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Meetup.com, the former player in digital organizing, is looking to tap into growing outrage over the Trump administration to regain users.
Meetup.com became famous as Howard Dean’s primary organizing tool during the campaign for the 2004 Democratic presidential nomination. In fact, Dean himself the site with launching and sustaining his candidacy. "We fell into this by accident," he told Wired that year. "I wish I could tell you we were smart enough to figure this out. But the community taught us. They seized the initiative through Meetup. They built our organization for us before we had an organization."
But after Facebook opened up its availability beyond college students in 2006, Meetup steadily fell out of fashion with campaigns and consultants. Now, the site is hoping to capitalize off the self-organizing by anti-Trump groups to get back some of its former market share.
The company recently announced that it’s created a thousand-plus #Resist Meetup Groups around the country and abroad to help activists organize themselves in opposition to President Trump. It’s an overtly partisan play and breaks the site’s longstanding political neutrality.
Despite being famous for launching Dean’s campaign, Meetup has considered itself politically agnostic. In the #Resist group announcement, the company said: “For almost 15 years, Meetup has served as an organizing platform for a wide range of political parties and movements, welcoming everyone from the Howard Deaniacs to the Tea Party. ‘We’re vital plumbing for democracy,’ we always said. Before today, our company had never taken a partisan stance. It’s not a decision we take lightly.
But after Donald Trump’s order to block people on the basis of nationality and religion, a line had been crossed. … We felt a duty to spark more activity and broaden civic participation.”
Meetup said it’s been partnering with the Women’s March, Human Rights Watch, Planned Parenthood, the Anti Defamation League “and many others who are contributing to our library of ideas for making change.” But some digital consultants were skeptical that campaigns and their supporters would now find a reason to return to the site.
“It's natural for Meetup to want to get back into the organizing game, but todays' advocates, activists and political professionals are much more likely to organize with Facebook Events and Groups where they know their intended audiences spend much of their time,” said Brian Ross Adams, a Democratic digital consultant based in Los Angeles. “The anemic numbers in their newly formed #Resist groups reflect this fact.”
Meanwhile, Melissa Ryan, a Democratic digital consultant, wasn’t as skeptical about Meetup’s anti-Trump play. “Their membership has along history of political activism and it's refreshing to see them be responsive to where their members probably already are. Larger tech companies like Uber could learn a thing or two from Meetup,” she said.
She noted that Trump’s supporters were effective using Twitter and reddit for self organizing. “Rather than looking for the next bright shiny object in tech, campaigns who want to engage online should develop similar strategies,” she said. “The grassroots left is already doing this. The Indivisible Guide began as a Google Doc, and the Women's March was born on Facebook. Campaigns and advocacy groups that want to tap into that energy need to go to people where they are.”
Meetup isn’t the only one trying to turn some of the anti-Trump energy into business. Several consulting firms, including Polis, DSPolitical and the recently launched Rodham Consulting, have been making some of their expertise available free of charge since Trump won the presidential election last November.