Photo by Lee Woolcock
Salsa dancing meet-up group
Oftentimes, actually meeting someone whose acquaintance has been made on the internet can be disappointing. Reality can prove to be a far cry from the way people represent themselves in cyberspace. That was not a problem, however, when Derry Birkett, from Birmingham, England recently rendezvoused here with eight people he’d found on the Net.
The eight were all members of the BCN Photography Club, and they gathered at the Encants market on a Saturday morning, cameras in hand. They had met through Meetup.com, a popular resource for people searching for others who share their interests. “It’s the only time I’ve ever met anyone off the internet,” smiled Birkett, just before heading off into the crowd to grab some snaps. “At least we have something to talk about—wide angle lens or telephoto?”
Heidi Hanson from Seattle, Washington, who just arrived in Barcelona five weeks ago and found Meetup.com on Facebook, said she was pleased with the results. “It was hard to explain to my friends the concept of Meetup.com. It is a meet-up group, not a hook-up group. It is not a dating site.”
Meetup.com, whose motto is ‘real groups make a real difference’, is an online social networking portal that brings people physically together through common interests. It is simple: register, type in your location, enter your interests and you will find a group of people meeting up nearby. If there are no relevant groups, it only requires a few clicks to establish one and keep it alive.
“You can’t be too precious about the group,” said Lee Harris, a professional photographer and the founder of the photography group. “It is very democratic. It has metamorphosed into something really fun. It is not a class, there is no leader. It is super laid-back and every time you come, you meet new people.”
Meetup.com was founded in 2002, in New York City, by Scott Heiferman after reading a book entitled Bowling Alone, a study by Harvard sociologist Dr. Robert Putnam that theorised why civic participation in America had dropped to an all-time low (four percent in 2000 versus 40 percent in 1960). This book, plus the shock of September 11th and the ever-growing alienation of technology, led Heiferman and a team of programmers to build a tool to help people meet up.
It seems to work. “My New Year’s resolution was to meet new friends, try new things, get out of the house more. The only downside of a traveller’s life is missing friends, people to hang out with. I want to meet people that are into things that I enjoy, and Meetup fills that hole,” explained Marisa Lopez, from New York City, another member of the photography club.
Meetup.com has over 4.7 million users worldwide, having added over a million since January 2009. There are more than 100,000 monthly meetings for almost 57,000 groups, covering 4,000 interests in 5,000 cities. In Barcelona, there are presently 36 groups covering a wide range of interests. From the mainstream groups such as photography, salsa dancing, cinema, hiking, business strategy, computer programming, graphic design and language exchanges to more esoteric meet-ups like the Python programming group or the group formed to discuss the writings of the famous Italian blogger, Beppe Grillo. Without a doubt, there is something for everyone.
Catherine McPhilemy is originally from Derry, Northern Ireland, but has lived and worked in many different countries. She’s an enthusiastic member of the Women’s Activities and Travel group. “It is great to meet like-minded people, have a chat or a vermut. I’ve tried a few groups, salsa, brunch, excursions; there are good days and bad, good groups and, well, let’s say normal groups, but generally the people are always positive. Also, the activities are always good fun.”
When German designer Frederike Werckmeister arrived from London four years ago, like most people she was looking for work, a flat and a network of contacts. She found Meetup.com while surfing the web and joined the BCN graphic designers’ group only to find out that it was dormant. Meetup sent her an e-mail asking if she wanted to activate the group and become its organiser. It has been going strong ever since.
“We have a core of regulars that always come. Then there are the ones that come and go, they ask for information and never come back. But, generally, we have between five and 15 people per meeting. We have a great little bar on Calle Mercè, you can have a fancy cocktail, a cheap beer and food if you are coming straight from work. Sometimes we take field trips, MACBA, museums, openings, but generally we just talk. We work online all day, so it is a relief that the bar has no WiFi.”
Is there a downside to Meetup.com? “Not really,” said Werckmeister. “When I took over the group it was free. Now Meetup is charging something like six bucks a month, not bad. They sent me cards and a sign. Some groups charge the members, but I just cover it myself, I have made so many contacts and got so much work from it that I can’t complain. The only other thing I could say is that the members need to be more pro-active. No one wants a one-person show, it must be a collective of like-minded people. When I told my mother about the idea, she wanted to start a group in her tiny village in Germany. I imagine Meetup is going to grow very large, it just makes sense.”
Werckmeister said the group members communicate in a mix of languages. “We have people from all over the world. But, I am proud to say, we just got our first two Catalan members. So we all practise our language skills while discussing what we love, which is design. Somehow it seems to work out fine.”
The Cinebar group, started by Mark Charach from London, has 186 members. This group promotes quality cult or classic films in an uber-relaxed Raval bar called Inusual Project on Carrer Paloma. The weekly lounge-like atmosphere, free popcorn and two-euro entrance fee, make it a perfect and cheap weeknight out. Films are shown in the original language with subtitles to suit the crowd, in either English or Spanish. “Cinebar is about good social vibes. We bring the popcorn, the bar provides the sofas. It is a very international crowd, the people are from everywhere and the locals that show up are the open ones who want to mingle and mix,” said Charach.
He arrived in Barcelona a year ago, and was looking to build a social life when he found Meetup.com. “I have met some great people. We are all in the same boat. Global people, well-travelled and still travelling. I started the film group because I love movie nights at home with friends, and I love drinking in bars with friends, so why not put the two together?”
Putting people together is what Meetup sets out to do, and judging by the results in Barcelona they seem to be doing a pretty good job of it.