The Permanent Floating Cocktail Party

A strange thing has happened in the Cleveland meetup.com scene:  there are a dozen or so groups with similar themes throwing large social events practically every day of the week; the same people show up to every single one; and you can't tell them apart.  It's like a permanent floating cocktail party.

Author Larry Niven once wrote of a "permanent floating riot club" that developed shortly after the invention of teleportation in a fictional future society.  Once any kind of disturbance broke out anywhere in the world, word got out, and immediately thousands of people teleported there to break things and loot the place.  It got to the point where there was always a disturbance somewhere, and there was a steady flow of people joining and leaving this flash mob, so it became a full-time riot moving from place to place.

That's kind of what's happening here, but with drinking instead of looting.  And the Internet instead of teleportation (which, admit it, is almost as good).  Cleveland has a beer group, several wine groups, a spirits group, a happy hour group, a nightlife group, a "social" group, a 20s and 30s group, a 30s and 40s group, a "party connection", etc - this is nowhere near an exhaustive list and I don't mean to single anyone out.  My point is that most of them make little or no attempt to differentiate themselves.  To further blur any distinctions between them, events are usually cross-posted to multiple groups.

Is this necessarily a bad thing?  What should we expect from a meetup group? 

The value of meetup.com is that it's a filter:  the people who come to meetups are the ones who are open to meeting new people.  In contrast, if you just go to a bar here and try to make new friends, you might get suspicious looks and cold shoulders.  For the most part, I think that's still true in the Permanent Floating Cocktail Party, though I'm no longer new here so it's hard for me to say from personal experience.  Some of my friends, though, have had bad experiences:  territorial behavior, gossip, that sort of thing. 

And this shows us something interesting:  the party has gotten large enough that it's no longer intimate; some people have begun to treat other attendees as though they were random strangers.  There's a strange transition that happens when a group gets to a certain size:  you sense that you'll never know some of the people in it, so you present a persona, a public face, that establishes a reputation for you among the people that you do know.  You start treating people less carefully, because they're just part of the scenery that you're projecting yourself on.  That is clearly happening in Cleveland.

My wife fumes with indignation that there's more than one wine group.  She takes it as a personal affront that anyone might find hers wanting in some way, and she says that the other groups' themes are feeble.  I keep telling her that meetup groups don't really have to have themes, though it's a nice way to bring new people in.  What really makes a group a distinct thing is the personality of the organizer, which sets the tone of the group.  The organizer determines what kind of behavior is acceptable, what kind of activities will take place, and in general how rigid or freeform the events will be.  In the Permanent Floating Cocktail Party, events are very freeform and the organizers make little effort to use the force of their personality to set a tone.  That's one thing that my wife does very well, and it sets the group she co-organizes apart from the others.

Most meetup groups, to be clear, don't involve alcohol or parties.  They're strongly focused on their themes, like book clubs or exercising or blogging.  That's the outsider's view of meetup.com:  that it's a way for geeks to find each other and share their obsession in person.  The vast majority are small and meet infrequently, and that's what their members want.  In that context, these giant themeless social nights are pretty odd.

When it's all said and done, you can go out any night that your schedule is open and have a drink with some strangers who will be willing to chat.  The event itself won't have a lot of personality, and you might encounter some high-school-like behavior, but it can be a lot of fun.  You never know who you'll meet, and in an unscripted live encounter, anything can happen.