The internet is great for finding people just like yourself to talk to. But there's been one lingering problem: We increasingly hide behind a screen to do it.
Although social media is isolatingly comfortable for some, psych 101 suggests it's best to socialize face-to-face, not pixel-to-pixel. What if there was something that made it easier to take the first step? There is, and thousands of Clevelanders are doing it every day. It's called Meetup and if you're not using it, perhaps you should.
The world-wide organization connects people with similar business, social, political, religious, and activity interests — and they live near you. Once you find them, the idea is to (gasp!) actually do things with them. To date, there are more than 500 Meetup groups within 50 miles of Cleveland that hold an average of 200 events every week.
You name it and Cleveland Meetup has it — board gamers, drum-circlers, poker players, Tea Partiers and Ron Paul supporters, parenting groups and play groups for dogs, foodies, artists, entrepreneurs, volunteer groups, seniors' groups, and even a couple just for computer hackers.
It's free to join and if in the unlikely event you go to www.meetup.com and enter your zip code and find nothing that tickles your fancy, you can start your own group. That will set you back $12 a month — but Meetup's platform makes it easy to sit back and watch all the folks just like you sign on just for a chance to meet you.
The Meetup concept was a direct result of 9/11 says Scott Heiferman, a New Yorker and cofounder who wanted to recreate the community togetherness he noticed after that horrific day. Why couldn't people come together for a common reason every day? So he built Meetup and had it running by 2003. Now, there are more than 100,000 groups with over 15 million members in 45 countries.
Meetup started to really take off in Cleveland closer to 2006 and it was none too soon for Alice and Jeff Hershberger. The Chicago ex-pats moved to Shaker Heights and were about ready to turn around and go back, leaving their new jobs here behind.
"We tried to make friends for 18 months and failed miserably," says Jeff, a research and development scientist. "If it weren't for Meetup we wouldn't be in Cleveland." Without children to introduce them to their soccer or scout parents, they had a tough time finding common ground with the natives.
"We found Meetup and it breathed new life into our relationship. We were really tired of being each other's best friend," says Alice, a business analyst.
They each belong to between 10 and 15 Meetup groups and attend an event at least a couple times a month. They've become group organizers too — Jeff runs a blogger's group and Alice organizes Northeast Ohio Wine Connection, one of several local wine Meetups.
While the Hershbergers don't see Meetup as predominately for singles, there are plenty of groups for singles of all ages and Alice encourages people to join them. "I think people are afraid they will run into people who are creepy and weird and I haven't gotten that at all. That's what Meetup does, it filters out people you don't want to meet."
Meetup group organizers do share some words to the wise, however. Meetup is intended to be free. Be wary of any group charging more than a few bucks a year or per event to cover organizers' expenses.
Look out for Meetups offering "classes" — some businesses disguise their offerings as Meetup groups because they see the platform as a cheap advertising opportunity. Signing up for a yoga or dance Meetup only to arrive and find you are part of a studio's existing class is missing the point, which is to form your own unique and free circle of friends.
Stay away from Meetups organized by people wanting to charge you a fee for their expertise or advice. If a Meetup organizer wants $30 in exchange for helping you, say, put together a business plan and you really want to go for it, do due diligence as with anything else. Make sure an organizer charging to help you write a more compelling first novel is really an author or editor, for example. A quick Google and LinkedIn search will typically do the trick.
With that in mind, here are some of the biggest, best, and quirkiest local Meetup groups to get you started.
The Super Groups
Northeast Ohio Hiking Club
Looking for some company for a leisurely evening stroll through the park? Or is a rugged 10 miles more your thing? How about a hike-kayak combo, a hiking-camping trip, or a weekender to "hike" the sites of the nation's Capitol? Whether it's a walk with other nature photographers or a beginners backpacking lesson, you've got it here, and way more.
This is the epitome of a wildly successful Meetup group. There are 1,750 hikers of all levels and 21 organizers scheduling outings from Cuyahoga Valley National Park to Kirtland to North Olmsted and beyond. There is at least one hike a day, every day, year round.
Anywhere from five to 50 hikers show up each time and the beauty of it is that organizers scope out the terrain in advance and let you know exactly what to expect: stroller friendly, great for canines, not for kids, distance, estimated time, and rating from easy to very advanced, say, with cliff climbing.
If you're looking for regular hoofing, they've got that too: There's an easy beginners hike at 6:30 p.m. every Friday, and a moderate hike with some climbing at 11 a.m. every Sunday, both in Rocky River Reservation.
The Happy Hour Group
Looking for after-work frivolity and stress-busting libation but, as you look around the office, you realize you don't want to happy it up with those people? There's a meetup for that. This group sets up a happy hour at least every couple weeks and draws a big crowd with up to 200 of the 1,250 members joining in.
Alternating between west-side, east-side, and downtown locations, every spot they hit serves decent grub. "I've kept this an upscale happy hour. This is a great group of people who like to go to nice places," says organizer Cheri Dabrowski. The restaurants have been very generous, offering the group extended happy hours, deeper than ordinary discounts, and sometimes free appetizers.
Happy hours begin at 4 p.m. on a weekday that's not Friday, but there is an occasional weekend offering. When a particularly large number of drinkers sign up, the group tries to wrangle a private room so you needn't rub elbows with ordinary patrons — handy in case your coworkers show up.
Northeast Ohio Party Connection
This Akron-based group is also fond of happy hours and most often has theirs at the bars dotting the Portage Lakes area. But that's not all they do. There's a well-rounded calendar with something to interest any of the 500-plus members.
The Party Connection heads out for concerts and clubs, celebrates birthdays, goes to local festivals and events, hits dances, and has a bunch of good old-fashioned house parties. Summer soirées are likely to involve someone's backyard pool while the chillier months have inspired chili parties.
The group does come north once in a while too, recently visiting Brunswick's Mapleside Farms, and they plan a Goodtime III dinner cruise for next month.
A Drinker's Trifecta
No matter your preferred poison, there is a Meetup especially for you. Cindy Jolley organizes three distinct groups: Beer Lovers, the Cleveland Wine Club, and Spirits and Fun. Beer Lovers is the largest with more than 1,000 members, the wine club has about 900, and Spirits and Fun comes in with 400. There is easily more than one outing a week between the three groups, and since many members belong to more than one of them, this drinking crowd qualifies as a super group.
"Beer lovers is a hoot! Then you take the same members and put them in the wine group and put a wine glass in their hand, they become more reserved," observes Jolley who hails from Sheffield Lake.
Her get-togethers are held all over the county, draw between 20 and 80 people each, and are successful, she says, because everyone is so welcoming to newcomers. Most outings involve straight-up drinking but there are sometimes fund-raisers for causes like domestic violence, particularly with the Spirits and Fun crowd.
Jolley tries to get deals for her members at whatever bar they plan to hit, and does it for the sheer fun of it. "I'm lucky if they buy me a drink," she says. "I enjoy what I do. The day I don't enjoy it is the day I hand it over to someone else."
Scratching a Niche
Spokes 'N Jokes
This is one of the most popular, newer Meetups. If you're an avid cyclist, on-road or off, enjoy a casual ride through your nearest park, or are just thinking about taking up cycling, give them a try. In just over a year, 15 of the group's 350 members are scheduling rides and there have been more than 160 so far. They range from mountain biking for beginners in Medina to a "Bike, beer, and burrito" night ride in Berea, and to 30-mile Towpath stints to joining large cycling organizations for events like Cleveland's Critical Mass. There are usually several different rides to choose from every weekend.
Performing Arts & Music Lovers
Any performance is fair game for this group. Lately they've been out to something a couple times a month and are just as likely to be at Playhouse Square's biggest show of the year as at a rock concert or the ballet. If there's something you'd like to see, there are 450 people here who would like to see it with you.
For the Food Frenzied
The Elite Supper Club hits one of the top upscale NEO spots once every two weeks. You have plenty of time to plan because restaurants are chosen and dates set several months in advance. The Dining Out in Cleveland group also ventures out every couple weeks and while Cleveland's famous or newly opened eateries make the agenda, they share billing with plenty of neighborhood joints with cheaper fare as long as they have rave reviews. If you work the late shift you can join the fun with the Cleveland Brunch Club which hits a different spot from Westlake to Chardon once a month.
N.E. Ohio Random Acts of Kindness Volunteer Group
Have you ever passed the pop machine outside your local drug store and noticed a sign that says "FREE" taped over where the money is supposed to go? That may have been a Random Act of Kindness by this group—but we'll never really know. There are 400 Continued from page 16
people signed up to volunteer, organize charity fundraisers, and plan other kindly gestures. Kind-hearted tykes are welcome and encouraged to attend planning meetings with parents in tow.
New In Town (Or Not)
This group has been around for 10 years and is 2,150 strong. The idea is for Clevelanders to introduce other members, particularly those new to the area, to all our North Coast city has to offer. They hit clubs, guest bartend, do dances at Willowick's American Legion, see bands — something, at least once a week.
Cleveland Independent Movie Goers
If you can't wait for the next big-hype blockbuster to hit the multiplex, try a different movie meetup — there are a few for that. This diverse crowd ranges in age from 18 to 80 and prefers artistic and cerebral flicks. The 900 indie film buffs frequent the Cedar Lee, Capitol, and Cinematheque as well as screenings at book stores and other smaller venues several times a week. The real feature of the evening happens after the show when they meet at a pub or eatery to nosh, drink, and discuss the film.
Cleveland 20s and 30s
Certainly one of the more active Meetups with nearly 1,700 members and 12 organizers concocting fun stuff to do. They do Cedar Point, see the newest movies, have potlucks and picnics, hit bars and restaurants, do volunteer activities, and have a Ladies Night. There's an Akron 20s and 30s Meetup too.
Northeast Ohio Adventures
If it's athletic and happens outdoors, they do it. They rock climb, bike, hike, kayak, canoe, ski, and some of the 1,500 members are fond of camping. Summer is the time to join them because several options are scheduled every week. You'll find everything from an evening bike ride close to home to a day hiking Kelly's Island to a free outdoor Fit Group that meets in Mentor.
The Cleveland Nightlife Meetup Group
The 1,100 members trend younger, with lots of them also belonging to the 20s and 30s group. The Nightlifers go to festivals, bars, and clubs, but perhaps the group's biggest hit is the annual Chirstmas Eve party for those without family here or most of all, for those seeking "a little less quality family time." They have the Treehouse in Tremont all to themselves for the big holiday bash.
Meetup's Odd Fellows
The Lake Erie Moose Society. Just as the name suggests, this is a group for bloggers.
Black Sun Oasis, O.T.O. It's occult, they have magick, and it's secret. Want to know more? Meet the Deputy Body Master at a Rocky River coffee shop. Smart to be in public for this one.
Steeler Fans in Cleveland. They say they've "somehow ended up in the belly of the beast" and seek like-minded football fans. Yeah, they should party with their own kind.
NEO House Church Network. People who want to attend church without going to a church.
No Oil Vegan, Dr. Esselstyn & Rip's E2 Diet. Dr. Esselstyn is a Cleveland Clinic cancer guy, Rip is his kid, E2 stands for...oh never mind. See the film "Forks Over Knives" to find out if this group is for you.
The West Side Euchre Meetup. There are actually 188 people here who know what Euchre is and they meet in Lakewood or Akron to play it.
UrbanCoders. Get this — 33 "scrappy and surly" people who work at the same software outfit and see each other every day, but who arrange in-person socializing through Meetup. Geeky.
HIPHOP Cash Games. Evidently a gambling group with 105 "degenerates" as members. It's unclear how the music genre is involved here.
Rosicrucians of Greater Cleveland. Hidden knowledge and the meaning of life — things everyone wants to be in on.