The on-line threat of Meetup to voluntary associations?

Meetup.com used to be the only Internet-driven game in town where Americans could find others who shared their interests and meet regularly with them face-to-face (F2F) locally. [BTW: Meetup.com’s home page has an interesting feature for anyone wanting to watch social capital growing — it shows real time as people across the world sign up for a group or RSVP to attend one, or a new group is formed. Mesmerizing.. Well, actually less mesmerizing than Jonathan Harris‘ “We Feel Fine” project which scans the blogosphere for how blogophiles are feeling and portrays it with beautiful visuals, but the Meetup data is capturing real civic engagement instead of raw emotions.

Meeup also has a neat video on their home page that shows how Meetup helps individuals find others to meet with.] Meetup has also expanded in new directions, providing resources for Meetup organizers to help them to recruit others, run good meetings, etc.

In addition, Meetup is trying to mimic some of the resources of pre-Meetup groups, to federate with each other, form alliances, etc. Say that the chihuahua group in Denver and the poodle group in Denver (and other Denver dog Meetups) want to collaborate to fight a new proposed leash law in Denver, Meetup Alliance helps them do this. MeetupAlliance, in any interesting approach, actually lets groups ally with each other, not limited to Meetup groups: one can include Google groups or Yahoo groups, Facebook Causes, or MySpace groups. One can see a dynamic list of the largest alliances to-date (at this point Ron Paul, and an alliance of women-helping-women groups).

In the same way as Craigslist has caused newspapers to hemorrage cash (as they used to get a lot of money from want ads that are now often listed instead wtih Craigslist at free or reduced rates), one wonders whether Meetup might be the nail in the coffin of bricks-and-mortar chapter organizations.

Voluntary associations used to do several things:

1) provide options for individuals to meet regularly about their shared interest

2) have political clout through numbers

3) select officers/leaders through their members

4) meet annually or quarterly at conferences to learn about what was happening in a field, form social capital, etc.

5) provide educational activities: books, pamphlets, courses, etc. that are offered to members to further their knowledge about the topic of the voluntary association (be it nursing, or home-schooling, or …).

Meetup used to just do #1 (arranging meetings). Now they do #2 (enable political clout through affiliation). #3 seems somewhat of a no-brainer (it would be easy to have electronic votes of members and position statements). #4 might be a challenge, although presumably there may be good event-planners and coordinators that would collaborate with Meetup to offer #4. I’m less clear about whether #5 is easy to contract out, but with a more transparent platform that shows how many members there are in each alliance or group, it may be easier for freelance writers to market their books or materials to Meetup groups that share an interest in what they are writing about.

Meetup writes in their FAQs for MeetupAlliance: “Can existing Chapter-based organizations use MAP [Meetup Alliance Platform]? Absolutely! MAP removes many of the headaches of running an organization with chapters. To learn more e-mail us.”

But the key question will be what the value proposition: how much bang do members get for the buck? Members of Meetup chapter organizations presumably will pay a lot less in dues than the old bricks-and-mortar chapter organizations?.The real question is the quality of the meetings, the social entrepreneurship and political clout that these groups can have, the quality of their social capital and what they continue to learn through educational activities.”

Of course, there are always countless claims of how technology is going to do away with the old. Remember the “paperless office” we were going to work in? So I certainly wouldn’t count chapter-based organizations out — there are probably more people meeting in Texas in a given month through bricks-and-mortar voluntary organizations than worldwide with Meetup in a month. But if Meetup is really smart about figuring out how to teach others to run efficient meetings, how to aggregate political clout on-line, how to run organizations well, how to outsource efficient annual meetings, there could be something transformative going on here. I know Scott Heiferman (Meetup.com) founder aspires to this. What’s important about Scott is that he is wise enough to realize that there are lots of things that people cannot do on-line that require face-to-face contact which is why Meetup was all built around regular F2F meetings (Meetups).

One final note: while Meetup seems way ahead of the curve in thinking about how on-line groups might start to replace bricks-and-mortar voluntary associations or chapter groups, the “finding your tribe” space has become more crowded recently along with sites that enable one-time get-togethers. Facebook‘s causes enables people to form looser tribes and use this to spur philanthropy; and Facebook has launched its own events services to enable simple confabs (and has the advantage that users already have some of their friends listed on the site). MyPunchBowl (like evite) enables people to plan simple events and invite others on-line but seems less focused around regular meetings. Yelp (primarily focused on user ratings of restaurants, services, things to see in a city, etc.) now also features a service “Invite Friends” that enables users to plan events. Meetup obviously has a huge head start on these other groups but it will be interesting to see whether they are as smart about trying to offer a deep civic alternative (as the bricks-and-mortar chapter-based voluntary associations do).

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