Technology

Social Networking Goes Offline


Everybody needs friends to hang out with. Sites like MeetIn.org are helping users connect with like-minded people in the real world

I started using MeetIn.org two months ago, having found myself a social butterfly with its wings clipped. My best friend had bought her first home and was busy caulking the bathtub and painting walls. Another buddy was getting ready for her first baby. Yet another was working two jobs. After spending one more Sunday weeding my yard, it dawned on me that I needed to find more friends to join me for hikes and concerts.

But making new friends is not easy, even in Portland, Ore., a superfriendly city. I am too shy to initiate conversations with strangers at my favorite bookstore, the gym, or lectures. At first, the Web didn't look too promising, since the only new people who ever seem to contact me through my page on MySpace (NWS) are spammers selling Viagra. Then a friend told me about MeetIn.org, an online social network designed to help people find new friends—not the romantic kind—to do fun stuff with in the real world.

Millions Reach Beyond Cyberspace

Apparently I'm not alone in my quest for offline friendships. Social networking sites that attempt to go beyond the conventional, online-only services offered by the likes of MySpace and Evite Evite have been enjoying stellar growth. MeetIn's user base has nearly doubled, vs. a year ago, to 75,000 people in 90 cities worldwide. Other sites focused on getting people together offline report strong growth as well. Launched five months ago, nightclub-oriented MingleNow.com already boasts 1 million users.

With MeetIn you set up a profile, which can include your photo, age, and brief sections on education and interests (MeetIn's largest and most active chapter is in Portland, where more than 6,600 people have created profiles). Each member can post invites to events—dinners, concerts, salsa dancing, Frisbee outings—for others to join. The Portland contingent posts about 150 events a month. Promotional and singles events are a no-no. "I was very, very nervous and apprehensive," remembers Joanne Couchman, who came to her first MeetIn event in 2005, after she and her boyfriend relocated to Portland from the East Coast. "But I walked in and these people made me feel like I've known them forever."

The similarly named MeetUp.com, which helps people find events ranging from scrapbooking to lectures on social justice, has seen the number of RSVPs on its site double in the past five months. To keep up with the growth, MeetUp plans to double its staff this year to 60 people, says Scott Heiferman, co-founder of the site. "We are growing faster than ever."

Finding the Right Niche

That this physical-world extension of social networking is catching on makes sense given the way members of the most popular sites are already using the services. In a survey of 3,357 people between 12 and 21 years old, 22% of those who identified themselves as MySpace users said they use the site to look for event information, according to Forrester Research (FORR) (BusinessWeek.com, 12/12/05, "The MySpace Generation"). So do 30% of Facebook users, even though neither site had well-developed event-planning capabilities. It's not always easy to post and disseminate event photos or send out invites. And the events that are listed aren't always appealing: When I searched MySpace's Portland events, a marijuana party and several adult events topped the list, though there were some dance outings and parties that were more to my liking.

It's also a bit overwhelming to search for new friends on such giant networks—the No. 2 reason, behind connecting with existing friends, why people join these sites in the first place. There are 183 million registered users of MySpace, and a search for members living within five miles of my home returned nearly 300 results. "MySpace's biggest problem is its popularity," says Emily Riley, an analyst at consultancy JupiterResearch. "There's an opportunity for smaller, targeted sites." Sensing that opportunity, MingleNow lets users register and log in using their MySpace and Facebook log-ins. Eventful.com allows users to embed its widget into other sites like MySpace to promote listings for events such as concerts and political gatherings.

Smaller social networks are starting to experiment with offline event planning as well. Eons.com, a social network for baby boomers, invited members to a spaghetti dinner and a lecture in Boston earlier this year. The quick flood of RSVP's took up all 100 available spots within hours, so Eons.com is planning four offline events for the fall, says Jeff Taylor, the site's founder and chief executive officer, and former head honcho at job search site Monster.com. "People can be a little skeptical about [an online network's] value proposition," Taylor explains. "Face-to-face meetings are very reassuring. People are feeling they are really getting to know each other."

With event planning spread across the Web, legendary venture capitalist Esther Dyson has already invested in two such companies: Eventful.com, offering listings of 4 million events worldwide, and MeetUp.com, in whose headquarters she's now established her office. "I am a big believer in face-to-face," says Dyson, an early backer of hot Web properties such as the photo-sharing site Flickr.com, now part of Yahoo! (YHOO). "People still have hunger for other people. We are still chemical and not electronic."

Making Meetings Pay

In a jab at MySpace, Dyson adds, "There's a fundamental difference between virtual spaces where people go to see ads and [Web sites] where people go to meet each other." In fact, the big social networks may yet end up acquiring event sites to beef up their offerings, says Charlene Li, an analyst at Forrester.

The tricky part, as always, is making money from these services. Online advertising seems to work for some: MingleNow.com, making ends meet through sponsorships and ads from the likes of Virgin Mobile USA, is already profitable and on track to book more than $1 million in revenue in its first year, says CEO Gurbaksh Chahal. MeetUp.com is trying a different business model: It charges event organizers, such as community groups, to post events. The outfit, which facilitated more than 51,000 events in May alone, says its revenue is growing 10% a month.

And then there's MeetIn.org, which scrapes by on some $8,000 a year in unsolicited donations from members. Mike Heard, who started MeetIn with a $500 Dell (DELL) computer, still manages to run and code the site while working a full-time job as a computer programmer in Washington, D.C. "It's my way of giving back," he says. "You kind of turn a big city into a small town."


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