Meetup: The Good, the Bad, and the Policy

by Rick Moen
February 7, 2015



Over the past ten years, social-networking company Meetup1, Inc. has become difficult to ignore, even for old-school technical people like me. Donning my hat as owner/maintainer of the BALE calender2, I've been obliged to work out what Meetup information to include in BALE, why in some cases, why not in others.

I'm aiming to document my Meetup policy for BALE, here. Along the way, I expect I'll explain Meetup denizens to the old-school Internet, and maybe the old-school Internet to Meetup denizens (if they're paying attention, which I doubt, as this isn't on Meetup).



The Good

Meetup Brings in More People

The company claimed 7.2 million "members" (registered logins) in 2011. That's a lot of eyeballs, and I'm sure it's still growing. It should be noted in passing that the "members" are not the customer base. As with most Web 2.0 corporations, the public are the product, not the customers. Customers pay money. Who pays is a matter we'll come to later.

Meetup Draws Meetup People to Other Meetups

The much-beloved Web 2.0 "network effect" applies in spades, as "members" are extremely likely to use the search and you-might-also-like functions to find and join additional Meetups.

Meetup Is Easy for Both Organizers and Event Attendees

Simply put, if you can use Amazon.com, you can certainly use Meetup.com as either event organizer or attendee. The Web interface is point 'n' drool. The routines to corral and nag attendees into RSVPing and not exceeding meeting capacity are canned and automatic.



The Bad

Meetup, Inc. Is Some Other Guy

Imagine I visit my local gas station for an oil change, and suddenly I find myself asked to sign an End-User License Agreement (a contract) with some bunch of clowns in New York City who run the gas station's data operations: They expect me to sign off on the NYC clowns gaining from me the legal right to collect vaguely described personal information on my car usage, and share that data with the NYC clowns' business partners. They also expect me to consent in writing to vaguely described marketing contact from the NYC clowns, thereafter. I didn't walk in wanting a contract with strangers 3000 miles from me. I just wanted an oil change from my local mechanic. But I'm told, if I don't sign over that bundle of legal rights and initiate a formal business relationship with the unseen, unrelated NYC clowns, no oil change. 'Sorry, pal. It's standard procedure. Sign here.'

Meetup, Inc. is just that, a bunch of strangers in NYC. Let's say you are interested in BayLISA, the San Francisco Bay Area's guild of system administrators (and non-profit corporation), that I used to help run as Secretary, Treasurer, and Board Member for almost two decades. You seek BayLISA out, and the first thing you read is that, if you wish to attend BayLISA meetings, you must first RSVP for each such meeting via Meetup.com, which means you must enter an ongoing contractual business relationship with Meetup, Inc. (register a login), and create your BayLISA RSVP entirely via the Meetup.com Web site rather than on BayLISA's own site (whereby the Meetup, Inc. firm is certainly logging detailed tracking information about your Web activity, which data then becomes part of the data-mining product it sells to others).

So, as a BayLISA attendee, you should be wondering: Why am I suddenly dealing with — and entering into a contractual business relationship with — these clowns in NYC at all? Wasn't I just trying to attend a local meeting of sysadmins? And well you should wonder:

I was on BayLISA's Board of Directors for about a decade and a half. My last two terms of office were marred by the Board majority's sudden (and then ongoing) mania for outsourcing of the guild's entire Internet operations to Meetup, Inc. — as if we, as Unix system administrators, were no longer competent to run Web sites and mailing lists — and by late 2013 I was so extremely disaffected by this ignominious trend that I declined to serve any more terms of office, and let my (always paid — unlike the other Directors) BayLISA membership lapse.

Why on earth should you need to maintain a separate business agreement with an NYC-based commercial company, just to attend meetings of your local sysadmin guild? It's absurd. And I would maintain that it's particularly shameful for system administrators or Linux, BSD, and other open-source software groups to impose these outsourcing requirements onto attendees, as if Internet operations were not their own core competency.

Meetup, Inc. is a Nudzh

nudzh, v. (Yiddish). To pester, to pester with constant complaining, asking, and urging.
N., a person who indulges that trait.
3

Registering as a Meetup.com "member" and indicating interest in attending specific events results in repeated nagmails, bothering you to sign on, to indicate whether you will be attending, and numerous other assorted mails. You'll get really tired of these, but they are a non-optional feature of the "service", and even the event organizer cannot (IIRC) tone them down, let alone edit them.

Yes, I do have personal experience in this. I've had a Meetup.com login several times, including when I was BayLISA Event Coordinator for meetings where I needed to manage RSVPs and edit the Meetup.com page for that meeting. I've deleted my Meetup account later, each time — to curtail the barrage of spam, and the privacy loss.

Meetup Is Expensive

Any organizer of a Meetup group is required to spend $10 to $19 per month, depending on the payment plan and limits on group sizes, just to keep running his/her Meetup groups. (An organizer's basic fee covers operation of up to three Meetup groups, without sundry premium services. There are of course variant provisions and weird angles to this, not covered here. The Organizer Subscription plan best suited to technical groups at this writing costs each organizer $15 per month — $180 each year.)

While grateful to the generous people willing to shell out this ongoing money, I personally think they're a bit mad, albeit gloriously so, as the functionality they're using with Meetup, Inc.'s help is accessible without Meetup, Inc. to any very modestly technical Linux or BSD person for free with a fixed IP address, open-source software, and a 20-year-old throwaway machine — by simply creating and maintaining a Web site and mailing lists, which honestly isn't brain-surgery (but without the everyone's-on-Meetup.com network effect, of course).

Meetup organizers who feel the pocket pinch are being encouraged to charge "membership fees", by the way — so that everyone sharecrops for the corporation, not just the organizer.

Meetup Users Have the AOL Nature

What I mean by that admittedly unflattering comparison is that Meetup, Inc. has successfully created a self-contained walled-garden ghetto adjoining the Internet (just like AOL), whose denizens tend strongly to ignore everything outside it (just as with AOL). In 2012, a core member of Silicon Valley Linux User Group volunteered to attract new members for SVLUG via a Meetup presence, which indeed seemed a good idea. He was careful to annotate the Meetup.com page as saying that SVLUG is an independent group with its own off-Meetup Web site and mailing lists. A year later, he stopped paying Meetup, Inc. fees, and thus the page ceased being updated.

As one of the core SVLUG leaders, I observed a remarkable thing: The large number of Meetup.com denizens who'd found SVLUG via the Meetup.com page were now utterly convinced that SVLUG had ceased to exist, because, despite the careful annotations, they could not conceive of it as anything but a Meetup. Ergo, it was now a dead Meetup. Just because one guy had ceased paying those clowns in NYC $180/year.

In 2014, SVLUG found another kind gentleman willing to include the SVLUG Meetup among the three groups (I assume) he's paying for, but meanwhile the lesson — and the certainty of this problem recurring — is obvious: Basically, you don't own your Meetup in any way; Meetup, Inc. does.

Meetup Is Inflexible

The way Meetup.com achieves its Amazon.com-like ease of use is to do only some very specific things in a very specific way. It is not extensible; it has effectively zero integration with anything outside itself (except Web links that its denizens seem not to believe in, if they connect to non-Meetup locations). All Meetup.com subsites look and work pretty much exactly the same, and there is no room for individuality. Want to permit RSVPs via non-Meetup contacts? Sorry, not supported. Want to permit participation in Meetup 'Mailing Lists' and 'Message Boards' from the larger Internet outside Meetup.com? Sorry, not supported. (And why would you want to do that? It's not the Meetup Way.)

And by the way, do you like ensuring that your technical group is friendly to young people? If so, Meetup will be a problem for you, as individuals under age 18 are not allowed to be Meetup users (underlining the point that this really is a contractual relationship with a for-profit NYC corporation).

Basically, like most social network software, Meetup.com is a huge software machine designed to suck everything into itself, shut out non-Meetup people, turn its denizens' back against everything outside itself, co-opt "members" as an unpaid sales force, and arrange for those denizens to use only the infrastructure Meetup, Inc. grants them. As the core aim of open source computing is to empower people with the ability to run, own, and operate their own infrastructure, this is in opposition to the core values we (open source) stand for.

And yes, I'm disappointed in you, ACCU Silicon Valley Chapter, BayLISA, BAFUG, and San Francisco Perl Mongers. You should aspire to better.

Meetup Is Nosy

It's important to remember that Meetup, Inc. is not a public utility; it's a venture-capital-funded, profit-making privately held corporation. The personal data the corporation collects from logged-in users is deep and wide — and is a corporate asset. Your data. Note that the users are required in the Terms of Service to grant Meetup, Inc. and related unnamed third parties extensive commercial rights, that all use of the service is "as is", and that members may not sue Meetup, Inc. for any liability whatsoever. (By contrast, Meetup, Inc. reserves the right to sue users.) And the Privacy Policy specifically says they "share" (probably sell) information about you to third parties.

What percentage of the corporation's revenues come from mining of your data by Meetup, Inc. and its business partners, versus the percentage that's fees milked at the rate of $180/year or so from Meetup group organizers? It's difficult to say, because Meetup, Inc. is a privately held for-profit corporation, and so isn't required to tell anyone. Whoever provides most of the revenues, those are Meetup, Inc.'s real customers. But one thing's for sure, it's not Meetup.com users, who are merely Meetup, Inc.'s product.



The Policy

1. BALE lists only events whose timing, location, contents, and expense (if any) can be determined from public information. Consequently, BALE will omit Meetup.com events that coyly withhold (for example) venue location to all but logged-in Meetup.com users.

2. BALE lists only events that are believed to be reasonably open to public attendance. For technical events managed using Meetup.com, the delicate and problematic aspect is that of RSVPing: Meetup, Inc. provides a Meetup-centric RSVP mechanism with an organizer-set maximum number of attendees, with the implication that you must register that way and may not attend if it's "full". While on the one hand I certainly don't want to encourage crashing a full party, metaphorically speaking, it's also clear that most organizers wish to welcome all comers, venue physical capacity permitting. Make up your own mind, but in my experience you are actually welcome at a "full" Meetup event, as long as the room isn't over rated capacity. Be aware that many organizers use Meetup.com statistics to estimate quantities of snacks to bring (if any), and you should (please) be polite and not graze if you aren't expected.

3. BALE will pointedly ignore Meetup.com events that omit adequate public information, e.g. ones that say "meeting venue information displayed only to Meetup members". Because the hell with that noise.

4. I might change my policies, without the notice to which you may imagine yourself entitled. I might sing in Carnegie Hall. I might sail the ocean blue. I might grow up to be an astronaut. You really never know, do you?






Copyright (C) 2015 Rick Moen, <rick@linuxmafia.com>.

1 Advisory to all Meetup, Inc. paralegals and similar Legal Dept. munchkins: Don't bother sending me letters claiming I am required to add ® or the phrase "is a trademark of Meetup, Inc." to all mentions of your various trademarked terms, because in fact I'm not (not least because they are clearly nominative): Unlike most technical people, I actually understand the Lanham Act, common-law trademark, relevant caselaw, and a good dollop of civil procedure. So, just don't. Thanks.

2 BALE is an online calendar of San Francisco Bay Area technical events I've run since 1997 — scratching my own itch in needing such a page, though I'm also glad that others find it useful. Its content policy boils down to: what interests me, which in this area is Linux, other interesting Unixes, open source software, and various adjoining technologies. Dissatisfied with BALE? C'est la vie. In the immortal words of Norton Juster, "Your wasted time will be swiftly and cheerfully refunded." Which is to say, you're fully free to publish your own damn calendar.

3 All who take exception to this essay, kindly do not blame the long-suffering and blameless Jewish people for my sins: They surely have tsuris enough without that. I'm determinedly goyish, and merely grew up on Leo Rosten books and Jay Ward cartoons. A sheynem dank.