“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?

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