectively localizes the Internet, so that residents from Paris to Podunk can meet regionally and monitor the same topics internationally. A topic’s meeting occurs the same day and time across the world. For example, every first Saturday of the month the Vegan group meets at noon (in each respective time zone) around the globe to discuss a chosen theme at a member voted location—provided that more than a couple of people sign up. “That’s essentially democracy at its core,” Weissleder exclaimed.
The motivation for social change and the dollars and cents aspect of business are not mutually exclusive in the Meetup.com mantra: “We believe it’s possible to make a profit and make a difference.” It does the latter by advising organizers how to promote the group, coordinate events, and attract members. The former is accomplished by charging for extra features that help them promote, coordinate and attract. The company also partners with other organizations, advertises establishment (e.g. Starbucks) for meeting sites, and garners sponsors like Arnold Schwarzenegger and Elvis Presley Enterprises.
Weissleder envisions Meetup.com empowering local groups, which then strengthen a global community, by providing a group-to-group interface. “Let’s say there are 200 pug-lover groups that dot the map across the nation,” he began, “imagine what would happen when all of these 200 points are woven together.”
Riva Froymovich can be reached at Rf534@nyu.edu