Expanding on the idea of Meetups

Language/Structure | Politics
Meetups may have been the biggest innovation of the Internet in the first stage of 2004 Election campaign, notable for its low-tech essence. People organized online in order to meet “offline”– in neighborhood bars and restaurants. The meeting in real life helped many volunteers build connections that would otherwise take more time to build in a strictly-online community. Meetups famously drove the Dean campaign to the front-runner for the last half of 2003. The question I want to consider here is how the idea of Meetups can be expanded for the future.

I went to one of those legendary Dean Meetups this month a year ago, at Boston Beer Works in the Fenway. It started with a bang: a video of the candidate followed by an impassioned speech by of his local coordinators, a young man around my age. There were over thirty people there, as I recall, many of whom stuck with the group activity for the evening– writing personal letters to Iowans (an activity which, six months later, may have contributed to a bit of fatigue, as advisor Paul Maslin speculated. I passed the time discussing with a couple of fellows about how a position on the war would have to best article best articulated to the general electorate. I took one action: to sign up to hand out flyers on the Esplanade July 4th of 2003, which I did. But with the primaries seeming far away on the horizon, my Wednesday nights yielded to tennis and then volunteer tutoring for the rest of the year.

Many others have stuck with Meetups and have been motivated to further their involvement in campaigns. I have followed the inspiring anecdotes of many citizens on the DemMeetupHosts yahoo group (I myself eventually got back to meetups, and drinkups this past winter.) People have writen about how delighted they are to be involved in campaigns and to meet others in the community who share their devotion.

Still, a number of constructive complaints have arisen about how to improve the system. I wondered whether Meetups may need some structural improvements to sustain them in the future. What is discussed during the Meetups is beyond the scope of this analysis. What interests me here is how they are put together.

VENUES

Meetups are held at a rotating group of venues in a given area each month, as voted by members on the website. There’s 186 venues listed in the Boston area, though only six are indicated as “MVP’s” that “welcome Meetup with open arms”. The other 180 are called “Meetup Approved”, which probably means that they don’t kick out people who are there to meetup. The MVP sites, at least, here, are either restaurants or bars (or both, in the case of Trident Booksellers on Newbury Street). Some restaurants appreciate the business on a weeknight; others barely have the room to host. There’s no indication of what qualities constitutes an MVP site, or how a meetup volunteer would go about nurturing an existing establishment. (A few weeks back, I suggested to the owner of Michael’s Deli in Coolidge Corner that hosting a Meetup could drum up some sit-down business in the evenings, when I stop in to pick up some cold cuts. Michael cut me off, coldly: “The one thing I’ve learned in the restaurant business is… don’t get involved in politics.”)

Ironically, the traditional meeting sites are underrepresented, at least in this, the “cradle of liberty”: civic halls such as unions, VFW’s, American Legion Posts (which Charlotte Robertson of Chesterton, IN, has suggested). My parents, trying to squeeze a Meetup in a Tarrytown, NY restaurant, suggested to their fellow meetup’ers that they just meet in the nearby Pierson Park and find a place to go based on how many people show up. In addition, in many communities (such as my own), the party’s town committees are allowed to meet in public buildings.

A couple of other considerations must be taken into account, based on the content of the meeting. Should people order food? Is it intended for sit-down deliberation? Or, if speakers are expected, they need a place to stand, and room enough not to bother anybody else in the restaurant. I happened to go to a very well-run lunch buffet meeting at Chef Chow a few weeks back for our Democratic Town Committee– a fundraiser, not a “meetup”. For $20, I had lunch with a few other dedicated Democrats, including state Reps Mike Rush and Jeff S├ínchez, and also heard our favorite son Michael Dukakis give a rousing speech. Sunday brunch could be a much easier time than after work to meet up with a few friends and neighbors.

HOSTS

Each meetup ought to have a facilitator, called a host. Anybody can sign themselves up as a host… which doesn’t do much to guarantee a qualified leader for each meetup venue. In Boston, te Kerry meetups have 14 hosts for 2300 signed up people, and typically gets its campaign workers to the meetups. For the 776 people signed up to the Democratic Meetup, there are six hosts– only one of whom I can identify, Noel Hidalgo, from the Kerry campaign. The rest of the country, though, cannot depend on campaign workers.

Sharon Toji, of Orange CA posted to the DemMeetupHosts list: “you should not be able to volunteer as a host unless you are willing to share your contact information, (and I would like to add that it would be great if hosts were Meetup Plus members so that they can email other members, have a profile, etc.) We have so many who volunteer to be hosts, but often don’t even vote, let alone show up.” Sharon also added that “greeters” avail themselves to assist the hosts.

Renee Dopplick of Denver pointed out another problem: “Attendees are unable to identify which host is attending per location when a city has multiple locations.” Instead of subdividing by town or neighborhood, meetups. Renee added, “Hosts, especially new hosts, do not receive a confirmation email to indicate that they are the confirmed hosts for a specific location.”

Thus many hosts remain invisible to the community-at-large: the people who may be interested in showing up, the people who showed up months back. As I’ve proposed in Social Network Emailing, the local party and campaign leaders should be made visible through the campaign emails. We need more people like Aldon Hynes, who not only is a meetup host in Stamford, Conn., but also carries on an active Internet presence regarding his local campaign work on the website Connecticut campaigns.

There is also the challenge of how to accomodate local party officials. Though some party officials would ask the question the other way around. In Berks County, PA, meetup host John Morgan reported that the County Chair has withdrawn support and has even asked that Meetups be disbanded. This is fruitless, but it does speak a basic disconnect. Local party leaders should certainly pursue new outreach efforts– or they may find themselves challenged at the next election.

COST/INFRASTRUCTURE

Additional options are granted to people with the “Meetups Plus” membership– those who pay $29/year. This makes perfect sense from a organizational and marketing point of view, since it allows people to demonstrate their commitment to Meetup. Unfortunately, it’s separate from the actual campaign. Shouldn’t the special membership be granted to donors and volutneres for the DNC/Kerry campaigns?

It is believed by some that the Democratic Party pays Meetup a group fee (I am in the process of asking for details on that). If this fee exists, it’s not clear which meetup members are granted the “plus” benefits.

More important is what the $29 buys. It’s only a Meetup, which is generally one meeting a month. What a campaign should be doing is have online software to manage any RSVP’ing for any event, whether it’s phone banking or fundraisers, or a meetup-type meeting. Here in Boston, I check events listed on the state campaign website as well as the subgroup for young professionals. True, we have a lot going on our “city on a hill”– not to mention the national convention. But it seems like a prudent strategy for any community. By spotlighting a single meeting a month, a Meetup may crowd out the other activities.

It’s possible that political campaigns have outgrown Meetup. As its founder, Scott Heiferman, told interviewer Christopher Lydon, “We didn’t design Meetup around politics or civics per se.” His original focus had been limited to simply building up a platform for interest groups and hobbyists– e.g., “Lordi of the Rings nerds and poodle owners.”

Perhaps the best strategy for the long term is for the party simply to acquire software to do event and profile management. The should consider getting software like Meetup, or evite, or Kintera (which does social network fundraising). There are also some emerging open source projects worth considering as well. Certainly there’s some value in people having registered for Meetup, and regularly going to the site. But perhaps just as many people have registered for, and are regularly directed to, the DNC website.

There is a worry, voiced on the DemMeetupHosts list that the charm of Meetup will be lost once it is “institutionalized” within the party. Well, for one, the allure is likely retained in the proceedings of the actual meetings. This should be analyzed on its own. There also appears to be a certain fascination with Meetup as an institution in and of itself (I will be publishing an article on this next).

In the meantime, a campaign should remember the core motivations for its volunteers: help people find events. help people find each other. The tool should be irrelevant, as long as the practices are sustained.

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