At a recent gathering of students and young professionals, we discussed the subject of meetups and social gatherings. They all had tales of fun, interesting, engaging events they attended in the past. These are places to meet and greet and talk about ideas. They help with recruitment to the cause and extending the social network.
I asked what happened to the gathering. The answer was always the same: “I don’t know, it just stopped.”
Why was the meetup not long for the world? Usually there was some mistake made in planning. Those mistakes can cause even a great social group to fizzle.
Having done these for many years, I would like to suggest a model that corrects for common mistakes, with the goal of building a sustainable social gathering dedicated to an idea.
The first issue is: where to meet? Often people look for offices, classrooms, civic meeting halls, and the like. The problem with these venues is that they can be cold and uninteresting. Classrooms are the absolute worst. Our minds associate with them with hearing lectures, being graded, and being forced to be there. These are the last mental associations we want.
If you do this the right way, you won’t know precisely how many people are going to come.Instead we are seeking fun, collegiality, charm, friendliness. Where can we find that? I would suggest a commercial location, a place with a patio or porch with flexible seating. Think of a pizza place or hamburger joint. It does not have to be prestigious. It only has to be serviceable. As a commercial establishment, it will be glad for the business.
If you do this the right way, you won’t know precisely how many people are going to come. It could be six or it could be sixty. A commercial place is adaptable.
In my own case, I started an “Anarchy in Atlanta” group that met at Mellow Mushroom in midtown Atlanta. I never told the owners and never reserved a room. The place got the hang of what we were doing after a few weeks, and now commits extra servers and cooks on that night.
It’s best to do this during a weeknight when the place is less busy. Think Wednesday, which is a slow day for restaurants. This way you can be more sure that your group will be appreciated and served well.
Another crucial factor: libations. At non-commercial venues, you have to bring your own. Just on a practical level, this can get expensive and awkward. And let us be realistic about this: there is a very low chance that a meetup can be sustainable without drinks.
At first, meeting once a month seems reasonable. Who has time for more? But the problem is that the date becomes confusing. The first Wednesday of the month? That’s hard to put on the calendar and then you have to deal with leap years and five week months and so on. Even if you get the date right, you might not be able to meet that one time and then you have to wait another month.
Or you can schedule it once every two weeks, but that is just as confusing.
The crucial thing is that it always happens, every week until it gets boring.The best solution is the one that seems least possible but is actually most sustainable. Schedule it every week on the same day. This is the least confusing way. Set a time (6:30pm) and a venue (Bob’s Pizza) and stick with it. Not everyone will be there. Not even the organizer needs to be there every week. But if it is every week, everyone in the group will know that it is always there and always happening.
Over time, provided people enjoy it, they will begin to schedule other things around it. Again, it doesn’t actually matter who comes, how many people attend, and so on. The crucial thing is that it always happens, every week until it gets boring.
Who Is Invited?
Any good meetup needs to begin with a few people who want to do it. They can invite their friends who will then invite their own friends. It could take a few months to really establish itself.
If you post your meetup as a Facebook group, it is easy to share with others. They can ask for permission to join and you can approve them.
But should it be a secret group or a public group? In my own view, the best way is open. Open the meeting up to the world. Anyone can come. Does this risk having people join who are not true believers? Of course, but that increases the energy and enjoyment. It’s actually not fun to talk with people about things like politics when everyone is already in 100% agreement.
But doesn’t opening your group to the world risk the problem of strangely annoying trolls hanging out? The truth is that this is a risk with either public groups or private groups. Not everyone likes everyone else. At least with an open group, you have a better chance of the people you like outnumbering the people you do not like.
In my own group, you never know who who is going to show up. That too becomes part of the fun. It could be four people or it could be forty. We had a special guest a few weeks ago, and fully 150 people showed up. Yes, it was madness, but thrilling. The following week, we retained many of those new people, who were surprised to learn that such a thing meets every week.
What Happens at the Event?
It’s usual to expect a speaker at such events, someone to present a paper or talk, and then take Q&A. But scheduling that kind of thing takes time and energy. Doing that every week can be all-consuming!
What about a new way to think about these events? What if there is no speaker at all and the main event is just the socializing that takes place and the ideas discussed around the table? That actually seems to work well. My own sense is that this is why people attend such things anyway. It’s not really about the speaker; it’s about the community. Sometimes speakers can actually harm the sense of community that would otherwise develop.
As much as possible, it is good to direct conversation to the whole group. Side conversations are unpreventable, but it is nice to have a topic that is interesting and riveting enough to draw in everyone. If that doesn’t happen, you might consider things like making a toast or rising to propose a problem or issue and have everyone weigh in.
And how long should the meetup last? How about having no established ending time at all? At my group people stay an hour or two or three or even until the late hours of the night. People have different demands on their time and different levels of tolerance for group activity. Just let people leave when they want to leave.
A key to having a sustainable group is to reduce the logistics to the barest minimum.A key to having a sustainable group is to reduce the logistics to the barest minimum. There should be no officers, no treasurers, no bylaws, and so on. Bureaucracy takes time and introduces conflict. It can kill the spontaneity that is essential for thriving groups. I would suggest a clear expectation that everyone pays for his or her own drinks and food. This doesn’t forestall picking up the tab for a special guest or whatever.
What Should It Be Called?
My own group is called Anarchy in Atlanta. That not only reflects my own ideological orientation; it signals fun and unexpected happenings. It is also interesting and intriguing to outsiders who are considering whether to attend. So I can easily imagine Anarchy in Denver or Anarchy in Portland.
However, one name may not be the right thing for every city or town. It can be Liberty in Brownsville or Ideas in Fairfax. But regardless it’s crucial to think of the marketing implications of what you do. There are many people out there who are desperate to talk about ideas and don’t have anywhere to do it. Your group can be a problem solver.
Beyond the Seminar
There was a time in the past when libertarians believed that seminars alone would save the world. We’ve learned otherwise. We’ve learned that persuasion and community organizing is all about friendship and person-to-person contact. You can watch all the lectures on YouTube that your heart desires, but getting to know people requires actually hanging out in real life.
I might go further to say that libertarians who organize such things, all across the world, will do more to build a foundation for a future of freedom than they would otherwise do with writing books and speaking before mass audiences. The world will be won through friendship above all else.