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BusinessWeek - Social Networking Goes Offline
Source: BusinessWeek
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By: Olga Kharif

BusinessWeek - Social Networking Goes Offline

I started using MeetIn.org two months ago, having found myself a social butterfly with its wings clipped. My best friend had bought her first home and was busy caulking the bathtub and painting walls. Another buddy was getting ready for her first baby. Yet another was working two jobs. After spending one more Sunday weeding my yard, it dawned on me that I needed to find more friends to join me for hikes and concerts.

But making new friends is not easy, even in Portland, Ore., a superfriendly city. I am too shy to initiate conversations with strangers at my favorite bookstore, the gym, or lectures. At first, the Web didn't look too promising, since the only new people who ever seem to contact me through my page on MySpace (NWS) are spammers selling Viagra. Then a friend told me about MeetIn.org, an online social network designed to help people find new friends�not the romantic kind�to do fun stuff with in the real world. Millions Reach Beyond Cyberspace

Apparently I'm not alone in my quest for offline friendships. Social networking sites that attempt to go beyond the conventional, online-only services offered by the likes of MySpace and Evite Evite have been enjoying stellar growth. MeetIn's user base has nearly doubled, vs. a year ago, to 75,000 people in 90 cities worldwide. Other sites focused on getting people together offline report strong growth as well. Launched five months ago, nightclub-oriented MingleNow.com already boasts 1 million users.

With MeetIn you set up a profile, which can include your photo, age, and brief sections on education and interests (MeetIn's largest and most active chapter is in Portland, where more than 6,600 people have created profiles). Each member can post invites to events�dinners, concerts, salsa dancing, Frisbee outings�for others to join. The Portland contingent posts about 150 events a month. Promotional and singles events are a no-no. "I was very, very nervous and apprehensive," remembers Joanne Couchman, who came to her first MeetIn event in 2005, after she and her boyfriend relocated to Portland from the East Coast. "But I walked in and these people made me feel like I've known them forever."

The similarly named MeetUp.com, which helps people find events ranging from scrapbooking to lectures on social justice, has seen the number of RSVPs on its site double in the past five months. To keep up with the growth, MeetUp plans to double its staff this year to 60 people, says Scott Heiferman, co-founder of the site. "We are growing faster than ever." Finding the Right Niche

That this physical-world extension of social networking is catching on makes sense given the way members of the most popular sites are already using the services. In a survey of 3,357 people between 12 and 21 years old, 22% of those who identified themselves as MySpace users said they use the site to look for event information, according to Forrester Research (FORR) (BusinessWeek.com, 12/12/05, "The MySpace Generation"). So do 30% of Facebook users, even though neither site had well-developed event-planning capabilities. It's not always easy to post and disseminate event photos or send out invites. And the events that are listed aren't always appealing: When I searched MySpace's Portland events, a marijuana party and several adult events topped the list, though there were some dance outings and parties that were more to my liking.