It’s a sunny afternoon in Long Beach, NY. A small group of Meetup goers are gathered together, walking through the farmer’s market and street fair. I’m the only one dressed in a Halloween costume. Several of these Meetup members have stories to tell about how Meetup saved their lives.
Meetup is an online platform where organizers can create groups, orchestrate events and foster community. Since the pandemic started, it’s seen a rise in membership. It’s a way for people to meet others in their area interested in the same activities. It’s been a source of emotional security and socialization for its members. It’s helped others form new and better habits. Everyone has a story about how they became a part of it, or who they met along the way.
Jeanette is one member of this hiking and walking Meetup group in Long Beach. She’s a short, Asian woman with a nice tan. To her, one special connection made Meetup worth the bravery it took to join a group for the first time. As she describes her best friend in the entire world, Jeannette has a smile on her face and a glint in her eye.
“It’s almost a ten year friendship, we’re still hanging out together. We’re very similar, we’re similar height, very similar taste in food. We both love to eat, we both love to travel, we both don’t like children. Ten years, fast forward, and we’re still friends.”
To Jeannette, Meetup offered her a chance to connect with people when she was having trouble finding friends. According to her, it gets harder to find friends as you get older.
“Especially when you get older, I was surprisingly happy to find a friend here.”
Another long-time Meetup goer, Loren, has a lot of stories to tell about Meetup. But she doesn’t want them all told to the public in a news article. Some are good and some are bad. People are less inclined to share the bad stuff with an interviewer, because they want to present Meetup in the best possible light — because it is something that people value dearly.
Loren has joined dozens of Meetup groups and she invests most of her time in Meetup. She’s been going to Meetup for fourteen years. It revolutionized the way she does things.
“It was the best weekends I had in a long time,” says Loren of her first weekend with Meetup.
That’s because Loren has anxiety and depression. She needs to fill her days with activity so she doesn’t get worried or down on herself. She only works for two hours on weekday mornings, so she has a lot of free time to fill.
“Basically, Meetup has changed my whole entire life,” says Loren. “I made so many friends, I met so many people. And I still love it today. And I’m still wanting to meet more people, and have more friendships, and do more social stuff.”
Also in this same group is Alice. She’s a short, white woman with bright blue eyes. Meetup was a lifeline for her when her world was falling apart.
“I started Meetup right after my husband passed away,” says Alice. “And the first thing that I did was a widow-widowers group. And I can remember meeting the organizer, and the organizer saying that Meetup saved his life. Because he didn’t think he would ever leave his house again. Ya know?”
It changed a lot of people’s lives.
“And I remember the feeling of going into it for the first time, and going ‘Can I really do this?’ I was nervous, I was by myself and I didn’t really know anybody,” says Alice. “I remember how welcoming everybody was. And after a few minutes, everybody was like, ‘Come, sit here, I’m so-and-so!’ ‘This is the organizer.’ ‘Oh hi, I’ll introduce you to everybody!'”
As Alice reminisces about the first time she joined Meetup, a smile widens on her face and her cheeks plump up into red apple-like chops on her face. You can feel the sense of relief in the sound of her voice and the comfort she gained from being a part of Meetup.
“And it became such an easy way to transition into going out, after all that trauma,” says Alice. “Because everybody else that I was meeting out was going through a lot of trauma also. So most of the people that I met were either widowed or divorced.”
To Alice, Meetup is a lifeline. It offers a way out of isolation and back into socialization. She finds it very welcoming and rewarding. These days, it’s the most important part of her social world.
“To be able to walk into a place by yourself, and then know that there’ll be people to talk to and meet, is really, really valuable,” says Alice.
But Meetup has offered her even more than a place to meet new people and make new friends. Through Meetup, Alice met a boyfriend who she spent a long time with.
“And then I actually met somebody who lived with me for five years,” says Alice. “So I ended up with a boyfriend out of it. I ended up with a lot of friends out of it. And then, being able to do activities that you wouldn’t normally necessarily do. So it was like a pipeline to what’s going on,” says Alice.
Meetup makes Alice feel connected to the outside world, even when she’s not participating in it.
“So I would go onto Meetup and even if I didn’t do some of the things, I would see what was going on out in the world. So you didn’t feel so disconnected,” says Alice.
It also provided Alice with connections abroad so she could travel elsewhere. It’s opened up her world immensely.
“Then I met people from other countries,” Alice says. “And now there’s a couple that, when I went to Canada, I went to stay with them. And I met them through Meetup.”
Meetup forged a whole new world for Alice.
“So, the fact that it helps you branch out to meet people, do activities that you’ve never done before, makes you feel really connected to the community and the world,” says Alice. “Because it opens you up to all these different experiences.”
Mallory is also part of some of the the same groups as Alice. They became fast friends when they met eleven years ago. They haven’t seen each other in a while, so today is a mini reunion for them at the street fair. They spent most of the afternoon catching up.
“Eight friends came out of that, and that was eleven years ago,” says Mallory. “And one of them is my best friend.”
Mallory then goes on to explain how connected she is to everyone in that tight-knit group. One of them moved away to California and the rest of the group is going on a cruise leaving from there so they can see the friend again. To Mallory, like many people, Meetup was her saving grace.
“It was a little bit after my divorce and I had no single friends. This group kind of saved me.”
Now, it’s a week later, and I’m at a Meetup in Normal Levy Park in Merrick. It’s the same group, but there are different people here today. This group has 2,000 members, so there’s a solid rotation that means there’s almost always someone new to meet with this group.
I’m talking to Maura. Maura is a tall, white woman with curly brown hair. She also met a group of close friends who became the center of her social world when she had no one else.
“So, I met my three best friends [through Meetup],” says Maura. “Now we’ve been friends for about five years, through my divorce and separated group, when we all first got divorced. And we still get together, about once a month now. One of us lives in Florida, but we do FaceTime with her so we stay together.”
Maura thinks Meetup is an important tool for making new friends and finding your people. She’s almost laughing as she recollects how important these people are to her life.
“Meetup is a great thing for people who are trying to meet friends,” Maura says.
Meetup also got quite a few people through the pandemic. It was the only outlet for many during that challenging time. And it restructured people’s lives to suit the new world we were living in.
Rose is one example. She’s a short, Asian woman with glasses and a stern look on her face. She has a very serious look on her face as she somberly recalls what the pandemic did to her life. She lives alone, so her socialization is very important.
“Pre-pandemic I would go into the city a few times a week, meet for dinner and do things. It filled up my calendar,” says Rose. “But when the pandemic came, and before the vaccine, that was the worst period. I felt locked up in my house.”
While she happened to have had other friends before Meetup, it saved her in a way as well.
“[During the pandemic, Meetup] allowed me to do casual things,” says Rose. “Like jumping on a walk at the last minute.”
Rose finds that very interesting Meetups pop up out of nowhere. Meetup organizers are incredibly creative with what they use to bring people together.
“And, we also did short story reading,” says Rose. “Where the leader would assign a short story and then we would go and read it and then analyze it [together]. It served a function when we weren’t really able to get out there.”
Rose thinks of all the people who didn’t have Meetup to save them during the pandemic.
“I know people who didn’t do anything and they had a different experience and they were not as happy,” Rose says.
But now that there are vaccines, things are better in Rose’s world. She still connects on Meetup and it’s become a big part of her life now.
“And once we got the vaccines, we felt as though we were let out of prison. So now, I’m fully vaccinated. I try to get out as much as I can,” says Rose.
Alice said something similar last week about the pandemic. Meetup was a preservative when there didn’t seem to be anything she could do about the chaos in the world.
“During COVID I did a lot of online, I did a lot of remote things,” says Alice. “So I did lectures, and I did classes and I did spirituality groups. So that was awesome to be able to stay connected during COVID, because it was a very big deal to stay so isolated.”