Virtual is now real and going digital is actually terrestrial. If this sounds like gobbledygook, wait till you get introduced to http://www.meetup.com. Meetup starts where Orkut ends and Mumbai’s GenX is getting hooked on to it like nobody’s business. From ‘witches and warlocks’ to ‘cross-dressers’ and ‘Chihuahua owners’, meetup has groups that swing from sane to Rippley’s believe it or not. Where it’s different from other online communities – chat, post pictures and discussion boards – is when they meet up for real.
Salsa dancer Kajal Srinivasan, a member of a meetup Salsa community, is one such ‘online-to-offline’ member. “I can practise with more than 670 salsa enthusiasts from all over Mumbai. We meet once a week and dance together. It’s a great way to practise and socialise at the same time,” she says.
As boundaries between the virtual and real world blur, meetup is symbolic of the power of Web 2.0, which leverages the power of communities and social networking groups. But, then, why would anyone with the luxury of an anonymous web identity want to meet face-to-face?
“Well, for one, to share similar interests. I joined an online community of technical writers and we decided to meet offline to learn new stuff and also socialise. We would meet at the Prithvi Café and I remember once we even had a head-hunter who randomly started interviewing candidates at the meet,” recollects Vidyut Sonde.
Internet, for all its power, is also a lonely planet where surfers spend many-a-hour cut off from the real world. Now, several sites are recognising that and are dedicated towards reducing loneliness by channelising traffic to meet offline. Popular sites include Heyletsgo.com, which lets users add the date, time and venue of local events.
Then there are those who don’t care about when, where and, possibly, how they meet. They disperse as suddenly they meet. Called flashmobs, Mumbai saw it for the first time in 2003 when 70 people decided on the spur of the moment and through email decided to congregate outside Crossroad. For the record, the group discussed, yawn, stock market prices, broke into a garba and then split for coffee.
But is an online-to-offline interaction a pervert’s paradise? “No, not so far. We have a strict screening process where anyone who wants to join the community must post a detailed profile and state why they are interested,” says Swati Prakash, who is the organiser for Tarot India meetup group. “For instance we barred a user because he said that he wanted to learn Tarot Card reading to manipulate people.”
The anonymity of an online exchange also allows people who are part of a fringe or marginalised community to touch base with each other. ‘I am Maverick, m 24 Canada, looking for bisexuals in Mumbai’ is an introduction line you wouldn’t miss. “The Internet lets you be anonymous and so I am free to say what I want. Most relationships here have no strings attached,” says Maverick, who later admits to be from Mumbai.
But there are several who feel that they don’t get the real thing at the end of it all. “I have been a member of the ‘Sex in the city’ group but no one wants to even get in touch on phone. The community is full of fake profiles,” says Prakash Bhatt, who has even posted his phone number on the site.