2006_02_steinberglg.jpgThe other night, on a tip from Gawker, I ventured into Rickshaw Dumpling Bar not sure what to expect, but overwhelmingly curious about a group of New Yorkers gathered for the sole purpose of playing one of my favorite games: Boggle. Immediately upon entering, I was greeted warmly and ushered into a game, where we proceeded to form words and the occasional non-word. The players were smart but not pretentious, able to laugh at their scribbles and our State of the Union-inspired plays. Then, what really sealed the deal, was when organizer Peter Steinberg approached bearing a massive chocolate cupcake from D'Aiuto's. Cupcakes and Boggle? Really, what could be better?

Turns out that in addition to running the NYC Boggle Meetup Group, Steinberg is the Director of Product Development for Meetup.com, a website where anyone can join or create a group dedicated to anything, no matter how obscure. I pestered him for his Boggle-playing tips, career history, and advice for those who want to join groups dedicated to wining and dining, Balderdash, clam chowder, beekeeping, iPod enthusiasm, cake decorating, or even kilts.

How did you get involved with Meetup.com and can you tell me more about the company and your role within it?
It's a story with a bit of twist, actually. I've spent 5 years at AOL during the early pre-Time Warner years, a few years at Zagat.com and Vindigo, and a very brief stint at a U.S. Intelligence Agency, Top Secret security clearance and all. After all that I was looking for something online, in New York, and that made the world a better place

Soon after coming up with these criteria I took a look at CraigsList. Lo and behold, there was an interesting job listing at some unknown-to-me place called Meetup.com. I looked into it and was fascinated by what they were doing. I sent in my resume and they called just an hour later.

Here's the aforementioned twist: they hadn't yet seen the resume I sent in. They had been given my name by a friend of mine who, unbeknownst to me, recommended me for the job -- the timing of it all was total coincidence. Well, I decided then and there it was fate -- I was meant to work at Meetup.

So what is Meetup? We're the 20-person company that runs Meetup.com -- a website that helps you get together regularly with a group of local people who share your interest, no matter how esoteric it might be. Those get-togethers? Those are the Meetups.

What if there are no Meetups near you for your interest? No problem. You can either sign up and we'll email you when someone starts holding the Meetups you want or you can be the one who organizes the Meetups and
everyone else can come to you.

And my role? I'm the point-person on all the work we do to make the website better. Specifically, attract people to join Meetups, convince people to start new Meetups, and make it easier for members of existing Meetups to do all the online things they do -- set up events, RSVP, upload photos, chat, etc. Somehow or another that's kept me busy for 2.5 years now and the pile of work in front of me is endless.

What are the rules for organizing a Meetup? Must they all be open to anyone, or can they be selective/cap their membership?
Really, there are no rules. Your group can be private or exclusive, though most are open. You can close your membership at any time but probably the #1 request we have from the Organizers of Meetups is help in finding more members. In general, Meetup groups are incredibly welcoming places where just about anyone can go and make great new friends who happen to share one of your passionate interests.

You're in charge of the NYC Boggle Meetup. How long has it been going on and how competitive does it get?
The group's been going strong for 19 months now in a very casual, laid-back way -- we're not competitive at all. People will usually add up their score each round though I don't recall anyone ever touting up their score for the whole night. Really, if you like to play Boggle you should join us. If you MUST WIN at Boggle, go start your own Boggle Meetup.

It's also helpful that running the group allows me eat our own dog food -- experiencing all the challenges and frustrations of our customers is by far the best way I can improve our website.

And as an added bonus, I get a ton of satisfaction from the fact that I've created a little bit of the quirkiness -- "A what? A group of people that get together to play Boggle, in public, every month? Anyone can join? Huh?" -- that makes New York City the best city in the world.

What's been the most memorable word you've made or you've seen made?
Oh please, as if I remember. Hmmm . . . some day, I'd love to find the word "thaumaturgist". How's that? And you'd be surprised, but in over a year of playing, with 20+ people every month, no one's every come up with the word "boggle." Oh, and "quinine." For some reason "quinine" seems to come up every month.

Each month, there's a theme and players are encouraged to find words, including proper nouns, that relate to the theme, such as this January's "State of the Union address" theme. What other themes have you done and how creative do people get with it?
The monthly theme is one of the things that makes our Meetups more than straight-up Boggle. The theme usually ties to the month -- scary words in October for example. When it comes to theme, all rules are out the window. Proper nouns, phonetic spellings, words that are almost there. All you have to do is convince me.

What good is a theme word? A theme word is good for the best prize. What prize? Well, I bring prizes for everyone every month, specifically, really bad or amusing used books. For example, some memorable ones are Ann Landers Talks to Teenagers About Sex circa 1963 or an old pop-up book titled Mary and Her Little Lamb go into Business (which seemed to have some odd subtext about Mary and the lamb going into the oldest profession). Anyway, I save the best prize for the person with the best theme word. That and maybe I give them an extra cupcake -- lately I've been bringing everyone cupcakes.

Has there been any particularly outrageous night of Boggle playing? I can't exactly imagine what that might entail, but you tell me.
I'd like to say that after we're all Boggled out we head downtown for some drunken Karaoke or a rumble against the Scrabble Meetup. Or maybe a few of us stay late and use cupcake frosting as body paint. Sadly though, we're just a bunch of extremely nice, low-key, fairly Yuppie New Yorkers in their 20's and 30's who just happen to like Boggle enough to get together and play once a month.

Do you have any Boggle strategies you've learned from playing and observing other master Bogglers?
I've observed two kinds of Boggle players. First, those who pretty much just cast around the board for words. Second, those who start with one cube and very systematically work their outward from that cube in every direction until they've exhausted all possibilities and then, and only then, move on to the next cube. If there's more to it than that, it's escaped my vision.

This may relate to other Meetup Groups as well, but for you, what's the appeal of playing Boggle with strangers, rather than just organizing a group of your friends for games?
For me? Yeah, it might be more fun to play games with friends than strangers. But you know what? These strangers, over time, have become friends. For others in the group I frequently hear a variation on "A Boggle group? I love Boggle! And my [friends/boyfriend/girlfriend/sister/brother/etc] won't play with me anymore!"

You're also part of the New York City Clam Chowder Meetup Group. Do you travel around testing out various restaurants' clam chowders, or your own creations?
If only. That group is a group I run for testing purposes only. Why Clam Chowder? It's an inside joke that will have to be bribed out of me.

What are the most popular kinds of Meetups?
I just looked and we're closing in on 10,000 active Meetups Groups spread across 1,261 different interests. The most popular interest accounts for only 209 of the 10,000 so as you can see, Meetups are incredibly diverse. Of course there are popular categories though. Parenting groups are huge: Stay-at-Home Moms, Work-at-Home Moms, Lesbian Moms, just plain Moms, Stay-at-Home Dads too . . . the variation is endless.

Dog groups are huge too. People seem to get a kick out of seeing dozens of the same breed run around together. We have active Dog groups for 51 different breeds. What's most popular? Chihuahua and Pug hands down.

Also, language groups were a bit of a surprise to us. We have groups that get together to practice or improve their language skills in 47 unique languages.
There's lots of expected languages like French, German, and Spanish. But lots of esoteric ones as well like Yiddish, Swahili and even Elvish.

Lastly, as an outgrowth of the 2004 election, we have all sorts all sorts of partisan political groups.

What leadership qualities does a Meetup Organizer need?
It's helps to be a bit of an extrovert but if you have a passion for a particular interest, as long as you're relatively comfortable using a simple website, willing to write a few emails a month, and can muster up the courage to walk up to strangers and introduce yourself . . . well then, you don't even need to be all that outgoing. And if you happen to be one of those people who lack leadership skills, running a Meetup happens to be a great way to develop those skills in a (relatively) painless manner.

Do certain areas of the country (or world) have more Meetups than others? Are Meetups most appealing to newcomers to a city? Is there a "typical" Meetup member in any sense?
New York City has more Meetups than anywhere else -- there are 736 Meetup Groups in the area. But you'll find a healthy diversity of groups in any city in the U.S. and many exurban and rural areas too. And we're not just in the U.S. There are Meetups in 59 different countries. We even used to have two groups in Antarctica . . . but I think they're gone now.

Are Meetups more appealing to newcomers to a city? Sure -- because they're looking to make new friends. But Meetups are appealing to pretty much everyone. I have lifelong New Yorkers show up every month and say "Boggle? I love Boggle -- and none of my friends seem to like it!"

As far as a typical members, no such luck. It's been a while since we've researched our demographics but you can tell just by attending a few different Meetups that our members come in every size and shape.

Do all Meetups have to be physical Meetups, or is there room to start an online "group" within Meetup?
Meetups don't have to be face-to-face but really, 99% of them are. After all, there are tons of places on the web to meet people. Meetup are all about turning OFF the computer, getting OUT of the house and forming those deeply satisfying lasting social bonds that all humans crave.

Activism seems to be a component of the Meetup philosophy, with Senator Bill Bradley on your Board of Directors and a public affairs director, and the phrase "a powerful force for change" appearing on your website. How does politics get played out within Meetup, aside from specific Meetup Groups dedicated to various causes?
As some might recall, Meetups played a huge role in Howard Dean's whole people-powered, grassroots presidential campaign. And there were Meetups for all the other Democratic candidates as well as George Bush. After the election, we were happy to see many of those groups evolve into longer-lasting organizations centered on improving the democratic process. We also have wonderful groups that focus on things as diverse as fighting human trafficking or developing affordable housing for the developing world.

What's the most outrageous or amusing Meetup Group you've encountered so far?
Ah jeez, while Meetup is generally extremely mainstream, we do have our share of . . . diverse interests. So many come to mind (Pagans, Elvis Fans, Witches, Ghost Trackers, Parkour . . . ) but I think my favorite is Punky Moms. Yep. They're punk. And they're Moms. That, and Pugs. Don't get me wrong, I like pugs. But did you know they dress them up for Halloween?

What's one Meetup Group you'd like to start but haven't done so yet?
Boggle's enough for me -- it's hard to do a good job with more than one group. I'd love for someone to start a sea kayaking group though. We could all meet at Valentino Pier in Red Hook or the slips by the North Cove and all glide out into New York Harbor together.

Is there anything else you'd like to add?
Two things. First, if you enjoy Boggle, come out and join us. A fun evening is guaranteed and you'll get a yummy cupcake.

Second, I know it absurdly cheesy but I'm truly proud to work at Meetup. We're a small company but our efforts are vastly multiplied by the thousands of Organizers that run their groups with such passion and devotion. Combined, I really feel like we're making this sometimes-troubled world a slightly better place.

Visit the NYC Boggle Meetup Group or check out one of the 735 other Meetups in New York City.