Harvard: Scott Heiferman & Meetup

Harvard: Scott Heiferman & Meetup

: Meetup has been a star of this conference, discovered by all. Scott Heiferman tries to deflate the hype a little; humility.com.

Meetup is 15 percent politics vs. 30 percent a year go. The new version of the site has doubled the activity of meetups. That new structure moved to having organizers out there in the world.

I always like Scott’s pictures: The NYC Ukelele meetup (“it’s ok, you can laugh, they’re not here”). More: the fight human trafficking meetup, Atlanta Hungarian language meetup (there are meetups for most major languages in most major cities), knitting meetups, South Jersey Department of Peace, Townhall (it’s not just liberals), female bikers, stay at home moms (a fast growing grouping), expat Indians in Frankfurt, and, of course, pugs. Former Dean people still meetup (to cry … or scream, I guess).

What it’s all about is about power, having a voice, pride, he says.

Scott says Meetup came about because he read Bowling Alone (and its author, Robert Putnam, is up next).

He lists ways you can avoid talking to someone: Jetblue, iPod, Bose, FreshDirect, ATMs, cars.

Scott points to Meetupsurveys.com as a source of surveys about these folks.

The biggest revenue source for Meetup is people paying for the privilege of emailing directly on the site. So the allegiance, he says, is to people and not to sponsors. Some of the Meetups charge dues/admission for their own gettogethers.

There are workers using Meetup to organize at the same time that Scott shows quotes from union officials recognizing that union structure is outmoded.

You dont’ need fancy buildings in DC to be an association anymore, he says. Associations, too, are distributed. The net disrupts and distributes.

What is emerging, he says, is “flash, emergent, people-powered, long-lasting, open, influential, agile, chapter-based, institutions/organizations/unions/associations with card-carrying members that engage in collective action.”

This is the napsterization of organization. But it’s really just old-fashioned face-to-face meetings.

What’s the internet good for? It gives people more power to know anything, sell anything, publish, communicate better, be more efficient… and have collective power (“and we haven’t scratched the surface yet”).

“People are watching Big Bro, too.” Case in point: Abu Ghraib.

The dynamic due of people able to publish and organize gives voice.

He’s nice enough to quote my first law of media (and life): Bet on that which gives citizens control.

This is not just about changing the world but saving the world, he says.

This is all about the democratication of democracy.

: Now Robert Putnum responds. He says “the master trend of the 20th century was the privitization of leisure time by technology.” It used to be you could enjoy music only together; now technology allows you to listen alone.

Yes, but I wonder whether this isn’t a bell curve. I was just talking with someone about trends in TV and said the grand shared experience of TV we too often celebrate was short-lived and that today’s choice and fragmentation really mean choice and power. That’s a push-pull: More power sometimes means more fragmentation but fragmentation also allows you to meet people you enjoy through things like Meetup: You’re not just a dog owner now but you’re a pug association member.

Putnum says the debate about whether virtual community was real community was a misleading, wasted debate. It’s much more interesting to see how the internet can blend communities between virtual and real.

Now he switches gears to talk about the emergence of large evangelical churches, “by far the best organized part of American civil society.” See: Brent Bozell. He talks about a church run by Rick Warren, author of The Purpose-Drive Life, with 30,000 members. He talks about the church: an open structure you can wander into or not; a Starbucks-like cafe where you can sip coffee and watch the service or not. But belonging to the church doesn’t mean going to large services but belonging to one of thousands of small groups: geeks for God, mountain bikers for God, and on and on.

Even this is fragmented. Even this is niches. But the niches together make the mass.

The mass market is dead, I say. Welcome to the mass of niches.

And the niche is supported by social capital — by people agreeing with each other, liking each other, supporting each other, working with each other.

And that social capital has to build. So people who want to dance around that huge church go have coffee and check it out. People who want to join a group go to a Meetup and check it out. The niche gathers its gravity that way.

: I ask a very confused circular question about much of that and the professor makes point of it and says there are two kinds of social capital: bonding (people like us) and bridging (people not like us). Places with high bonding look like Bosnia or Belfast. Bridging, then, is about diversity. Bonding is about support. Neither is good or bad, then, but our challenge is to come up with more bridging experiences. And Meetup does that by bringing together surprisingly diverse groups (so a pug owner finds that a fellow pug owner voted for Bush and he’s not the devil). He says that the risk is that the internet will provide mostly bonding capital (the echo chamber argument); I will argue that the internet is proven to build bridges (see Meetup, see friendships with Iraqi bloggers).

: A student at “the college” (as they call it) asks whether the democratic extreme of this looks like California propositions with every cause emerging. “How do you maintain a republic?” he asks. It’s a good question and I’m not sure we know the answer yet.

: Chris Lydon asks Scott to explain Dean in Iowa. “I cannot sit in a Harvard Law School auditorium and hypothesize about anything,” Scott says.