So, we meet again

  • Article by: KEVYN BURGER , Special to the Star Tribune
  • Updated: September 7, 2012 - 10:23 AM

Meetup groups in the Twin Cities build face-to-face communities through Internet interactions.

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Jackie Severin of Little Canada, B.J. Rode of Golden Valley and Andrea Avery of Eden Prairie made mozzarella cheese together at Mozza Mia in Edina.

Photo: Carlos Gonzalez, Star Tribune

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After Tess Gallagher moved to Minneapolis for a new job, the 24-year-old Michigan graduate didn't try to make friends at the gym or the grocery store. Instead, she logged onto Meetup.com, where she found three groups whose members shared her eclectic interests -- reading, rock climbing and theater.

While traditional fraternal and social organizations continue to lose steam, the online-based organization has attracted more than 16 million members globally who have signed up to meet in real life.

"Meetups are an evolving tool to find like-minded people who are passionate about the same things," said Shayla Thiel-Stern, who teaches courses about new media and culture at the University of Minnesota. "People have become less afraid of face-to-face meetings with people they find on the Internet. They're comfortable moving from online to offline."

In the Twin Cities, there are about 975 Meetup groups devoted to narrow niches (fans of pinochle, pugs, Portuguese, raw food, running, the Red Sox) and categories as broad as happy hour. The groups typically gather in public spaces, such as libraries and restaurants. Organizers pay a small monthly fee to Meetup.com, which often is passed on to members through dues.

Although its main purpose is to facilitate the formation of what used to be called clubs, Meetup also is training new crops of leaders.

"It's DIY community building, where anyone can step into a leadership role," said Kathryn Fink, community manager for the New York based company. "Within the Meetup ecosystem, groups beget groups. The cell divides."

That explains why there are meetups not just for mothers, but for working mothers, bereaved mothers, single mothers, lesbian mothers, mothers of children adopted from Ethiopia and mothers of children with anxiety.

While there are meetups for scooter riders, British ex-pats and fans of the "Dr. Who" television show, meetups devoted to food, wine and cooking are among the most active.

Driven by life change

Because B.J. Rode's meetup, "Let's Get Cooking," regularly stages theme dinners in her Golden Valley townhouse, Rode's group is limited to about 10 participants, most of whom she's become close to.

"People in the meetup have become friends," she said. "I look around and I think how these people would have never met without this. That's pretty great."

Rode, 53, turned to Meetup after the former assistant restaurant chef developed physical problems that forced her to leave her job in a commercial kitchen.

"I missed rolling up my sleeves and getting my hands dirty," she said. "My meetup is my way of sharing my love of cooking and creativity."

That makes her typical of most Meetup organizers and participants.

"People discover Meetup while experiencing a life change," Fink said. "They might have become parents or lost their jobs or gotten divorced."

Linda Brown of St. Louis Park logged onto Meetup when her elderly parents died. Brown had left her job to become a full-time caretaker for her parents. "After they passed away, I didn't have a life," she said.

Brown became a regular of a group that visits museums and eventually took over as the organizer. Now, Brown, who has developed relationships with curators and made scores of new friends, is busy attending weekly outings.

"It brought me back to life," she said.

Contacts and clients

Toyanna Johnson's life change was less dramatic: the 25-year-old African-American woman decided to stop chemically straightening her hair.

Enter a meetup called Kinky and Curly in the Twin Cities. It's the brainchild of Minneapolis attorney Nikki Thompson.

"I was stalking Meetup, waiting for someone to start a group like this and when no one did, I said, 'why not me?'"

Thompson said the meetup provides social support for the women, who make a change that some in the community regard as controversial.

At the monthly get-togethers, conversation ranged from recommendations of products, techniques and stylists to talking about the reactions they get when they stop altering the texture of their hair.

"Your family may be negative about the change. Younger women starting their careers wonder if going natural will be accepted in corporate America. We talk about all of that."

Michelle Webb of Lakeville uses Meetup for professional reasons. The owner of an Internet company that sells vintage jewelry, Webb attends several meetups most weeks. She belongs to groups for small-business owners and entrepreneurs and others devoted to networking and marketing.

"When you're on the Internet all day, you have to get out and meet people face-to-face," she said. "I'm not looking for customers, I'm looking for colleagues."

Not so public

The majority of meetup groups are "open," with web pages that display thumbnail pictures of members and explain when and where the group gathers. But there are some "closed" groups, aimed at people who choose to keep their involvement confidential.

Closed meetups include former Jehovah's Witnesses, people who have undergone weight-loss surgery and those suffering with trichotillomania, an impulse control disorder that involves pulling out one's own hair. (Prospective members e-mail the organizer for information about the gatherings.)

Ken Schaaf of Minneapolis is the organizer of the closed Twin Cities Shyness and Social Anxiety Meetup.

"It's asking too much for people to sign up in a public way," he said. "It's hard enough to reach out."

The ability to reach out, in a semi-private way, is one of the key benefits of online-based clubs, said the university's Thiel-Stern

"That's the kind of niche group that couldn't have existed before the Internet," she said.

"We need to be able to find each other. People would never approach a stranger and ask if they're interested in the same things, but on the Web we can do just that," she said.

Kevyn Burger of Minneapolis is a broadcaster, podcaster and freelance writer.

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