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ENHANCING THE EXPERIENCE OF CULTURAL EVENTS THROUGH GROUP ATTENDANCE: A CASE STUDY OF MEETUP.COM

Art and MusicPosted by john sloboda Mon, January 30, 2017 14:53:20

John Sloboda

Independent researcher

www.johnsloboda.co.uk



MEETUP.COM AND THE REASONS FOR RESEARCHING IT

In the words of it’s co-founder Scott Heiferman meetup.com “is about the simple idea of using the Internet to get people off the Internet” (Heiferman, 2009). Has it succeeded in that, and if so, what makes it a success, particularly in the context of attendance at cultural events?

Meetup.com’s website describes itself as follows:

“Meetup brings people together in thousands of cities to do more of what they want to do in life. It is organized around one simple idea: when we get together and do the things that matter to us, we’re at our best. And that’s what Meetup does. It brings people together to do, explore, teach and learn the things that help them come alive.” https://www.meetup.com/about/

I came across meetup.com in 2008 when I mentioned to a colleague that I had recently moved to London and was seeking means of connecting up with people who had similar cultural interests to me. He told me he had found it useful when he had also recently arrived in a city, knowing few people there. I very much like going to cultural events, such as concerts, theatre, or film. Although I have attended such events alone, I have found it much more rewarding when I go with one or more people. Talking with fellow attenders both before and after the event, usually over a drink or a meal, is part of what makes a cultural outing fully satisfying to me.

As a single person newly arrived in London I did not have a ready-made set of potential companions for cultural outings, partly because I wanted to try new things which were outslde the taste boundaries of existing friends and family. Meetup.com provided me with an entry point into the vast cultural offerings that a city like London provides, by putting me in touch with organised groups that focus around particular topics or interests. Over the 8 years that I have been a meetup member I have sampled the offerings of around a dozen different meetup groups, and have organised a few events myself within one of them.

Almost every meetup meeting I have attended has been positive. Even when the cultural event itself turned out to be disappointing, the conversation with fellow attenders has rescued the evening. Finding out about their reactions and tastes has always been interesting, and bumping into someone again at a different event (as often happens) allows cordial acquaintance to develop, and mutual non-threatening and non-exclusive interest in each other.

At the same time as I was discovering and enjoying meetup, I was working as a research psychologist on a set of projects concerned with audiences for classical music. Classical musicians depend on live audiences to sustain them professionally. Despite the fact that the number and quality of musicians entering the profession has never been higher, classical organisations and venues struggle to fill their seats. The last quarter century has seen a steady decline in the number of people attending classical concerts in cities such as London, at the same time as other visitor art forms (such as musical theatre or art galleries) are thriving (Sloboda and Ford, 2012).

There are many factors that can help explain the decline in classical concert attendance, but one which several observers have noticed is that, compared to many other kinds of cultural event, classical concert-going is not very sociable. There’s a kind of stiffness and formality about traditional concert going culture, where talking, movement, and almost any kind of sound making, is frowned upon (Dobson 2010).

Concert promoters and artists are increasingly aware that the traditional concert environment may be an inhibitor to attendance, and have been exploring a range of innovations to make concerts more informal and relaxed, and to draw audiences into deeper and more active engagement with the musicians (Sloboda, 2013)

In my explorations of the concert scene I’ve not encountered significant attempts to enhance an event through improving the relationships that audience members might have to one another. My experience with meetup tells me that this is a fertile arena for development.

These two factors, my personal experience with meetup in London, and my professional interest in audiences for classical music (also focused mainly on London), motivated me to propose and carry out a small research study to better understand the experience of meetup participants attending cultural events in London. In particular, I wanted to understand what it is about well-run meetup groups that makes them so successful, what are the problems that organisers face, and how they craft elegant solutions to them.

HOW I WENT ABOUT THE RESEARCH

My first step was to contact three organisers/leaders of established and successful London meetup groups in different domain of culture, each with at least 1000 members. I chose these from the meetup groups I had actively participated in myself, and therefore had established prior cordial personal contact. The group leaders all agreed to meet me (and one another) for a 90 minute group interview in July 2016, where they responded in conversation to a pre-agreed set of questions that tapped their experience and insight as meetup organisers.

Informed by this meeting, and some follow-up email correspondence, I drafted a questionnaire to be sent to the members of these three meetup groups. This questionnaire contained a mixture of quantitative/categorical questions along with more open-ended qualitative questions where respondents could write in their own words. I adhere to the British Psychological Society’s Code of Conduct for Research Ethics, http://www.bps.org.uk/sites/default/files/documents/code_of_human_research_ethics.pdf . As recommended by the guidelines, prior to release I consulted an experienced research colleague about the ethical issues that might arise in the research, and made some amendments to the draft in the light of advice received, both from the colleague, and from the three meetup organisers consulted.

During September - November 2016 the three organisers used the meetup.com interface to email all their members, inviting participation in the research, and providing them with a link to a website where they could complete the questionnaire online in confidence and, if so chosen, anonymously. I used the SurveyMonkey software, which has an excellent track record in relation to privacy and security of data https://www.surveymonkey.net/mp/policy/privacy-policy/

Responses were downloaded from the software in early December 2016 for analysis.

WHAT THE RESEARCH REVEALED

1 The questionnaire respondents

The invitation to complete the questionnaire was mailed to some 12,000 individuals, being the combined registered members of the three meetup groups whose leaders I met (with respectively 7000, 3000 and 2000 members - rounded to the nearest 1000). 80 responses were received, which represents a 0.66% response rate. It was noticeable that the majority of responses were completed within 24 hours of the invitation being sent, suggesting that recipients either responded as soon as they read the email or not at all.

The age spread of respondents was broad, but there were few respondents under 25 or over 65. There was no noticeable “peak” in any particular age band. Genders were equally represented (48% female, 52% male). Two-thirds of respondents identified as single (including divorced). 58% had British nationality, with the great majority of the remainder (31%) having nationality of a European Union member country other than Britain. 85% of respondents had lived in London for at least 3 years at time of responding.

Respondents covered a broad range of experience with meetup.com. 23% had been a meetup member for 5 or more years. 63% had been involved for between 1 and 5 years. 14% had joined meetup within the last year.

42% of respondents were members of between one and five groups, with 27% reporting membership of more than ten groups. The majority (63%) had attended a few of their meetup groups in the last year. Only 11% had attended most or all of their groups recently. 47% had organised/hosted at least one event within a meetup group of which they were a member.

These data paint the picture of a typical responder being a single British citizen in the middle years of life, having lived in London for some years, and being an occasional attender and hoster at several meetup groups.

a. How and why responders joined meetup

An early question was “Why did you join meetup in the first place?”. Responses clustered in five broad categories. The most frequent (46%) was to socialise, meet like minded people, make new friends.

e.g. “Thought I'd have an interesting time and meet people that I would enjoy talking to and being with and maybe make some good friends.” (M 26-35)

The next category was to pursue a specific activity in the company of others (24%):

e.g. “Because I wanted to see more jazz gigs and didn't want to go on my own”. (F 46-55)

Next came changed circumstances of some sort (15%), including recently having moved to London, but also changes in personal life:

e.g. No family in the UK, came out of a relationship and friends' and my interests diverged. (F 36-45)

Next came recommendation from friend or colleague (10%).

e.g. “I used to go to things on my own, and randomly got chatting to a stranger at one of them. I was telling someone at work how nice that was, and she recommended Meetup to me” (F 36-45)

Finally, a few (6%) joined for professional reasons, or in order to organise or promote an activity.

E.g. To improve the attendance to the gigs I organise. (F 46-55)

It is clear from these responses that many meetup members see the meeting activity, whether cultural or otherwise, as an effective means to an end, the end being expanding their social network, in some cases precipitated by a change in circumstance, such as a move, or a relationship finishing. A sizeable minority had very specific activities in mind, but even then some respondents expanded beyond the activity that originally brought them to meetup.

(b) How responders experienced meetup

One question asked respondents to rate their recent meetup experience on a four point scale. (not at all, partly, mainly, wholly positive). 41% chose “wholly positive”, and 48% chose “mainly positive”. These are therefore mainly respondents who have enjoyed being in meetup.

This positivity was reflected in future intentions. 97.5% of the respondents intended to go to future meetups in the next year, with 57% saying they would go to a lot.

Their perceptions of meetup were explored in more detail through three open-ended questions. First they were asked what things made a recent meetup a positive experience. Responses fell into three main categories, the people, the activity, and the organisation of the event. Several respondents mentioned more than one of these in their answer.

e.g. “People from different backgrounds, very different things you can do, someone else organises for me and I only have to show up, I would never have known about half of these things or done them on my own. In summary, it's like having a huge circle of friends but without the drama.” (F 36-45)

When people were focused on in the answer some respondents concentrated on the atmosphere or quality of behaviour at the event itself

“Friendly people at the meet who talked to others, whether they knew them or not.” (F 36-45)

Others mentioned the longer-term consequences

e.g. “Made some great friends, through one of whom I had some life-changing experiences.” (M 26-35)

When the activity was focused on, this almost always implicated the organiser, in that it was the choice of event that made the difference:

e.g. “The activity itself - it delivered what I had hoped it would deliver in terms of content.” (F 46-55)

The link between activity and organiser was often made explicit within the same comment:

e.g. “good choice of outing/ culture- good facilitator/host who is friendly and makes others feel welcome” (F 66-75)

What is also very clear is that, for many respondents, the communal nature of the activity is key - being able to enjoy not only the cultural offering, but other people’s reactions to it and characteristics they bring to the event.

e.g. “As well as the event itself being interesting, it was perfectly organised, and we had the most terrific time in the pub afterwards, with great conversation”. (F 36-45)

When the organisation/organiser was mentioned, this tended to reflect either the competence and efficiency of the arrangements, or the personal qualities that the organiser/host bought to the meetup:

e.g. “Friendly hosts who made sure the members knew the exact details of where to meet, provided their telephone number in case of problems, and greeted members, introducing them to other members.” (F 36-45)

The second open-ended question asked respondents to mention some of the things which had made a recent meetup not so positive.

A few did not respond, or were explicit that they could not identify problems

e.g. This has never happened always been a positive experience with much joy” (M 36-45)

“all the meetups I attended were positive” (F 36-45)

Poor organisation of the event was identified as a frequent cause of problems, which again highlights the central importance of the event organiser to success.

“e.g. It's a little while ago, but I had arranged to join a Meetup group at an event. I wasn't familiar with the venue, and didn't know anyone I'd be meeting. We were to meet after the event, but I ended up waiting in the wrong place. I didn't have anyone's contact details, so left a message on the event page to say I couldn't see anyone. I never got a response. When someone subsequently remarked on the event page that he couldn't find them either, and I agreed, the organiser left quite a curt message to say that she'd posted the details for meeting. Turned out they hadn't even ended up in the pub they'd meant to go to, because it was too crowded, so they chose another. How anyone was supposed to find them then is a mystery.. some organisers just don't care, and I don't know why they bother.” (F 36-45).

“An organiser who is not clear about what will happen or doesn’t make the effort to get people involved. Badly prepared organiser ( e.g. I was on a hike where the organiser didn't know the route and also wouldn’t listen to people who did)” (F 46-55)

Organiser motives (or perceived motives) are also important. There is a particular dislike of organisers who are using meetup to further their professional careers or make money:

E.g. “You rarely see the same people twice made worse by the constantly 'churning' population in London.This is common throughout Meetup. Meetup is also used extensively by people trying to run quasi-commercial activities or promoting themselves. These people really have no interest in the social side of meetup - you are just another body to them and meetup is their main marketing channel.” (M age not given)

The behaviour of other attenders at a meetup was also a focus of dissatisfaction, usually as a result of lack of courtesy or consideration:

E.g. “Groups that tend to be a bit over-dominating (dare I say it the Guardian reading / anti-Tory / anti-Brexit / angry types!) and force their view on the rest (such as talk about their political views throughout a lovely walk).” (M 36-45)

“I have sometimes found meetups to trigger my social anxiety. I have felt excluded from cliques, and this made me feel unwanted and left early.” (M 26-35)

In the context of a broad level of satisfaction with meetup, the problems identified can be classified as incidental to meetup as a concept, rather than due to an inherent flaw in the concept or the way it is able to be executed. These problems are thus generally resolvable by means other than leaving meetup altogether - for instance by avoiding certain groups, certain organisers etc. Thus, to a certain extent, these issues should be self correcting. Poorly run groups, and ill-equipped organisers, will not be able to attract and retain a viable membership. Well-run groups should thrive.

(c) What advice would respondents give organisers

Accordingly, the third question asked of respondents was: “If you were able to offer one piece of general advice to a Meetup organiser, or to the Meetup organisation as a whole, what would it be?”.

Several respondents said they couldn’t think of any advice they’d like to give, and that organisers were doing a good job. Quite a number of responses reinforced the necessity of event organisers being efficient and informative, and ensuring that attenders were able to engage with each other, particularly after the event, if the event itself required minimal interaction.

Many of the comments focused on the issue of “rules and restrictions”. They highlight the balancing act that a good organiser needs to execute. On the one hand, these are social events, where people want to relax and have a fun time. That suggests informality. On the other hand, they need to be efficiently organised, clear, safe, and respectful of all. That suggests a certain formality.

These two opposite directions are sometimes included in the same comment, which reflects an appreciation of this tension:

“Don't try to organise to hard. Every Meeting has its own dynamic so, wherever possible allow that to flow. I think it's more positive and participants will feel ownership. However don't be afraid to intervene if the meeting is dragging or there are people who seem to be feeling excluded ie those who are on their own. It is always a good idea to have a fallback strategy so that when people leave they feel as if they have got something out of the event, otherwise you may well not see them again. “ (M 66-75)

Specific actions or attributes of the meeting organiser in making a meetup a success runs through almost all the comments”

“The organizer needs to have a photograph on their profile. They need to be at the event slightly earlier than anyone else and have a sign. If they don't like that, perhaps send a post saying what they are wearing” (F 56-65)

“Although they are largely volunteers organisers need to have a genuine interest in people having a good time and the event being well run.” (F 46-55)

2. The Meetup Organisers

There is a lot that goes into making a successful meetup group. Accordingly the characteristics and skills of a meetup organiser are key. My conversations with the three group organisers revealed a shared understanding that a successful meetup leader needs to in many respects be a “benign dictator” with very clear rules and expectations both for the attenders at events, and also for the people who organise individual meetings (in those cases where the group is too large for the overall organiser to be at every event him or herself.

Individual meeting organisers tend to be drawn from the more enthusiastic and committed meetup members who return to many events, get to know each other as friends, and thus form a “core” membership. What seems critical is that this group of individual meeting organisers (which can be as large as 50 or 60 in the more successful groups) operate according to a consistent standard, which is laid down by the meetup leader - in some cases as a clear and strict set of guidelines for how to advertise and run an event.

Not everyone responds positively to the particular set of rules that a given meetup group operates under. One of the group organisers said

“I encourage people with different ideas to start their own meetups. Some people are super-friendly but really want to do something else. You need to say “this is the way it is going to be”.”

Organisers sometimes need to stand their ground on issues of principle.

One organiser said “we are a closed group, I accept every new member. Members have to provide a clear face picture - this is necessary to be able to recommend. Some people object, and I have had a lot of trolling for this. We are not an anonymous group - you have to see other people’s pictures.”

Such holding the ground is particularly important where individual attenders engage in behaviour which upsets or threatens other attenders.

One organiser noted that ““Pick-up artists” exploit meetup groups to pick up women. I wrote about it and then they disappeared. You have to put something on the forum to show that you will not tolerate it. Because lots of new members join every year, you have to keep writing again. It was a shock that went round the club, I had to ask organisers to look out for it.”

Despite the problems that meetup organisers need to solve, successful organisers appear to really enjoy the role of organiser, and gain significant personal fulfilment. One organiser said:

“It changed my life. I met like-minded people and formed friendships. I sometimes feel like royalty - meeting group members on train platforms - getting credit for the work - it’s very satisyfing. As a result of my strong links with like minded people my quality of life has improved.”

Another said “I wanted to create a meetup that I’d like to go to. If it works for me it will probably work for other people. It gives me a lot back: three or four of my closest friends were met through Meetup, as well as a lot of casual acquaintances. It filled a gap for me. I am not great at talking to people casually.

These comments suggest that meetup works best when the organiser gets from his or her group the same kind of social and personal benefits as the people who come into their group. I did not meet any organisers who run their meetup groups to further their professional or business interests. Although there is nothing about meetup which stops such groups existing, the people in my sample strongly disapproved of groups set up for the professional or financial benefit of the organiser, and were much more in favour of an egalitarian regime where everyone from the leader down to the newest member gets the same thing out of a meetup, which is cordial and welcoming human contact in the context of going together to an interesting activity.

As one organiser said,”London can be a very lonely place. I’ve heard many people say “what did we do before meetup?”!

CONCLUSIONS AND IMPLICATIONS

Meetup.com is a platform that allows many thousands of people in localities to connect with each other and the activities that they enjoy, in a non-threatening and open face-to-face context.

My investigation of a sample of London meetups, their organisers and their attenders, shows that when people are introduced to each other at an event by someone who takes the role of “introducer”, they typically get into productive and rewarding conversations which can enhance their enjoyment of the evening as a minimum, and at a maximum lead to longlasting, even life-changing, friendships.

Contemporary commentators such as Robert Puttnam (2000) have noted with alarm how modern life is associated with a rapid decline in social capital as time-honoured means of bringing people together in communities collapse.

Loneliness and social isolation can intensified by the internet and home-based media, such that people don’t anymore know others in the streets and neighbourhoods around them, nor do they have the skills and means to reach out to them. Mega-cities like London intensify these problems, and not only for new arrivals. Changes such as the breakup of a relationship or the death of a partner can suddenly thrust well-established residents into social isolation.

Meetup is a tool for increasing relevant social contacts which is completely open as regards the type of activity around which people coalesce. It thus means that the range of meetup groups is only limited by the imagination and energy of those setting up groups.

The successful groups are the ones where the ground rules are clear, people are made to feel welcome, and the organiser has no “axe to grind” beyond enhancing their own enjoyment of an event through making it better for others too.

This has implications for how providers of cultural experiences such as classical concerts make use of the meetup experience. If your main aim in bringing people together is to enhance your business and your income stream, then you may experience suspicion and resistance. The most authentic leaders of groups of cultural attenders are the consumers of the product rather than the providers. The key question for classical concert organisers is thus whether they can encourage and support such “group facilitators from the audience” without making them seen as primarily “ticket agents” devoted to increasing the revenue of the commercial organisation putting on the event - but rather being experienced as social entrepreneurs acting primarily in the interests of the other audience members they recruit.


REFERENCES

Dobson, M.C. (2010). New audiences for classical music: The experiences of non‐attenders at live orchestral concerts. Journal of New Music Research, Special Issue: Understanding Audience Experience, 39(2), 111-­124. Heiferman, S. (2009). The Pursuit of Community. The New York Times. http://www.nytimes.com/2009/09/06/jobs/06boss.html (accessed on 30 Dec 2016)

Robert Puttnam (2000) Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community. (New York: Simon & Schuster) bowlingalone.com

Sloboda, J.A. (2013) Musicians and their live audiences: dilemmas and opportunities. Understanding Audiences Working Paper 3, Guildhall School of Music & Drama.

http://www.gsmd.ac.uk/fileadmin/user_upload/files/Research/UA_Working_paper_Spring_2013.pdf

Sloboda, J.A. & Ford, B. (2012) What classical musicians can learn from other arts about building audiences. Understanding Audiences Working Paper 2, Guildhall School of Music & Drama. http://www.gsmd.ac.uk/fileadmin/user_upload/files/Research/Sloboda-Ford_working__paper_2_01.pdf

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SUMMARY

GOING TO THINGS TOGETHER MAKES EVENTS BETTER, MAKES LIVES BETTER – NEW RESEARCH ON MEETUP.COM

Meetup.com is an international social application that puts people with common interests in touch with one another so that they can attend events together and socialise around the event.

A recent detailed survey conducted by psychologist John Sloboda, completed by meetup members living and working in London, confirms the high value that going together to cultural events (such as concerts, talks, films) brings to many people.

The survey shows that many people see going together to a cultural event as an effective means to an end, the end being expanding their social network, in some cases precipitated by a change in circumstance, such as a move, or a relationship finishing.

But joint attendance also enhances enjoyment of the cultural event itself, providing opportunities to share experience and reactions with a congenial group of people, and informing people about events that they might not otherwise have heard about.

The survey shows that the most valued meetups are those organised carefully and sensitively, with organisers who take pains to make everyone feel welcome, and who have provided clear advance information about where and how people can connect with the other members of the group. The best organisers are volunteers who have a genuine interest in people (including themselves) having a good time and in ensuring that everything runs smoothly. Meetups organised for personal profit or professional gain are less appreciated.

Many meetup attenders belong to several different meetup groups, attend meetups regularly, and gain high satisfaction from doing so.

The findings suggest that self-organising groups of “cultural consumers” are a force for social and cultural good, particularly in big cities, where loneliness and alienation are common experiences. Meetup usually improves the going out experience, and can be socially transformative for some of its members. The lessons of meetup deserve to be more widely shared and used in the cultural sector.
















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