“What is Social Media?… It’s just the people.”

by Adriele Parker (@AdrieleParker)

Scott Heiferman, co-founder and CEO of Meetup, sat down with us for a candid chat about how he started his company, serving communities, and being open to change.

Before Scott’s arrival, we talked to Professor Jarvis and Dr. Brown about an assignment that we completed over spring break using live video streaming apps Meerkat and Periscope. Most of us agreed that because both apps are fairly new there are plenty of glitches. For example, my partner Jay Wasserman and I live streamed a walk through Times Square using Periscope. After completing our video, we realized that Jay’s phone didn’t have enough storage and only a few seconds of the video were saved — there was no notification of this.  Bummer.

Professor Jarvis  asked us how we thought these apps would or could affect gun violence – what would happen if somebody happened to be live streaming when a shooting occurred, for example? How would people respond? No one really had an answer, but we agreed that live streaming such occurrences would significantly increase chances of news going viral.

We then pondered the idea of the internet connecting you to less or more people. Are we too immersed in our screens to pay attention to others, or are we engaging more often with more people? Classmate Erica Soto said, “We’re connecting, but we’re not necessarily communicating anymore.” This led us to a brief discussion about online education and the need for hands on experience.

Scott arrived with a friend, Ankit Shah, who has recently been creating buzz with a new concept called Tea with Strangers, which, as the name implies, allows groups of strangers to meet over tea. Scott had us go around the room and introduce ourselves, our communities, and say something we’ve already learned or would like to learn during our time in the #socialj program. He wanted us to aim for 10 words or less, but for most of us it took a bit more than 10 words.

Scott was genuinely intrigued by all of our backgrounds, our communities, and the notion of community-driven journalism. He asked, “What is social media?” Several of us shouted out a few lengthy answers. Chuckling, Scott responded to his own question with, “it’s just the people.” He went on to tell us how Meetup came about. After 9/11, he found himself talking to neighbors more than before. Being an internet guy, Scott said that he didn’t think distance mattered, but he “found something powerful in local.”

Scott used to attend concerts where he’d see some of the same people, but no one had the guts to talk to other concert-goers. He thought Meetup would be a tool used mainly by fans as a means with connecting with one another. It didn’t quite turn out that way. Scott reminded us several times to not to get too locked into what we think we want to do, as it can always change.

In the early stages, Meetup’s staff would choose a common interest that they thought people would want to meet about, and they allowed people to vote on one of three randomly selected locations to meet, and then they’d post the event with its selected location and people would attend. This method didn’t work for long. The things they assumed people were interested in, they weren’t and vice versa.

Meetup now consists of over 21 million members of nearly 200,000 community-led and organized groups. The groups vary drastically by interest — there are board game groups, tech groups, and fitness groups, just to name a few.

Scott told us the story of Dale, a soccer Meetup organizer. In general, to play soccer in New York City as a team or league, a permit is needed. Also, players typically pay hundreds of dollars in league fees. Dale snagged a permit, didn’t need to create a business plan, and started charging $10 per person for his Meetup. Dale now makes $15,000 per month through Meetup.

“A sense of belonging amongst and between people,” is what Meetup creates, said Scott. Referencing great leaders, such as Martin Luther King Jr., and great movements, such as the women’s right’s movement, Scott explained how we live in a world where we want a boss or leader, but must realize that without the people, a movement wouldn’t be possible.

Instead of preparing a speech for a conference that he once had to present at, Scott told members of the audience to talk to each other for 15 minutes. They loved it. According to Scott, people often just need permission to talk and it’s important to remember that “the person sitting next to you is smarter than you about something.” Agreed, 100 percent.

Towards the end we went through a series of Q&A’s and spent a good portion of our time talking money and subscriptions. Scott explained that 98 percent of Meetup’s revenue isn’t coming from groups, but instead from the organizers’ fees. Not all organizers charge membership dues, but from the ones that do, Meetup receives 5 percent. Meetup does not have ads.

“We want to make a company for the ages,” said Scott. Meetup’s staff actually goes through each proposed group for approval, and around 30 percent of the groups are refunded after review.

Scott wrapped up our session by inviting us to get a feel for what types of Meetups exist by going on a Meetup crawl to experience different types of groups.

We talked a bit more after Scott’s departure about ways to stay open to change and not being possessive over our communities. With our program in particular it’s virtually impossible to not pick a beat and run with it.

So how do we remain open to change? How do you ensure that our beat remains malleable and we don’t sell ourselves short? How do you find the balance between being possessive over your community vs. not? Is there a balance?

29 thoughts on ““What is Social Media?… It’s just the people.””

  1. These are good questions, Adriele!

    I think one of my favorite things that Scott said was: “F— you! It’s about them.” I kind of want to make it into a little graphic I liked it so much. And I think it’s relevant here.

    I think one of the hardest things about working with a community of which you’re not a member is to keep this in mind, to be open to change and to remain malleable. As journalists, we still operate under journalistic motives: what makes a compelling story? Is this interesting enough to report on? Has anyone else covered this?

    These questions are important, but I think it’s also what makes it challenging to figure out what’s in the community’s best interest. A community really doesn’t care if something will make a good headline; they want a problem solved. The key is figuring out a healthy balance between what makes a good story and what will ultimately benefit the community.

    I also think that building trust within the community is something that will help us grapple with these issues of being flexible and open-minded. As we learned in Robert Putnam’s “Bowling Alone,” building social capital is critical, and we have to constantly work to earn it in our communities. The more our communities trust us, the more likely we’ll be able to discover new things and be more creative with our beat.

    I think the being possessive issue is an interesting question, because journalists tend to want to protect their stories, especially if they are a scoop. Similarly, it can be tempting not to want to share information with other reporters if you know there’s an interesting story to be found that you’ve discovered through your community connections.

    For me, this is an always an issue. But with my beat now, I’m willing to share information about things I just don’t have time to cover. I actually did this over the weekend with a reporter friend of mine, and I hope he does take my tips and run with them, because I just don’t have the time or funds to report on this particular story at the moment. I think the benefits of *someone* reporting this story outweigh the benefits of me, personally, being the one to write it.

    The last thing I’ll say is about this issue of being flexible. I think with beats, there can be a tendency to focus on the same issues and we can sometimes get stuck in a rut searching out those same stories. The big challenge is figuring out new problems and challenges by getting people to open up about things they don’t necessarily want to talk about (as we spoke about during our session with the ethnic media reporters). This, to me, is a sign of success working with a community: when you can get someone to open up to you.

    Again, it’s all about social capital and building trust.

    1. Good, Rachel. This is a key point that we haven’t really discussed yet – it’s natural and human for reporters to want to claim stories for their own and to become possessive of them – but this often doesn’t serve readers very well. This is an issue with open and participatory reporting in your community as well – often reporters don’t want to say anything about a possible scoop until it’s fully investigated and ready for publication. But often involving readers in helping you investigate can make for a better story and increase credibility and trust. I think it’s something that has to be viewed on a case by case basis.

  2. Great questions Adriele.

    Being possessive is a great point to bring up. With my community, it’s hard not to be. I consider myself to have one foot in it and yet still be an outsider at all times. When you’ve got 25 years of experience being told what the experience of a community is supposed to be and then you have to go follow it up close, it can be tough breaking the concepts you’ve built up in your head.

    I think striking the balance you spoke of is a great point. I don’t necessarily think of myself as an advocate for my community; I don’t really think they “need” my help in the purest sense of the word. But I do think that by sitting back and studying, writing about, and simply speaking with my community members on an informal basis, I’ve gotten to know what they think about more often. I wouldn’t go with their “needs”, it’s more or less our willingness to understand them. Sometimes people don’t want your help, and that’s fine. It doesn’t mean you can’t empathize.

    To hearken back to Rachel’s original line from Scott, “It’s about them,” is so very true. I can claim to be Irish all I want. But I wasn’t born there. I didn’t experience the hardship of moving across an ocean away from my entire family. No amount of sad songs around Saint Patrick’s Day or stories from my family will ever give me that. But when you’re willing to listen and immerse yourself, you can create a really cool duality: the one of what you thought a community was, and the one that truly is.

    1. Any thoughts as relates to the readings, social capital etc.? Putnam and all the democratic theory stuff is definitely something PhDs in mass comm and journalism will have to study.

      1. Social capital is something that is defined as the “collective value of all social networks”. As it applies to me, I think that’s something valuable to keep in mind. I like to think of it visualized as something like a target for archery. There are inner parts of the circle, which we can immediately connect our community to. These could be meeting places or community organization centers. The outer layers can consist of allies and other support systems for the community.

        If we believe social capital to be true, then we need to ask how it’s measured. While there isn’t an agreed upon method of doing so, I think that this can become a valuable part of our work. It goes far beyond simple Facebook likes or the number of members in a meetup group. Perkins and Long (2002) mention that “the level of cohesion affects the value of social capital”. I think that’s a prime goal we should have moving into next semester; working to promote unity within the communities we focus on.

        Another interesting impact is the effect of the internet in levels of social capital. I think following our meetup with the CEO of the aptly named Meetup, we were able to put this into a more tangible form. Studies have shown that exposure to too much social media can affect those with pronation to depression, as people tend to put their best foot forward on the platform. Does this lessen someone’s value? Definitely not. But it can affect their own perception of it and that’s certainly worth studying going forward.

  3. Great job Adriele!

    And i concur, great questions.

    So here I go:

    So how do we remain open to change? How do you ensure that our beat remains malleable and we don’t sell ourselves short? How do you find the balance between being possessive over your community vs. not? Is there a balance?

    I must say that I find the possessive aspect very interesting, particularly because I think I have a difficult job “letting go.” But like Rachel said, Scott’s “It’s about them…” comment is 100% true, in my opinion. The objective here should be about finding a way of helping each other out. How can (and allow me to quote Jerry Maguire, here) they help us so we help them?

    Well….maybe Scott’s comment is 90% true. I think he’s right. I think it is about them but it is also about us. Apologies for going back and forth.

    I think the whole point of what we want to do is create a union between journalist and community, and not so much, them, or us, but rather everyone. Does that make sense?

    For example – I love my community, I breathe, sleep and eat it. I am my community in many ways. So when I meet other people who have their own groups based around the sports/soccer community I want find out how they can help me understand them better in order for me to help them achieve their goals. The Design project comes to mind.

    Last week I did a photo piece on NYCFC and their fans. Primarily my goal was to chronicle the fans and the atmosphere – then i met a group called los templados 12 and they told me their story. I photographed them and recorded their drum playing. I found out NYCFC only allows one drum in the stadium. Hopefully with more awareness and petitions we can change that. It all becomes a collaboration.

    I think there is a balance between being possessive and being flexible and letting go. The key, again, is trust in yourself and your community. And I think we have to go back to the ole quote: The smartest person in the room is the room itself.

    1. This doesn’t just apply to you, but you guys are all doing a good job of answering Adriele’s question – but any other thoughts that seem relevant from readings or the talk? What motivates people to come together and how can we influence, improve or increase that?

  4. Thanks for the great summary, Adriele.

    To Rachel’s example of handing off tips to other reporters, that’s exactly what someone I interviewed for this story said:

    Chris King, managing editor of the St. Louis American, said if it’s between spending a little time with his family or reporting out a story, he’s given the story to another reporter “that I know would jump on it and have time to do it.”
    He said the weekly’s goal is to empower the black community, “so if there’s a better way to empower our community than doing a piece of journalism ourselves or doing an event ourselves, we’ll just promote someone else’s event or even hand over a really good story idea to someone else and let them run with it.”

    I used that quote in an article about preventing burnout, but I think it’s also a great example of how to be flexible about the best way to serve the needs of your community. It’s not necessarily a traditional reporter’s first instinct to hand over a story, but as Rachel is demonstrating, maybe this is an area where we can lead the way in changing the culture to be more about the community and less about the reporter. (Which ties back to the “F— you, it’s about them” quote.)

    There’s a passage from a reading from the past few weeks that keeps coming to mind for me:

    “There’s a concept widely held to be true in Internet culture called the 90-9-1 principle. It basically holds that if you have 100 people in an online community, 1 of them will contribute content, 9 of them will edit or modify that content, and 90 percent will be passive lurkers.”
    — Joy Mayer in The nonprofit world’s “ladder of engagement”

    I was thinking about on Meetup, is the 1 is the event organizer, and the 9 those who RSVP for events, and the 90 the people searching for events? I also keep trying to remember this when I see low engagement numbers on things I’ve worked hard on. Just because only one or two people engaged doesn’t mean only one or two people cared about it. Lots of us are just set in lurker mode.

    So, how do we as journalists try to “level-up” people in our communities from lurker mode to someone who will attend an event or share a story or offer feedback? How do we do that in a way where they see the benefit, and that benefits outweighs the risk of putting themselves out there? (Which ties into our conversation this week about how to handle trolls and others who bring hate and make the conversation unattractive to newcomers.)

    I was surprised by how many meetups Meetup rejects. Turning down 30 percent of potential revenue to uphold community standards is impressive, I’m not sure I know many businesses that would do that.

    Anyway, to your question of being possessive, that’s something I’m struggling with right now in my community. I defined my community as this group of people who work in newsrooms, but as I’ve been talking to people, it turns out they interact and learn a lot from people who don’t work in newsrooms. Does this mean I should open up my definition of the community to include those in non-journalist roles? Or keep it narrow so I can focus on the needs of this smaller group, maybe drilling down farther into what needs they have that make them different than those outside newsrooms?

    1. I agree – I think that stat from Joy’s article is a really important one we need to think a lot about. That’s a very significant challenge. I think about that one a lot.

      By people who don’t work in newsrooms, do you mean they learn from their readers, or from people who work in social but for non-journalism orgs?

      1. People who work in social (or related things like tech, events or marketing) at places that aren’t news publishers.

  5. Big ups for the shout out Adriele. At the risk of sounding like a luddite I think one of my biggest fears is losing actual real life interactions and communication because of technology. I’m one of those people who has gone off of Facebook in order to build on relationships in person. What I loved about our discussion regarding Meetup is how Scott Heiferman has used technology to create and nourish real life relationships. This is something I can definitely get on board with. Although I’ve never attended a Meetup I can see how useful and important these meetings can be. I know we all have plans to attend a Meetup group (or groups) if we haven’t already and I look forward to talking about this in one of our upcoming classes.

    I had no idea one of Heiferman’s motivations behind Meetup was music and bringing people fans together at the concerts that he was attending. This caught my attention because music is my community. I think I’ll need to attend a few groups before finding something that is the right fit, but this is a great way for me to discover what is happening in and around my community. One of the venue’s I frequent is called Rockwood Music Hall, which is on the Lower East Side. There’s a group of performers here that have residencies and if there’s not a Meetup for these artists already there could be. There could also be a meeting for indie artists who often perform at the venues in this neighborhood in general. I love that I’m excited about Meetup and I’m thinking of new ways to connect with my community already.

    To answer some of Adriele’s questions… first, how do we remain open to change? My biggest challenge will be both embracing and remaining open to change. However, I think I like the idea of remaining open to what works. The way we listen to and discover music is constantly changing. I mean I still own booklets of CDs that haven’t been transferred onto my computer because it’s so easy to stream music these days. The music community at the moment is in flux and has had to accept many changes, but that doesn’t mean they are satisfied with them. There will be more changes to come and what I’d like to be a part of is helping new artists develop fans and earn money in innovative ways that are equally valuable to the musician and fan. I don’t know what this looks like yet, but it’s an idea I am working on. I am happy with what I’ve seen at companies like StageIt. Here’s an article I wrote on it here – https://medium.com/@silentkillerica/the-new-concert-going-experience-live-music-from-your-living-room-aa393a3690c9

    I love is that music is important to many of us. According to Nielsen reports the average American listens to more than 25 hours of music per week and spend over $100 per year on music. I see there is still a desire to consume and contribute to the music industry, which is a good thing because it’s a way to help artists. I see that the music industry might even end up being an industry of independent artists or at least break up into two different types of businesses: big businesses who bring in money in traditional ways and the artists who are creating new opportunities and selling their art themselves.

    I think I have an attachment to, but I am not possessive about, the independent artist community. For me, there’s a balance because I want to support this community. If there are others willing to help as well I see it more as an opportunity to build partnerships. I at least want that to be the case and I look forward to building relationships, which I hope to turn into business partnerships by the end of our social j program.

    1. Good, Erica. I think your focus on face-to-face will serve you well – although there’s some fairly good research out there that shows that in most cases, social complements rather than replaces our “real-world” interactions. That said…things are constantly evolving as mobile use and penetration skyrockets, so we will see – there may end up being more cause for concern at some point.

  6. I think I made my argument clear in class last week about how I feel about progressing with our communities. Looking back on it, Jeff Jarvis was right. Maybe we should’ve provided a little bit more insight on our communities to Scott Heiferman, and how are still figuring things out. We’re only in the beginning stages. Many of us are passionate about covering and discovering the needs of our communities. I’m one of those socialjers.

    I argue we have to start somewhere and somehow. I honestly believe the coursework and classes are designed to not only get us theoretically thinking about our communities, but actually begin to listen and build trust. I’m not saying being set or stuck in our ways, but I’m saying being open to learn and engage with our communities we individually chose. In reporting, I’m talking to sources and identifying challenges and issues within the community. In “Social Media Tools,” I’m curating original and aggregated content, and engaging members of the community.

    In the summer we have a whole new set of courses: “Metrics and Outcomes,” “Ethical and Legal Considerations,” “Writing for Social Media (Reporting II)” and “Design and Development” to further our understanding and provide well-rounded services to our communities. I believe (very optimistically) our hands-on coursework will continue teaching us tools of how to service our communities. This is leading up to our practicum in the fall, and will give us tools we can use as social journalists post this program, and ways of how to implement these tools in newsrooms.

    1. You are certainly right that our goals are beyond the theoretical…we are building the groundwork for those future classes.

  7. Change can make or break a person/company. You’ll see the successes of accepting the need to change within numerous companies that are worth millions if not billions today. Tiffany & Co. is a great example of this, originally starting as a stationary company in 1837. Then in 1853 the named was changed from Tiffany to the name we know now and the shop’s emphasis switched from stationary to jewelry.
    Scott Heiferman spoke to us about the changes within his own company. When the site was first created he wouldn’t have expected the site to act/look as it does today. In fact, he mentioned it wouldn’t even be what it was if they hadn’t started it as they did and built up to what it has become.
    Not being closed off to change is so important, especially now – in an age where new apps are coming out every day and if you are too afraid to try something new there is someone else who breaks from that fear and steps right in. I feel a huge factor to being open to change has to do with submerging yourself in unfamiliar situations and taking risks. While it might be uncomfortable at first you’ll be able to learn from mistakes instead of missing the opportunity all together.
    In high school we were asked to come up with a quote that was most relevant to our lives. I said:

    I still firmly believe in this. I found it crucial to stay open to new technology, ideas, people, etc just in order to better my own life.
    By not being adaptive or accepting of change you could be closing off a wealth of information from your community. When I went to the meet-up for bisexual women I went with an open mind. I didn’t expect anything from it, I didn’t expect to gather sources or any specific information because I didn’t want to limit myself to looking into conversations to fit a theme I conjured in my mind. Instead, I met amazing people that made me realize numerous aspects about the bisexual community that I wouldn’t have known. The event was packed, windows had to be open since there were so many bodies in the room. While I wasn’t able to record, I learned so much through listening to what their lives were like. They spoke about aspects of bisexuality that I wouldn’t have thought to look up or research. At the same time I didn’t completely lose track of conversations, I still asked questions so I could fill in any holes that I took note of.

    1. Good, Emily – glad you had an interesting experience at the meet-up. In the tumultuous media time we find ourselves in, you are right that risk-taking is especially important.

  8. Scott Heiferman is definitely an energetic entrepreneur, it was really refreshing to listen to his experience as the co-founder of Meetup. I really liked his transparency and the fact that he shared his success but also his struggle to maintain his baby alive.

    I think the key to remain open to change is to constantly take the pulse of the community. As Scott said -so vividly- it’s not about us, it’s about them. The evolution of the demographic in a community is intrinsically linked to its identity. We had the example, the week before when Tomasz Deptula and Rong Xiaoqing came in class to talk about their ethnic community. Why should it be different for us?

    Back in 2009, when I first came in California to spend 2 months, I didn’t know what to except. How to build relationship when you’re on your own and you want to meet people with a genuine and common interest? When I join the French language meetup in Costa Mesa, I had the good surprise to discover a group of people passionate by French, who had very different stories with the language (French fellows, educational background, preparing a travel in the country…). But what brought people together, besides the ability to speak the language was a certain form of nostalgia. A Vietnamese American Chef who worked for le train bleu – famous Parisian restaurant- brought a Coq au vin and shared his souvenirs. The Meetup host was an Iranian American woman who joined the Meetup so she could listen and talk French like she used to when she was a child in Iran – French was a common language in the middle and upper class until the 70’s in Teheran. One of the members became a close friend, Bruno, a French Canadian entrepreneur who created a French-speaking radio podcast invited me to his show and we even had the chance to interview the French consul.

    This experience completely changed my way to identify stakes in a community and address people while I’m searching an idea for a story. It’s still hard for me to identify what the New York Tech community’s needs because I still consider them as a monolithic group whereas its members may share very different ambition and values. Being positive is absolutely fundamental to build trust, but it doesn’t necessary mean that we should hide any specific issue in the community. Emily pointed out a certain form of animosity in the LGBT community between homosexual and bisexuals that she didn’t presume at first. Maybe developers and programmers have two very different philosophies that I should consider to cover.

    1. Good example – I think that definitely sheds some insight into why people may join meetups and what they get out of it.

  9. While I didn’t attend this class, I’d used meetup numerous times as for networking while i lived in both Queens and Brooklyn. I’d heard the origin story of the company from my boss and it is truly amazing; a lot of companies who completely miss out of the gate don’t get a second chance. This one just happened to have so much potential that the public was able to point Meetup in the right direction. It’s important to note that once they found success where they didn’t expect, they ran with it. That’s why it pays to be malleable.
    The way to make sure your beat remains malleable is not only to check up on it frequently but to compare notes maybe every month or so. Find out what’s changing; how what your community was able to accomplish three months ago has changed the group dynamics and their new goals.
    A great way to make sure you don’t become possessive over your community is to not fall head over heels with it. Find things about it that maybe you don’t like? This may be hard if your community is “breast cancer survivors” but for the majority of us I think we can all find some shortcomings within our communities. I’m having the opposite dilemma; my community began to annoy me the more I walked around it in the nicer weather. Still, it tempers me in remaining fair to them.

    In a very tangential aside, Erica’s comment about connecting but not communication struck me.
    I think we’re losing the art of speaking to people, and this occurred to me when I ordered pizza for the umpteenth time. 20 years ago you had to call a person and tell them what you wanted. 20 years ago, many more people were employed and trained to speak on a phone to complete strangers to take their orders. Setting appointments were the same way, for the most part. I’ve gone about 6 hours today without having said an audible word to anyone this morning; something that I think would not have happened to the average person even a decade ago. Were it not for class, I could order food, do some banking, and consult an electrician on how to fix my AC without speaking a word. It’s at least interesting and at most troubling.

    1. That is interesting, James. Especially in big cities, it is very easy to have all of our interactions online. What does that mean? How will it change the fabric of communities and what we identify with? Are we less connected by geography and more connected by other interests?

  10. Meeting up with meetup founder Scott Heffernan was an energetic class hour with tales of unexpected success, mad amounts of “monetizing” and a whole lot of suspension of disbelief. His and ours.

    The secrets of the wildly successful often reveal a person who found a need that wasn’t being addressed, was willing to go out on a limb, and is unfazed by the current status quo.

    Heffernan clearly has that personality and was able to express to the class the the intrinsic values of engaging with others, be it socially or in quiet passions or interests.

    More than anything, he stressed a willingness to go forward with an idea not completely knowing where it will materialize and to which audience. “No one thought there was a need for Uber, or Airbnb.” He said, and added that no one ever could have imagined the evolution of meetup or twitter either. It seemed that the only parameter that was sellable was developing a method to make people feel appreciated, valued, needed and connected, so that these vaporous mediums would evolve organically, and in ways that are specific to the mind frame of the users. He was even dismissive regarding organizers and the groups that make up meet up…”They are mid-technology…they will change.” He said. And that’s the truth too. Where other social platforms are trying too much to create loyalty to the identity of the platform, Heffernan somehow can take a diluted environment and concentrate it, and all the related topics down to one small, but easy pill to swallow. This was evidenced by a story he retold of being invited as a speaker at a conference, only to get on stage and tell the audience to talk to each other for the next hour.

    “No one gives a shit about projects” he said, more so people are interested in how to “turn a ‘me’ story into a ‘we’ story.
    That so resonated with our class, and was a tidy summary of what has been repeated by every speaker this year.

    We want to increase our social capital. I can’t think of a better way to become a good journalist than being able to reach out and relate to a group and understand the basic relationships they have with each other and the event or cause that unites them. The meet up assignment, was a genius way for us to dive in and get some perspective on a group we might otherwise have lived a life not knowing. There have been things I’ve said for years…talk to people in a way that they understand, not in the way you do…’intuition and psychic understandings are just a matter of paying attention to any scene….feeling comfortable in a group or out of your own zone can make a huge difference in how others engage with you’…and diving into a group of strangers with an openness to listen and learn is irreplaceable. Heffernan himself mentioned his company, “There is a blog no one reads…no one reads our Facebook page” he said. Interactions are his business and surely even after he moves on from meetup, he will find other next-generation ways for people to engage.

    1. Good, Cristina…I was glad you mentioned that quote from him because I agree that was a key insight. What did you mean about the suspension of disbelief?

  11. Before dealing with the questions, I have to say that I think we still have a lot to discuss about “Bowling Alone” and the whole idea of diminishing social capital. Putnam’s theory is fascinating, and I’m not aware if it was significantly updated with the impact of new technologies as it could be. He writes:

    “The theory of social capital presumes that, generally speaking, the more we connect with other people, the more we trust them, and vice versa. (…) Social trust and civic engage- meant are strongly correlated.”

    It is quite easy to see that in practice. We trust more whom we spend more time with. But what if we don’t “hang out” as much as we did in decades prior, as it seems to be the case now? Putnam feared that television, an individualistic pastime, was mining social engagement, from bowling leagues to church-going. And the consequences of that would be dire. He quoted Sola Pool’s “Technology without borders” to summarize it:

    “We may suspect that [the technological trends that we can anticipate] will promote individualism and will make it harder, not easier, to govern and organize a coherent society.”

    I can see that very clearly in Brazil, where people not only spend an enormous amount of time in front of TV, but are heavy users of social networks as well. The “social” aspect of the net is not fully realized. We used it to “organize” protests every time but didn’t really establish organizations to engage in major issues. The society is more fractured, polarized, and harder to govern, as Pool predicted.

    We can’t blame everything on technology, of course, and it is excellent to read Putnam’s effort to take into account every social transformation in the last decades to paint the picture. And we must say that in the end “the internet” is not the same as the TV, as it is not a coherent experience for all users. Social networks are social. But, no matter what the culprit(s) is/are, I think the diminishing value of social capital is apparent.

    And I think part of the problem is that, as Scott Heiferman said a bunch of times, there is no substitute for real, human-to-human, eye-to-eye, connection. We can only applaud (and take advantage of) his efforts to nurture a space where we have more Facebook groups IRL, as they say. And we could spend hours talking about why exactly meeting in person is more effective to create bonds and trust — and so, in the end, creating a stronger community. But this is just a blog post comment. =)

    Sherry Turkle’s “Alone Together: why expect more from technology and less from people” is full of interesting insights on this subject. She cites Putnam’s work to say that we are less organized in groups than we were before, and being online is not a perfect substitute, because — and here I make a connection to Adriele’s question — online communities (or our online personas, for that matter) are not messy enough.

    “To those who have lost a sense of physical connection, connectivity suggests that you make your own page, your own place. When you are there, you are by definition where you belong, among officially friended friends. (…) Today, our machine dream is to be never alone but always in control. This can’t happen when on is face-to-face with a person. But it can be accomplished by a robot or by slipping through the portals of a digital life.”

    When we are dealing in online communities, being too much in control is a bug, not a feature. If we want to foster strong communities, we need to loosen that control a bit. The temptation to not do that is strong. Through social networks, we can always ignore or block dissenting opinions, minimize a chat window to concentrate on a kitten video, and be more prone to broadcast our opinions without giving much thought to other’s views.

    We have to admit that we first approach our communities with a fair sense that we know “what is best” for them. But without meeting people, live, without a well-thought email or Tweet, it is harder to access the validity of our theories. I think I won’t be able, in just one year, to fully realize what are my community’s needs and main issues. I’ll try some solutions, but I’m not 100% sure that dealing with nonprofit journalism is the best use of my skills, or if I have that much to offer. I’m not possessive in this sense, so I’m quite malleable.

    If I find another cause or community, through a meetup or whatever, I would gladly change, but I think first we need to physically meet more people to make up our minds.

    1. Excellent, Pedro. I agree – we didn’t talk that much about Putnam, so I’m glad you shared your thoughts here, and also the insights from Sherry Turkle’s book. There’s a lot to dive into there. You are exactly right about how the web is different from TV, but at this point we are still just beginning to understand how it will affect social capital.

      I also worry that one year is an awfully short time to really understand a community and begin to help it solve its problems.

  12. One of the things serving me best with my community, and preventing possessiveness, is my flexibility towards defining it beyond just “Muslim women”. They may be first generation or fifth generation immigrants, Arab women who are not Muslim, Muslim women who are not Arab; women from predominantly Muslim-majority societies, who are Christian, Baha’i, Druze, Jewish, Atheist or any other religion. Then, on the periphery, are women and men like myself; although we have no Middle Eastern blood, we are passionate about the region.

    When the founder of Meetup.com told us his staff often crashed Meetups to get a feel for how to improve them, we were encouraged to do the same, with one that related to our communities.

    “What we thought they would meet about, they didn’t. What they did, we could have never imagined.”-Scott Heiferman, co-founder of Meetup

    Before attending the “Muslim-Jewish Solidarity Committee” Meetup, I had the opportunity to speak with one of the organizers beforehand. It turns out that this particular Meetup was created by a team from various nonprofit organizations such as the Foundation for Ethnic Understanding and the Cordoba Initiative. After holding initial discussions with a small group of participants, they posted on Meetup to seek out additional members. Tamar Schneck of FFEU said it was a great way to attract those “not naturally inclined to participate in or not even aware that such an organization exists.”

    Utilizing an online social network such as Meetup, even as an established organization, can greatly diversify your group, as people are responsive to different engagement tactics. Some use Twitter or Facebook to connect directly with their networks, others more daring might try Meetup, and some might mainly rely on word of mouth to stay informed.

    As others have mentioned, in Putnam’s classic “Bowling Alone,” he lamented that technology, specifically the “boob tube” has made us less inclined to socialize in-person. Now, even some virtual communities are at risk of fading into the abyss. Families and friends used to gather around and listen to the same radio programs across the country; there weren’t many options! We see the phenomena of Orson Wells’ “War of the Worlds” broadcast now emulated in podcasts; online communities exploded during Serial.

    Now, people are using DVR or subscription based streaming services, like Netflix and HBOGo, to watch television programs on their own time. Dave Pell, in his article Let’s Give Them Something To Tweet About (Or Why Periscope Matters), says that except during awards shows and other specialized live taped programs that unite online communities, specifically on Twitter, even shared virtual connections are in danger of becoming obsolete.

    “So what do you do if your product is at its best during live, shared events, but there are almost no live events left to share? You make the live events yourself.” -Dave Pell

    Pell argues that live streaming services like Meerkat and Periscope will actually drum up online engagement, as people tune in simultaneously to watch these live videos, probably while on their cell phones, We should absolutely be trying out these new platforms with our communities to see if it increases our exposure.

    Trust me, I have spent enough time mourning the past right alongside Putnam, and bemoaning the fact I wasn’t born in an earlier decade. Perhaps the way to keeping offline communities alive is incorporating old-fashioned traditions into our modern high-tech lives; Jazz Age lawn parties on Governor’s Islanddisco nights, tupperware parties(my personal favorite), and of course-bowling, still seem to attract the crowds.

  13. So how do we remain open to change? How do you ensure that our beat remains malleable and we don’t sell ourselves short? How do you find the balance between being possessive over your community vs. not? Is there a balance?

    As I expected, Scott Heiferman, is an energetic entrepreneur, it was really refreshing to listen to his experience as the co-founder of Meetup. I think the key to remain open to change is to constantly take the pulse of the community. As Scott said -so vividly- it’s not about us, it’s about them. The evolution of the demographic in a community is intrinsically linked to its identity. We had the example, the week before when Tomasz Deptula and Rong Xiaoqing came in class to talk about their ethnic community. Why should it be different for us?

    Back in 2009, when I first came in California to spend 2 months, I didn’t know what to except. How to build relationship when you’re on your own and you want to meet people with a genuine and common interest? When I join the French language meetup in Costa Mesa, I had the good surprise to discover a group of people passionate by French, who had very different stories with the language (French fellows, educational background, preparing a travel in the country…).
    But what brought people together, besides the ability to speak the language was a certain form of nostalgia. A Vietnamese-american Chef who worked for “le train bleu” – a notorious Parisian restaurant – brought one of the most traditional meal, a coq au vin, and shared his souvenirs with us. The Meetup host was an Iranian American woman who joined the Meetup so she could listen and talk French like she used to when she was a child in Iran – French was a common language in the middle and upper class until the 70’s in Teheran. One of the members became a close friend, Bruno, a French Canadian entrepreneur who created a French-speaking radio podcast invited me to his show and we even had the chance to interview the French consul.

    This experience completely changed my way to identify stakes in a community and address people while I’m searching an idea for a story. It’s still hard for me to identify what the New York Tech community’s needs because I still consider them as a monolithic group whereas its members may share very different ambition and values. Being positive is absolutely fundamental to build trust, but it doesn’t necessary mean that we should hide any specific issue in the community. Emily pointed out a certain form of animosity in the LGBT community between homosexual and bisexuals that she didn’t presume at first. Maybe developers and programmers have two very different philosophies that I should consider to cover.

  14. Three points that Scott Heiferman made I found useful:

    1. It’s not about ‘me,’ it’s about ‘we.’
    2. Mothers are a large & active online for community, especially with Meetup.
    3. It’s good to change an idea for product/business, pivot approach.

    Heiferman experienced pre-9/11 life in NYC and noticed that he began talking with his neighbors more after the attack.

    Heiferman feels that the shared-experience of trauma brought New Yorkers together, opening up more casual communication, even between next-door neighbors who were previously strangers.

    The idea to focus more on the ‘we’ instead of ‘me’ is at the core of his realization to build a community-based business with Meetup and reenforced my hope to do just that.

    Only 525 of the approximately 40,000 Greenpoint residents voted how to spend the Greenpoint Community Environmental Fund money in the last round. Voting on a national scale has declined to levels putting the U.S. behind most every democracy in terms of voter turnout. People could start to realize their relevance again especially in voting. The ‘we’ aspect of my community is what needs strengthening; with so many transient young residents, ‘we’ is allusive concept it seems.

    Civic participation declined in all of America over the past decades as Robert Putnam’s “Bowling Alone,” explained; civic decline however, preceded an increase of public engagment during WWII. Much like 9/11 and wars during the past decade and a half, people have became engaged to varying levels, and with shared social grievances. Putnam’s book was published a year before 9/11, which might have brought a new opportunity for civic engagement, not to mention the spread of the internet.

    With social media and the Internet, communities can form around shared interests potentially faster than ever before. I see a new wave of opportunity to reinvigorate participation amongst millennials; an outcome for my community in N Brooklyn is increased participation with the many environment issues; I continue to hone in on the ‘we.’

    Mothers are a force to be reckoned with when it comes to organizing meetups, as Heiferman explained. I thought of ways to work to engage north Brooklyn parents. It’s children and the elderly who are the most at risk to environmental exposure, and parents are moving into the area.

    It’s difficult to gage awareness amongst Greenpoint parents on air and soil exposure with their children; both the air and soil in Greenpoint are among the most polluted in the entire city. If all parents know that lead levels in the soil are high, would they let their kids play in the two parks that serve the neighborhood? What more could build off of that knowledge and the group’s power to work together?
    To adjust your idea and approach when new opportunities reveal themselves, as Heiferman suggested, is a wise approach in learning and quickly applying that knowledge when starting a company. Meetup users have ultimately made the site/product what it is. I have to keep this approach and remind myself to pivot. Maybe it is not environmental issues that can unite groups in Brooklyn.

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