A small group huddling in a corner of Cafe Fatoush one Monday evening was engaged in an animated French discussion of “The Guest,” a short story penned by absurdist philosopher Albert Camus. On Tuesday, more than 100 people were headed for the gymnasium at Lyons Recreation Center for friendly but raucous matches of dodgeball. And before sunset on Fridays, newbie sailors launch 19-foot boats onto Lake Pontchartain to practice the fundamentals of crewing.
In each instance, strangers with common interests were brought together by Meetup.com, an online social networking platform with 22 million members in 181 countries. More than 26,000 New Orleanians have registered to participate in 250 local groups.
Mark Petersen, who regularly attends the French conversation meetup in Marigny, enjoys practicing language skills but particularly likes becoming acquainted with its international visitors. Francophiles from Senegal, Madagascar, Canada and Colombia have found their way to Cafe Fatoush via Meetup’s smartphone application. While communicating electronically is the norm these days, Meetup uses the Internet to bring people together for face-to-face encounters.
“Meetups are against isolation,” Petersen said.
Daz and Rick Vallejo moved from Florida three years ago without knowing a soul in New Orleans. Since they both enjoy games, the couple started Boardgamers of NOLA to host meetups in their Harahan home. So far, almost 600 people have joined their group, though only a handful play on any given night.
“We made some really awesome friends through board game meetups,” Daz Vallejo said.
On a recent night, six guys, including Robert Van Dyck, were playing Dungeons and Dragons.
“Somebody told me about Meetup and I showed up here,” said Van Dyck, an engineer who relocated to New Orleans for his job. He played board games as a student at Georgia Tech.
Meetup got started after 9/11 when co-founder Scott Heiferman wanted to help people connect with strangers in their own communities. He had been inspired by the book “Bowling Alone,” which decried Americans’ declining social and political involvement.
“Call it old school or revolutionary, but Meetupers use the Internet to get off the Internet,” Meetup’s website states.
Since 2001, Meetup has become a worldwide online organization with staff organizers ready to assist anyone wanting to start a new group. The site includes tools for setting up meetings, signing up and communicating with participants, inviting new people and soliciting feedback. Organizers pay a monthly fee of about $12 and venues pay to be a meeting location.
Other local Meetup groups include Cajun/Zydeco song and dance; Rumi-nators, lovers of mystical poetry; Bocce Ball Enthusiasts; Comic Books; Chalmette Toastmasters; Booze ’N Books; Rhythm Drum Circles; Theosophical Society; Mocha Moms; vegetarians; and many more.
According to the Meetup website: “Facebook connects you with close friends. LinkedIn connects you with your professional contacts. Twitter connects you with Ashton Kutcher. Meetup connects you with the people near you who are doing the things you want to do.”