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Your new best friend could be a mouse click away

Source: Suburbanchicagonews.com

By Kate Marshall

SPECIAL TO THE COURIER NEWS The Internet social scene, once reserved for love-thirsty singles, is not just for romance anymore. Various online outlets are hooking up friends for everything from shopping to partying � without the burden of potentially dishonorable intentions.

A quick search for social groups online yields an abundance of options. Meetin.org. Meetup.com. Yahoo! Groups. Chicago Sport and Social Club. Chitown Social Club.

All provide organized activities and themed groups � and the best part is, if you can't find one you like, you can easily start your own.

According to one local expert, there's a sizeable market for these social outlets among young professionals.

Many recent graduates find it difficult to establish a group of friends after school. Former students have to go where the jobs are, which is often where their friends aren't.

Young people may find themselves in a new city and a new job that likely won't have programs available to facilitate developing friendships.

The pool of potential friends after college "is somewhat limited," said Dan Bero, a counselor in Geneva. "It really kind of dries up after college."

For the most part, he said, "friendships really revolve around work."

That strategy is fine for those who work for a company that employs lots of recent graduates. But often, particularly in smaller companies, most employees are in a different place in their lives than the new person.

Dilip John, 36, a financial and business analyst in Chicago who volunteers as a leader for Meetin.org, said at a recent new member happy hour event, "once you get out of college, all of a sudden you're in the work force and people are much older than you or they're married ... or live in the suburbs."

John said that's the working environment he found himself in when he graduated from college.

He decided to become involved in a few of the social groups that have members in Chicago. He started by posting activities on a few Web sites. He got a good response, so he eventually became more involved in Meetin.org, which has about 1,900 members in and around Chicago.

Events organized by the various social groups include everything from happy hours to museum events, movie nights, and late-night biking and running. And even though the highest concentration of activities is in the city, some groups host events in the suburbs.

For suburbanites who don't find events they like, they can post their own or even start a new group through a simple registration process.

A lot of the events involve drinking in groups that are designed primarily for socializing � and that, of course, can make the night not quite so platonic.

"It's such a pickup scene," said Felix Chan-Yu, 30, a graduate student who lives in Chicago and joined the group when he moved to the city.

"You put all these single men and single women together drinking," he said, and people start pairing off.

But John insists the primary focus of Meetin.org is to make friends.

"It's very welcoming," he said. And, he added, "it's not a strictly singles group. We do have people in long-term relationships, even married people who just want a different avenue."

At the happy hour event at Joe's Sports Bar in Chicago, two women sat together at a table. They said they became friends through the group.

One of the women, Shannon Warner, 27, said she joined because she was new to the area and knew only one person in the city. A friend recommended she look for an online social group, and she began attending events posted online like wine tastings and movies.

Her friend, Mia Mitra, 38, who lives in Chicago but works in Evergreen Park, said she joined the group because, as she gets older, "my circle of friends shrinks.

"Married women and married men don't want to hang out with single people," Mitra said.

And although there's a decade separating the two women, they found that a similar need � to meet new friends � was enough to base a friendship.

10/2/05