Here is the second part of my conversation with Scott Heiferman, Founder and CEO of Meetup. In this part we talk about the roles of different social platforms (such as Facebook, Twitter etc), and the kinds of relationships that bind people to communities.
Douglas: So what do you thinks makes for a stronger kind of community: one based solely on pre-existing personal relationships. Like the majority of Facebook connections, or one based on passions and interests and causes, like Meetup or Ning? In Meetup Groups, people have bothered to get out of their homes and meet people around a shared need or cause, like being a military wife or just enjoying playing chess. It’s a more palpable reason for coming together, if you like.
So which is stronger, or is that a daft question?
Scott: I think life calls for different kind of relationships, different kind of communities and that, ultimately, you’re friends and the family networks are the strongest. It’s like saying is your circulatory system or your nervous system more important? Well, it’s all part of a functioning ecosystem of life.
For example, I have a friend who’s part of a book club for some years. She has that monthly ritual, she devotes many hours to it, dozens of hours of reading every month and she looks forward to it.
But she doesn’t hang out with the people from book club outside of book club. I asked, “Don’t you consider them friends?” And she says, “Well yeah, but no, they’re my book club.” And this book club is focused on a topic. She’s got her friends, but then her book club is something different and she considers the book club something very important, but it’s not friends exactly.
Douglas: So you can have segmented communities?
Douglas: There are communities which may or may not overlap within your life, some of which are based on a passion, interest, need, or cause, and some are just accidental, like you met these friends at college and you developed relationships with them, or you have this family you certainly didn’t elect to have.
Scott: Sure. And I can’t say what’s more important.
Douglas: Maybe there’s another way of cutting it. There are communities that you elect to join and co-create within. Are they stronger communities than the ones you just happen to find yourself in?
Say you grow up in a small town or suburb. What’s your affinity to that town, really? You didn’t elect to be there. But you elected to be part of this co-creating local community around saving the environment or whatever. Which one do you really identify with and which one is strongest?
Scott: Well, I mean you gotta be a really cold person to not have warm, warm feelings for that town you grew up in. I mean I’m sure when you head back to where you grew up, but there’s a part of your heart which is still there.
I see what you’re asking: do the things that you choose make you more committed to them?
Scott: I don’t know. I do know that there’s a sense of relief when people find ‘the others’, as Douglas Rushkoff quotes Timothy Leary.
Douglas: In the research I did on cult-like organizations, I found that the root of it all was that everyone is trying to find the like-others. Somewhere where you can relax, create a safe space and become yourself.
Douglas: ‘Like-others’ can be defined in many ways. But I found that if you share the same values, that lent itself to the greatest stickiness. Because, generally, an individual defines themselves to themselves and others by describing their values: “I believe in this. I think this is important.” So if you find others who define themselves in the same way, that’s a profoundly strong tie.
Scott: Yes. But you know, where it breaks down and where you see organizations like communes and collectives and intentional communities falling apart is when there’s a presumption, there’s an expectation, that all the values are going to be the same. But inevitably it’s going to translate to, “Well, you’re not exactly like me.” And I think that’s where, perhaps, more explicitness about the goal comes in.
Douglas: Yes, because you can unify around a goal but accept each other’s differences outside of the goal.
Scott: Right. Right. Like when the community says more explicitly that “here’s why we exist as a community and here’s where we’re not necessarily gonna agree.” It’s like saying, “Here’s why we exist and anything outside of this is – we have a tolerance for,” I think that’s really important. Because when you have that degree of explicitness, all the things in a contract, it’s more likely to work.
History says it breaks down when there’s an intolerance for anything outside of it, as opposed to saying, well, this is the most important thing and other things are less important.
Douglas: So here’s a question I’m asking visionary founders like you of social platforms. Facebook, Ning, Twitter, Meetup. In five year’s time, what are the three or four left standing and why? Do they satisfy different needs or overlap? Is there a need that isn’t being satisfied?
Scott: Well, I think very strongly that some version of each of those is going to sustain – some version of each of those is going to be needed and become more and more and more important in the world. Like, I have my family and friends, I love what Facebook does for that. And whether it’s Facebook or something else, that’s going to be a part of things.
Scott: That and that what Ning does is absolutely vital, and going to be part of the world forever. Which is that not-geographically specific common interest.
The idea of how do you spark real dynamism in that kind of geographically spread community is still to be figured out.
And then the role of Twitter, which I think is more about broadcasting, it’s about following, but is not about relationships. But that’s needed too.
I wouldn’t be doing my job if I didn’t say that I think that Meetup or something like it is going to be the surprise strong player. For one reason. I’ll put it this way, that which elicits a community with roles and responsibilities, and interdependencies and relationships is just going to be a big winner.
Scott: That’s what’s happening with Meetup period – because it pushes you. The Meetup is just a means to an end, which is to get the relationships and interdependences going. And the roles and responsibilities going within something that is not an audience, but rather is a true community.
Then from there, watch out. You hear in the technology world the word platform a lot, and that the masters of the platform are the developers. Developers are iPhone app makers, and Windows app makers.
Well, the platform that enables real people, not engineers, but real people to make applications, to be developers, is the formula for a big winner. When people are building a Meetup Group they’re being developers on a platform. They are making something, like you make an iPhone app. It needs to be a lot of people making it together.
And what we’re seeing is the more Assistant Organizers you have, the more successful the Meetup group is. What is that saying? It’s saying these people are taking roles and contributing.
Douglas: When I was at Meetup HQ we talked about how the investment it takes to participate in a Meetup Group is extremely high. It’s not just about a mouse click or posting a photo. It’s about showing up and more. That’s good and bad.
It means the barrier to entry is really high, but if they do show up, then there’s a strong possibility that the sense of reward could be equally high.
So, because Meetup is local and face-to-face, and if you’re co-creators and co-makers then the investment and reward is at a much higher level than if you’re simply in front of your computer.
Scott: Yeah. I mean you could argue – and I’d be lying if I thought of this ahead of time, – but it’s like local isn’t even the point. The point is co-creation and collaboration, and codependency, interdependencies and roles, and that that’s just more likely to happen locally, and face-to-face.