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HELLO My Name Is...

Social media might give us the illusion of more friends, but sometimes, it's just not enough.

In the age of social media everything, where everyone has hundreds or even thousands of “friends” and followers, it would appear as though human connection were at an all-time high. Newsflash: It’s not. Electronic communications of 140 characters or less do little to satiate our very human need for face-to-face contact, and we often know little to nothing about most of our Facebook friends, despite real-time daily (and sometimes hourly or minutely) updates about their growing children and intimate family moments. Meetup, an Internet-based listing of localized groups for all interests and ages, aims to counter all that by taking online connections to offline relationships.

How do you meet people?

The short answer: I don’t know.

The longer answer: It takes time. And patience. And a good deal of meeting the wrong people. I’ve lived in Orange County for over seven years and it’s just recently that I feel like I’m becoming a part of the community, occasionally running into someone I know at the gas station or a coffeehouse. Other than time and patience, I’m not sure, really. A bar? Through mutual friends? Yoga? At the dog park? I recently became friends with J., who met my future sister-in-law at a hair salon. Based on their conversation, J. decided to text me since it sounded like we had a lot in common (we do), and because her New Year’s resolution was to be more socially daring. It worked; after lunch, we decided we were probably long-lost sisters. I’ve met other friends in more conventional ways – through law school, where we've suffered together through nearly four years of the Socratic method during night classes, forming both personal and professional bonds that will likely last a lifetime. I met another good friend while on safari in Tanzania. It was the terror induced by the uncomfortably close proximity of hippos and elephants to our tent that cemented our friendship. (Make no sudden movements.) And I met my fiancé at a supermarket (true story – Bristol Farms, Newport Beach). But other than happenstance encounters and bonding over finals-induced migraines and deadly animal encounters, how does one meet and bond with new people? An increasing part of the solution is local Meetup groups, which take the model of social networking and apply it to offline meetings that can develop into lasting real-life relationships.

I had never considered joining a Meetup. To be perfectly honest, it’s just not my style. Yes, I know how that sounds, but here’s why. First, it requires you to acknowledge that you need to meet more people. I don’t feel that way. I’ve always been happy with those who happen into my life for whatever reason. It’s a slow process, occurring over years and decades, but that doesn’t bother me. I’m not the kind of person who needs a huge group of friends, and I enjoy my own company. But I do understand the desire to expand one’s social horizons, especially if you’re new to an area or simply want more people in your life, and I suppose that can’t hurt. Second, it takes effort. It could very well be that I’m comparatively socially lazy, but I feel fairly confident in saying that building relationships takes a lot of work, and maintaining them even more. It has taken me years to get to know my friends, and most of the time I can barely keep up with my current circle of them as it is. And third, it’s a risk. What if I don’t meet anyone I like? What if I find the group of OC-based, young, female, brunette, Italian-Scottish magazine editors who are also in law school and I don’t actually have anything in common with them other than what’s on paper? I know what the intrepid optimist will say: “You’ll never know if you don’t try!” I believe you, I do. And there’s really nothing to lose, except a Saturday night. But this takes me back to number one: acknowledging the need to meet more people in the first place.

The people who join, organize and form friendships through Meetups tell me I’m wrong. But I wasn’t exactly sure how wrong until my Meetup objections were met with such incredulousness that I might as well have been accusing Mother Teresa of war crimes.
Below, their rebuttals.

Objection #1: Acknowledgment
The Rebuttal: It’s hard to meet people, and while we may not feel that we need to in order to live a satisfied life, it’s actually good for us to stay in frequent contact with others. Study after study confirms that social interaction is credited with everything from helping recover more quickly from pain linked to nerve damage to keeping heart disease at bay.

After the socially fertile days of high school and college, where age-appropriate peers were numerous in number, and common geography, if nothing else, brought people together, the perilous drop-off of eligible contemporaries in young adulthood can be jarring – and lasting. Acknowledging that difficulty is the first step in remedying it. “The rhythms and demands of adult life just naturally squeeze some of that time and energy that was devoted to social interaction,” says Steve Irsay, a recent Meetup participant (and frequent Coast contributor). “One significant thing I have learned about is the importance of social support in buffering against more serious problems during times of increased stress or change.”

Times of increased stress can come from a number of sources – moving and transitional life phases are two big ones; for Irsay, it was a combination of both. He moved around quite a bit after college and recently, he and his wife had their first baby – a happy occasion, to be sure, but one that can throw even an otherwise healthy social life into a tailspin. Parenthood was further complicated by the fact that it made more sense for him to be a stay-at-home dad. “One of the biggest things my wife pushed for was me getting and staying connected with other people,” he says. “She was speaking from experience, having just come off three months of maternity leave, and [she warned me about] coping with the feelings of disconnect and loneliness that can come with spending all your time attending to the needs of an infant. It really is a sudden and drastic shift from working and otherwise doing your thing.”  

Irsay turned to Meetup to find dads in a similar position. He only found one such Meetup, which was largely inactive, so he turned to Meetups for moms, but wasn’t sure how he would be received. “I reluctantly started contacting a few organizers of moms Meetups in my area and asking if I could join,” he says. “For some reason I had in my mind that I would be rejected, [but] to my pleasant surprise, I was welcomed with open arms to several groups. One, in fact, shared with me that I was the first ‘official’ male member. I was kind of honored.” He hasn’t made any lifelong friends yet, he says, but just knowing there are other people out there who are in a similar position has made it easier to weather the transition into full-time fatherhood. “I continue to get multiple invites to various activities almost every day,” says Irsay. “That alone helps beat back the feelings of isolation that can easily creep in after hours spent at home cycling through the routine of feeding, burping, changing, soothing, and otherwise occupying a four-month-old.”

Objection #2: Effort
The Rebuttal: Finding and attending Meetups takes effort – effort that, after a long week of work deadlines and law school classes, I’d choose to forego 95% of the time. The only date I look forward to come Friday night is the one I have with the couch, and unless a Meetup comes to me, cocktail in hand, with a DVR full of “Downton Abbey,” chances are that I won’t be rushing out of the office at the end of the week to fill my already sacred down moments with extra social responsibilities. But this may be the wrong way of looking at it, according to Kerriann Kada, a San Clemente business owner who has met a number of good friends through Meetups, and who says that the scheduled activities actually take the pressure off of meeting new people. “Most events happen at easily available times, for the average nine-to-fiver. The work is done for you,” she says. “There is no awkwardly trying to bond with the person on the next treadmill at the gym, or forcing yourself to go out to happy hour with the same people you spend eight hours a day with. Meetups provide simplicity. You pick the group, they tell you the time and place.”

And perhaps, Kada points out, I’m looking at this the wrong way. Socializing doesn’t have to be draining. “Building relationships does take work and time,” she concedes, “but it is a different type of work. It's friend dating.” Ah! Friend dating. That’s something I can get behind. It’s a try-out of sorts, and it takes the pressure off of finding your next eight BFFs at your first Meetup. “You are not going to get along with everyone, but you might find a few good friends along the way,” says Kada. “Meetups at least give you a common interest in which to start the superficial conversation. In my opinion, anything worth having is worth working for.”

Objection#3: Risk
The Rebuttal: Theoretically, if I went to a Meetup, this is what would go through my head: What if I don’t meet anyone I like? What if I feel out of place? What if no one talks to me? What if I say something stupid? This is because going to a Meetup requires a certain amount of social gumption and a willingness to accept failure. But there’s also a strong possibility of meeting like-minded people with whom to form meaningful friendships. I know this; I have these conversations with myself all the time.

So does Brian Alberding, but he has a lot more practice with Meetups than I do. As the founder of the OC Gay Geeks Meetup, which meets multiple times per week for everything from coffee to dinner to bowling and more, he has a number of objections to my own. “Meetup groups are a great way to meet new friends with the same tailored interests,” he says, in direct opposition to my concern that I wouldn’t meet anyone with whom I’d want to make and stay friends. And, as he helpfully points out, going to a Meetup doesn’t have to be an experience in which everything is out of your control. “Take advantage of the opportunity to let everyone know you are attending an event and suggest a topic to discuss,” says Alberding. So instead of passively attending a Meetup in the hopes that others will include you in their conversations, take some initiative by having a pre-prepared subject you’re interested in that relates to the group and bring it up during the discussion.

And perhaps most importantly, don’t panic. “Once a Meetup is coming to a close and you haven’t met anyone, don’t be alarmed,” says Alberding. “Not at all events will you find someone that you connect with. Don’t give up, keep RSVPing to other events in the group. There is almost a guarantee that there are other Meetup groups out there that [match your] interests.”

The Verdict
Relationships are meaningful. They add structure to our lives, give us something to look forward to and take us out of our own bubble of worry and self-absorption, even if just for a little while. (Or is that just me? Anyway…) Spending time with friends, some might say, is actually therapeutic, and science agrees. Friendship has been credited with everything from increased brain and heart health to a lower risk of obesity, depression and early death, but apart from that, it just feels good to share life with those who are brave enough to weather it with us.

Yes, relationships require us to acknowledge that we actually may be better off with them than without them; they take effort to start and keep; and they can be emotionally risky. But those are also the same reasons we cherish them.

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