“Do Something. Learn Something. Share Something. Change Something,” Meetup Everywhere.

Use the Internet to get off the Internet and take real world action, advises Meetup.com’s Scott Heiferman.

"Use the internet to get off the internet," advises CEO and co-founder of Meetup.com, Scott Heiferman.

06 July 2010

State Department Using Meetup to Tap Tech Expertise

By Stephen Kaufman
Dept of State Staff Writer

Washington — Meetup.com has a simple premise: use the Internet to get off the Internet. Rather than simply “liking” a cause or group on a social networking site, the company wants users to take the next step and do something concrete about it: Find others who share your interest and meet for an organizing event or just a cup of coffee. In other words, use the incredible connective and organizational potential in social media to make things happen in the real world.

“Twenty-first century movements are about enabling followers, not just collecting them, and to lead your followers to lead [themselves]” to do something, Meetup.com co-founder and Chief Executive Officer Scott Heiferman told a diverse audience of nongovernmental organization (NGO) representatives, communications experts and others at a June 29 event in Washington organized by the State Department.

Founded in 2001, Meetup currently facilitates about 50,000 local gatherings a week all over the world, bringing people together for anything from sports to book discussion, political organizing and casual dining. The company’s motto is “Do something. Learn something. Share something. Change something.” In May, the company announced the launch of Meetup Everywhere, which allows organizations, businesses or movements to suggest a topic for a “meetup” and, with local organization, have it occur simultaneously anywhere in the world.

Rather than have an organization use social networking and other technology simply to communicate with a public that is already suffering from information overload, “What if your supporters or constituents got together with each other?” Heiferman asked. Meetup Everywhere’s Web site provided the answer.

“Because they’re near each other, they can help each other, they can be powerful together, and maybe they can help you. Amazing things happen when people meetup,” the Web site said.

The State Department shares Meetup.com’s objective of encouraging people to connect online to take real-world action, and has begun using Meetup Everywhere to bring NGOs, the private sector and representatives from the U.S. government and multilateral organizations together to find ways of using technology and collective expertise to assemble best practices for problem solving.

In the aftermath of the January 12 earthquake in Haiti, the State Department organized Haiti Tech Meet Up, assembling more than 100 people in Washington on May 10 to discuss lessons learned from the crisis and to promote continued discussion in local groups on how best to use technology in the rebuilding of Haiti.

“We should provide a platform for innovators in the field of relief and communication, education and banking to share their stories and ideas, successes and even their failures — and to look forward to how to apply many of these lessons in the redevelopment of Haiti and elsewhere around the world,” Katie Stanton, a special adviser in the State Department’s Office of Innovation, told the meeting.

Suzanne Hall, who works in the State Department’s Bureau of Western Hemisphere Affairs, told America.gov that the State Department’s use of Meetup offers experts a central meeting place and public platform from which they can break off and develop their own independent networks.

“We’re trying to convene people. That’s one great role that we can provide,” Hall said. “We’re not a building full of developers, but we can add value by inviting people working in the same space to come together, introduce their projects and find the right partners to scale up.”

Hall said the State Department is organizing the next Tech@State on mobile money and financial inclusion in early August to discuss how to bring banking services and credit to underaccessed populations, including the rural poor and women entrepreneurs. The State Department has also used the Meetup platform to identify existing Meetup groups, including Bogo Tech in Colombia, which focuses on technology and Web development. The State Department is leading a delegation of technology specialists to Colombia in July, and the group will meet with Bogo Tech while in Bogota.

The State Department’s senior adviser for innovation, Alex Ross, said June 29 that being connected online is becoming increasingly mainstream all over the world, and not just among elites. When President Obama took office in January 2009, there were 4.1 billion mobile handsets. That number has increased to 4.7 billion in the past year and a half, and 75 percent of the growth has been in the developing world, he said.

Meetup and other social networking outlets that promote organizing and activism “can have more profound impact in the developing world or in authoritarian societies,” Ross said, since would-be participants no longer are dependent on traditional word-of-mouth information for entry and connection

The Internet has been successfully used to “name and shame” corrupt public servants, create and empower citizen-centered political movements, and, as exemplified by many Iranians after their 2009 election, has even formed the backbone for political dissent.

“Going forward, I think that connection technologies are going to play an increasingly disruptive role in foreign policy, in citizen-centered movements. And I don’t think that there’s a very good way of predicting what’s going to happen other than saying the degree of disruption is going to exceed what anybody expects,” Ross said.

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