Meetup.com takes people from virtual to real world

Susan Allison plops a white plastic bag onto the pitted wooden table.

“What’s that?” asks Mindy Hobgood.

Allison pulls out a clump of red sock yarn.

“Machine washable Merino,” she explains. “I came in the last four minutes of the auction on eBay.”

The seven middle-aged women circling the table key up visibly when Allison reveals the price: $11.50, half off suggested retail. They begin passing the fabric around and stroking it.

“This is yarn porn!” exclaims Angela Applegate.

Most of the 42 members of this crocheting group were introduced through meetup.com, an Internet site designed to get people off the Internet and back into the real world. Its more than 3,500 groups enable people to find others with a common interest (hobbies, politics, sports, books, pets, careers, etc.).

Users enter their ZIP code and the topic, then the site searches for a place and time for the next related public gathering. More than 4 million Americans visit the site each month.

“The goal is that no matter where you live and what you’re into, you’ll be able to find a group near you that can help you get more into the things that you’re into,” says Andres Glusman, spokesman for the New York-based company.

Every week, about 125 meet-ups occur in the valley. They range from the Las Vegas UFO Hunters and Las Vegas Furries Meet-up (fans of dressing in animal costumes) to the more conventional, like the Las Vegas Crochet Meet-up.

“If you don’t have a topic that somebody can start their meet-up group in, anybody can e-mail us and request it,” Glusman says. “If it makes sense, we’ll add it on.” (Only hate, adult material, violence and illegal activity violate the site’s terms of service.)

Actually, the Las Vegas Crochet Meet-up doesn’t seem all that conventional. Members unofficially call themselves the Las Vegas Hookers, and one reports that she’s knitting a “willie cozy” for her boyfriend. For their meeting place every Tuesday night, it’s always the Oasis Bar at Rainbow Boulevard and Cheyenne Avenue.

“We can drink, we can laugh and carry on without bothering anybody,” says Applegate, the organizer, who stumbled upon meetup.com in November 2004 and began making new friends immediately. She adds: “We can’t drink too much, though, or we’ll start frogging.” (Frogging describes the remedy for a mis-stitched row; the crocheter must “rip it, rip it.”)

“I have to come,” Allison says, raising her voice slightly to drown out Weezer’s “Beverly Hills,” which is blasting over the PA system. “I’m addicted. I plan nothing else on Tuesday nights. And I’m missing ‘Bones’ and that’s bad.” (Allison, who says she doesn’t own a Tivo or VCR, says she’ll just wait until her favorite show appears on DVD.)

Meetup.com was founded in 2002 by Scott Heiferman, chief executive officer, and two friends. (Heiferman also founded sites called Fotolog and i-traffic.)

“He was living in New York during 9-11, when New Yorkers really came together and formed a strong sense of community,” Glusman says. “He was inspired by that and was thinking about ways in which he could use the Internet to help foster that same sense of community everywhere.”

The site got its first national exposure in 2003, when the Democratic presidential campaigns began relying on it to organize supporters.

“Oh, that’s pretty,” Eleanor Headley tells Applegate, referring to the blue sock she’s knitting. Headley had been observing the Las Vegas Hookers from across the bar with a male companion. After a half-hour, she worked up the nerve to approach the table.

“It reminds me of my mom’s stuff,” she continues.

Applegate thanks her.

“My grandmother taught me to crochet when I was 12,” she says.

This scenario is often how new meetup.com group members are conscripted.

“People come up to us all the time to see what we’re doing,” Allison says, “although some of them think we’re scary.”

The current thinking is to encourage people not to meet those they chat with on the Internet.

“We’ve got this culture where people are encouraged to not trust each other and be fearful of each other,” Glusman says. “Meet-up, like eBay, is basically predicated on the notion that people are generally good and can be trusted.”

The most common comment found on the site’s feedback, Glusman says, is “I was surprised by how friendly everybody was.”

Mamie Wilson, who reportedly crocheted three baby blankets in the past four months for her nieces and nephews, has held her tongue long enough. She stops her silent crocheting to launch a protest.

“I have five children and they are procreating like …!” she exclaims, banging the table in place of the last word. “I’m gonna send a memo. From now on, one pregnancy per year. You must schedule it with the blanket-maker.

“And the sex must be divulged within half an hour of conception!”

Contact reporter Corey Levitan at clevitan@reviewjournal.com or (702) 383-0456.

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