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Cultivating Political Activism Online:
A Case Study of Democratic Meetup Groups in the 2004 Presidential Election
Submitted for consideration to the
AEJMC Graduate Education Interest Group
2006 Annual Convention
Carole V. Bell
Ph.D. Student, Roy H. Park Fellow
School of Journalism & Mass Communication
University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
11044 David Stone Drive
Chapel Hill, NC 27517
Home: 919.932.7890| Fax: 919.338.1846 | E-mail: [log in to unmask]
Cultivating Political Activism Online:
A Case Study of Democratic Meetup Groups in the 2004 Presidential Election
A Timely Issue and a Pivotal Time
Until recently, most political analysts considered the
Internet to be an embryonic medium of political communication without
power to significantly influence the present-day political process
(Boogers & Voerman, 2003; Scheiber, 2003; Stromer-Galley, 2000).
Recent campaigns including the 2004 presidential campaign, however,
are rapidly changing that perception as a growing number of interest
groups and candidates use the Internet for volunteer mobilization,
fundraising, and voter outreach. Much of this is due to Meetup.com, a
free online service that enables people with common interests to find
one another and come together in local gatherings. These are real
world, face-to-face gatherings at coffeehouses and restaurants over
coffee or drinks (Williams & Gordon, 2003). Although not originally
designed with any one topic in mind, Meetup.com has become a hub of
political activity, with political interest groups having the
greatest membership by far.
The burgeoning acceptance of the Internet in political
campaigns is at least partially attributable to its use in the 2004
race for the Democratic presidential nomination. As noted in
numerous newspaper and magazine articles, before his precipitous and
infamous fall in the primaries, Howard Dean's early success as a
frontrunner was attributed to his campaign's unprecedented success
generating both funding and good will online. Much of their success
derives from the dedication and initiative of Dean's grassroots
supporters and Meetup.com. Meetup.com is decentralized so it fit well
with the egalitarian, populist nature of the Dean movement. Members
vote online to arrange the meeting location and they control the
agenda, not Meetup or campaign employees.
Although the Internet is an essential component of the Meetup
experience, Meetups also involve offline activity. In this way, the
Meetup is a distinctive and evolving form of online political
activity. So, while political web sites in general have started to
attract scholarly scrutiny, given that Meetup.com uses online
communication to facilitate real-world interaction, the findings of
previous studies involving users of political web sites may not be
applicable and more specific study necessary (Sunstein, 2001). The
aim of this study is to begin to fill this gap in knowledge.
Specifically, this study uses in-depth interviews to gain knowledge
about the participants, expectations, and effectiveness of the Meetup
and Meetup.com as a forum for political organization and
communication within a specific community during the 2004 election cycle.
The Meetup Phenomenon
This research is particularly relevant at this time given the
recent surge in online political interest and activity (Bimber, 2003;
Horrigan, 2001; The tough job of communicating with voters,
2000). Although designed to facilitate connections between people
who share a common interest in a wide variety of topics, during the
2004 election cycle, the Meetup phenomenon became widely known as one
of the most popular and high-profile forms of online political
activity. The web site (www.Meetup.com) and its membership were a
fast-growing and fast-changing target. According to the company's
estimates, at the time of the study in 2004, Meetup boasted 1,021,000
members in 612 cities and 51 countries, organized around 3,967
topics. Its growth rate was recently estimated to be 30% per month,
and a substantial portion of that growth driven by political interest
(Meetup.com, 2004). Politics was by far the most popular area of
interest, and political campaign groups ranked highest in terms of
members. The Dean campaign was the most popular interest group with
over 165,000 members as of April 2004; this was over 60,000 more than
its nearest rival, Kerry in 2004 (Meetup.com, 2004; Palser, 2003).
As reported in an article on Internet campaigning that called
attention to Meetup's potential, "one of Dean Campaign manager Joe
Trippi's first acts on behalf of the campaign in 2003 was to
negotiate a contract with Meetup.com," which made it much easier for
his supporters to connect with each other. As a result of this and
other Internet strategies, the Dean campaign was highly successful in
raising money from a large base of small donors (Scheiber, 2003).
Following Dean's lead, several campaigns are now using the Internet
to achieve core campaign objectives (Palser, 2003).
Despite the successes of the Dean campaign in recruiting
donors and volunteers online, however, even in 2004 the Internet was
still considered a highly limited forum of political organization. It
was also an almost unchartered area for scholarly research. The few
early studies that were completed on online political activity
usually concluded that the Internet was not yet an effective mode of
campaigning or influential in stimulating political participation.
One such study conducted in Holland reinforced the view that
political web sites mainly function as "brochure-ware" or a cost
efficient way to disseminate campaign information, especially to
young voters, but do not substantially increase users' political
activity (Boogers & Voerman, 2003). Adding to doubts regarding the
ability of the Internet to increase political participation, in Iowa,
the influential first caucus of the 2004 election season, Dean failed
to make a strong showing despite his impressive number of
Internet-based supporters. His third place finish shocked both his
campaign managers and the pundits and deepened skepticism about the
ability of the Internet to stimulate political participation.
Although online political organizing is still a new
phenomenon and there is no definitive consensus regarding the role of
the Internet in the political process, most scholars argue that so
far there has been no measurable aggregate increase in political
participation or engagement resulting from the adoption of this new
technology (Bimber, 2003, p. 5). According to Bruce Bimber, one of a
handful of scholars leading the field, the study of the Internet is
now at a stage of development comparable to the "limited effects"
stage of mass media scholarship in the 1940s (Bimber, 2003). Major
direct effects do not seem to be in operation, and important but more
subtle or indirect phenomena, equivalent to framing or agenda
setting, may be operating even though they have yet to be detected
empirically. Bimber also argues that, "information revolutions,
including the present one, should have profound and direct
consequences for organizations and the political structure, but only
indirect, less tangible consequences for politics at the level of
individual political engagement (Bimber, 2003; Cornfield, 2003)."
In contrast, however, to these very limited large-scale
effects, on a more micro level, the Internet has been a cost
effective and powerful tool of issue advocacy for individual groups.
Both Bimber (2003) and Michael Cornfield (2003), point to a growing
number of case studies that demonstrate that in isolated areas of
public policy and for specific pieces of legislation that do not
attract wide public interest, the Internet has enabled individuals
outside the political establishment to have a substantial impact,
with little access to traditional political infrastructure or contacts.
The Meetup model seems to challenge the established logic. In
2004, presidential campaigns are now putting the Internet to the test
on a macro level, attempting to utilize the medium on a broad scale
to raise the aggregate rates of individual political participation
and to impact the outcome of the U.S. presidential race. If
successful, this would be a significant advance in the development of
the Internet as a medium of political communication. This study
examines the experiences of Democratic Meetup.com groups who are a
part of this national experiment, the attempt to utilize the medium
to impact politics within the widest most popular context, the U.S.
I addressed the following questions:
* Who attends Meetups and why?
* How does the member's vision of the Meetup experience compare with
or contradict the organization's vision as represented on the
Meetup.com web site and voiced by Meetup organizers?
* Do members view the Meetups as politically effective? What, if any,
change in attitude towards the political process or particular groups
is generated through Meetup membership and attendance?
In this study I examine several different types of
communication in order to build an in-depth understanding of the
Meetup experience. These include in-depth interviews with Meetup
members, field notes from first-hand observation of Meetup groups,
the Meetup.com web site, and member e-mails. My analytic approach
draws principally from Corbin & Strauss's three-step process for
developing grounded theory (Strauss & Corbin, 1990) and Van Dijk's
approach to critical discourse analysis of opinion and ideology (Van
Gaining basic access to Meetup groups and full access to the
official site was fairly easy. Meetups are open to the public; anyone
may attend meetings whether registered as a member or not, but only
members are sent notifications of meeting times and locations via
e-mail. Someone may become a Meetup member for free simply by
registering online, a simple process that requires providing basic
contact information. As a subscriber to Meetup Plus (their enhanced
membership level), I was also able to explore premium site
functionality such as the ability to add new venues for
consideration, contribute suggestions to the meeting agenda, and
contact other members directly via e-mail (addresses are masked for
privacy). As a result, I was able to review the member site in its entirety.
Meetup communication was an integral part of the study. I
joined several Meetup interest groups including all of the ones
represented in the study and received all associated communications
and invitations during the two months of observation. In some cases,
these e-mail communications were used to supplement the oral accounts
I received from participants. I also monitored online Meetup activity
on the Meetup "Mini" message boards.
Participant observation and interviews comprised the core of
the study. I attended several politically oriented Meetups in the
Chapel Hill, North Carolina area for observation and study recruiting
purposes, resulting in a total of approximately ten hours of
participant observation at the Democratic Party, Kerry in 2004 and
Dean for America Meetups. Everyone I spoke to was interested in and
encouraging of the study, and all of the members I approached
generously consented to speak with me, a number far greater than I
could include in the study. In addition to interacting with and
observing approximately 40 participants during the Meetups
themselves, six in-depth interviews were completed with members
outside of these gatherings. My participants included six Meetup
members, two of whom attended the groups in an official capacity as
representatives from a non profit organization that uses Meetup as a
tool for outreach and organization. Five were in-person
conversations, which ranged from 45 minutes in duration to over two
hours, and one was a telephone interview. To gather information about
the organization's official culture, I spoke with a representative
from the Meetup organization and analyzed the Meetup web site.
Within the in-depth interviews, I used a semi-structured
interview format in which I steered each conversation in specific
directions based on a discussion guide. This guide was designed to
ensure the conversation touched upon the three major research
questions, but also included several somewhat general or
impressionistic questions, which encouraged participants to talk
about what they felt was important about the experience. This format
allowed participants to help steer the conversation and vocalize
their own perspective about the role of the Meetup. The questions
were designed to address the following key dimensions of the Meetup experience:
* Who attends Meetups and why?
o Who are these Meetup members?
Beyond demographics, I focused on learning about their educational
and professional backgrounds and interests. In terms of politics, how
do they characterize their political views, experience, and where do
they go for information?
o What motivates the members of the most popular Meetup political
groups? Why do they join and attend these gatherings and what do
participants see as the primary benefits after having attended?
* How does the member's vision of the Meetup experience compare with
or contradict the organization's vision as represented on the
Meetup.com web site and voiced by Meetup organizers?
* Are Meetups politically effective? What, if any, increase in
political participation is generated through Meetup membership and attendance?
o How can Meetups be used effectively in other political campaigns in
o Does the Meetup experience affect members' feelings of political
efficacy or empowerment and motivation to be politically active as
defined by voting, fundraising or donating money, and volunteering
with political organizations?
o How does the Meetup experience affect a participant's interest in
and relationship with individual political groups (Dean Campaign,
Kerry campaign, or the Democratic Party) during this election cycle
and will this extend beyond 2004? Are they more or less committed to
the candidate or party or unchanged as a result of the Meetup experience?
The full discussion guide is included in the Appendix.
Data Gathering and Analytic Approach
I taped all of the interviews in their entirety. To
counteract the formality of the taping and guided interview format, I
tried to make the meetings less formal by meeting the participants in
casual settings, usually of their choosing. After the discussions, I
listened to and then transcribed each interview verbatim. Field notes
were also taken during meetups and additional observations
transcribed soon after each meeting.
I analyzed the resulting notes and transcripts using the
three-step coding process designed by Glaser and Strauss (Strauss &
Corbin, 1990). This material lends itself very well to this process
as consistent threads emerged in all the interviews. In the initial
analysis or open coding phase, I examined the transcripts closely,
going over them line by line to identify recurring themes and
recurring vocabulary. During this initial analysis, I highlighted and
annotated the transcripts embedding comments in the document as I
went along and using these comments to develop a fairly long list of
general categories. Some categories such as extensive media use and
desire for political influence, and community, reflected previous
findings in political science literature. Other categories, such as
alienation, group hierarchy, and structure, were unexpected. From
there I reviewed the annotated transcript again to validate and add
to this initial list through axial coding. Finally, I reviewed the
transcripts and my comments on them more selectively, focusing on
refining these classifications and grouping them together into
broader concepts to see how they intersected and to try to uncover
relationship between different categories. The final analysis reveals
two major groupings of categories, which are distinct but also intertwined.
This coding was significantly enriched by applying Van Dijk's
approach to critical discourse analysis of opinion and ideology (Van
Dijk, 1998). This approach helped me to discern the ideology embedded
in member discourse and also the significant differences in the
discourse of different Meetup groups. Consistent with Van Dijk's
model, the groups' underlying ideology was revealed in several ways
in member dialogue.
Sometimes ideology was fairly explicit and easy to discern,
as in members' voicing of clear "self and others, us and
them" dichotomies and expression of highly articulated group
membership identity, customs, and hierarchy (p. 25). Van Dijk terms
the latter items "group self-schemata," those attributes that
"reflect the basic criteria that constitute the social identity and
define the interests of a group" (, p. 25).
Critical discourse analysis was also extremely useful in
helping me to understand how ideology was revealed in these
interviews in more subtle forms that were not immediately clear. This
was especially true of members' implicit use of what Van Dijk calls
"the ideological square (p. 33)" According to this model, group
members tend to employ syntactic structure that downplays or
mitigates their own bad attributes or bad acts and emphasizes their
good ones, while emphasizing the other's bad properties and actions
and downplaying their good properties and actions. Viewing the
dialogue through this lens helped to isolate implicit ideology and
distinctions of ingroup and subgroup identity within the various
Democratic Meetups. This analysis formed the core of some of the most
important findings in this study.
In addition to observing and interviewing Meetup groups, I
used analysis of the official vision of Meetups as represented by the
Meetup.com site as a point of comparison for these personal accounts.
This analysis focused on the splash page of Meetup.com and the main
pages of the corresponding Meetup sites for two of the groups
included in the interview sample, Dean for America and Kerry
in 2004. This analysis was driven in large part by the interpretive
model employed by Jennifer Stromer-Galley in her study on political
candidates' campaign web sites and their use or avoidance of online
interaction (Stromer-Galley, 2000).
Advantages and Limitations of the Method
The methods used in this study can add significant depth to
the understanding of online political groups that has been gained
through recent quantitative survey research on Meetup members
(Political influentials online in the 2004 presidential campaign,
2004; Williams & Gordon, 2003). Nonetheless, there are significant
limitations. First, politics can be a sensitive subject area and some
of the participants may have been uncomfortable revealing their views
in the presence of a stranger, someone who may hold different ones.
Although I was able to join the groups I studied, I was a newcomer
and essentially still an outsider, asking sometimes sensitive
questions. Initially, in the planning stages I assumed this would be
a minimal risk that can be further reduced by focusing the discussion
on evaluations of the Meetup process, rather than on political
beliefs or affiliations. As the interviews progressed, however, it
became clear that it would be artificial and ineffective to try to
maintain a clear separation between process and politics.
In addition, even with semi-structured interviews, the
researcher has the potential to influence findings during the
interviews and during analysis, so my own potential biases should be
considered. As someone who feels an affinity for democratic and
liberal political groups, I identify strongly with these
participants. I'm also a student of political communication and a
heavy Internet user, so I am attracted to the idea of using the
Internet for political organization and naturally feel a certain
personal investment in Meetup's success. As a result, there is the
risk that this perspective could influence the findings both in my
dialogue with the participants and in interpretation of participants'
statements. The selection of participants was also a potential
concern. As with any qualitative study of this nature, the "sample
size" was intentionally small (six) and participants were not
systematically selected, but rather based on members who showed
particular interest in being part of the study. Despite this
drawback, I feel these interviews also enabled a deeper exploration
of attitudes and opinions than is possible with a quantitative
approach and that in general my rapport with the members tended to
encourage rather than detract from their candor. I also feel that
these participants were reflective at least of the broader group of
Meetup participants in this particular area and of the "typical"
Meetup participant as described by the organization, so the knowledge
gained here should prove valuable to other groups.
The 2004 Meetup Boom: Dean as the Meetup "Killer App"
If one thinks of the Meetup as a type of hardware and the
political group as the software application, the element that gives
it meaning for users, then in 2004, the Dean for America campaign was
the killer application for Meetup, that definitive and essential
component that helps popularize and ultimately realize the potential
of a new technology. Like the impact that Pac Man or Pong had on the
Atari computer system or the effect that pornography had in
stimulating VCR sales, the Howard Dean campaign was a major driver of
growth for the Meetup concept. Beyond the now famous numbers, $40
million raised and 150,000 members registered, the Dean campaign was
the only political group to (almost) get it all right in terms of
meeting the needs of their Meetup participants. At its high point,
there were nearly 170,000 registered Dean Meetup members. More than
three months after he officially withdrew from the race, there were
still over 165,500 members, and, although disappointed that he will
not be the Democratic nominee, they are still active and passionate
about the candidate and their role in the process.
Even non-Dean supporters acknowledge the influence of that
campaign on their awareness of and participation with Meetup. This is
especially true of Meetups' more recent participants. Simon, who
organizes activists for the March for Women's Rights organization,
was very much in sync with what I heard from the other participants
when he talked about how he first heard about Meetup:
…I first heard about it with the whole Dean campaign. You know it
was…There were articles about it in the Washington Post and New York
Times and what not.
Similarly, although a Kerry supporter and a member of the
Kerry in 2004 Chapel Hill Meetup group, when asked about to describe
her first recollection or introduction to Meetup, Heather recalled,
"really thru general media coverage of the presidential campaign. I
think in mainly in reference to the degree to which the Dean campaign
had taken off."
So, who are these people? And Why Meetup?
Every Meetup group has its own unique character. Nonetheless,
across groups, the participants I interviewed shared several striking
similarities. Although the meeting attracted a variety of people in
terms of age, which ranged from early twenties to late seventies,
racially the groups were homogenous; almost all of the participants
white. Also, the meeting hosts and group leaders tended to be
younger, appearing to be in their twenties or thirties. All of the
participants in this study in fact were from this younger demographic
that seemed to just naturally take the initiative to run the
meetings. They were also all college educated professionals or
current university students and highly informed about politics.
This Meetup member profile is consistent with the findings of
the Pew Internet Project (PIP) Survey on Online Communities, which
reported that the subgroup of Internet users (22% of the total), who
have used the Internet to contact a political group or organization
were demographically distinct. The survey described them as "a
predominantly male, educated, veteran group of surfers, with an urban
bent. Fully 60% are male, half (50%) have a college education, and
more than half (54%) have been online for three years or more."
(Horrigan, 2001) Furthermore, these users were highly engaged in
online communication with three quarters (75%) using email to
communicate with an online group, often several times a week or more.
According to PIP, these "Political Groupies" feel good about the
Internet's impact on their involvement with interest groups; a
significant number (53%), say the Internet has helped improve
contacts with groups.
Even in light of these statistics, however, and even more
than their demographic cohorts, the Meetup members I observed and met
with are a particularly media aware and media hungry crowd. In fact,
among the Meetup members I spoke with, although the particular media
outlets vary, the volume, frequency and attentiveness of their media
consumption was consistently very high. Heather, Simon, and Leigh all
characterize themselves in some way as "avid" media consumers. This
is not surprising considering the prominent space mass media occupies
in their lives. The lowest media usage reported was two hours per
day, every day.
Their lists of preferred media properties are long, but
several names recur in the members' lists of favorite or frequent
sources. Four out of five said they listen to NPR, read news online
every day, and subscribe to multiple e-mail newsletters and list
servs. While Leigh, a 22-year old Rock the Vote Meetup member, does
not listen to NPR daily on the radio like several other participants,
her media consumption it is just as heavy. Leigh observed, "I guess
I'm a consumer of all forms of media. Newspapers, magazines, and
television… Internet as well."
The elite national media, in particular NPR, the New York
Times and Wall Street Journal, are most frequently cited as key
sources of information, but usually the mix of media outlets is
extensive, spans several different forms, and often includes niche
media. In describing her media use, Heather used vivid terms that
demonstrated she has invested a significant amount of her time,
energy, and thought in the media she uses:
In terms of specific sources for political information, I subscribe
to the Wall Street Journal.
Its editorial line isn't really in line with my own personal views
but I think it's an interesting access point for sort of the other
side of a lot of political issues
And so I do get some political information there. I also subscribe to
The New Republic and The American Prospect so I get some of the left
side of the views there although The New Republic sometimes sounds
like a republican publication.
In terms of TV programs, I'm a big Hardball viewer for better or for
worse I love Chris Matthews. He was actually a student here at UNC
briefly in the economics department…So he, he has a Tar Heel
connection. I always watch Hardball. If I need to get sort of and
about stuff I'll watch the O'Reilly factor but that doesn't usually
last long. I also listen to NPR a lot…..WSJ every day. Hardball every
day. I'm an addict to those three sources.
Still, these members are definitely not limited to mass media
for their information. For the Meetup members I spoke with, e-mail is
the primary medium through which they communicate, both socially and
professionally and a central component of their daily lives. They
describe themselves as being online every day. In fact, all of the
Meetup members I interviewed said that they use the Internet every
day, almost all day. They are also very comfortable with technology.
Although several were on limited budgets as current students or
recent graduates, all pay for Internet access at home and several
have high speed Internet access via DSL or cable.
"Dying to get involved": Emotion, Pragmatism, and the Political Meetup
Meetup members have much more in common than ethnicity and
hyperactive media consumption. While many different threads of
motivation come up in conversation, two distinct but interlocking
groupings or spheres of needs emerge as central drivers of the Meetup
experience. Some members come with one set of objectives in mind, but
many come for both. Each sphere evokes its own language, metaphors
and vocabulary. One set of needs is entirely pragmatic and rational.
As one organizer/member said, these people are on a quest for
something to do, a way to "get stuff done," in this election. Put
another way, some members use the Meetup as a means of access and
entry to the political process.
The other set of needs is more emotional; these needs are
less tangible but very strongly felt and frequently evoked in member
conversations and e-mail. This is the emotional longing for
leadership, community, and fraternity, for something to identify with
and believe in, all the attributes that we thought had gone out of
fashion in American politics after Vietnam. These emotional drivers
are less obvious but no less influential. An e-mail from a dedicated
Democracy for America Meetup member sent days before the North
Carolina state caucus speaks to that yearning, emphasizing the
connection between the Dean candidacy and feelings of pride,
conscience, and principle:
There are rare moments in our skewed political process when you can
vote your conscience and proudly mark your ballot for a candidate in
whom you believe, as opposed to choosing between the lesser of two
evils. It's even more exceptional when a principled vote is more
than just a hollow protest vote - when it actually can have some
impact. You can make that principled and pragmatic vote this Saturday
April 17, by voting for Howard Dean.
The Meetup members I interviewed expressed a very strong
desire for connection with others in their community, but it was also
very important to them to connect with people who have similar views
and to feel that they are not alone in their beliefs. They conveyed a
palpable degree of political polarization and alienation that they
were implicitly hoping to overcome. As discussed earlier, consistent
with the stereotypical Internet user or Dean follower, all six
members I interviewed were white, young (aged 22 to 34), college
educated professionals, but although their demographics would type
them as mainstream and privileged, they vocalized sentiments
reminiscent of the alienation or outsider status that is often
associated with racial or ethnic minorities in American society. They
were all searching for something to belong to and a way to express
their "true" selves that would render them more visible in the
In many cases, this need was fulfilled through the Meetup.
The participants consistently indicated that when they started to go
to Meetups and talk to each other their sense of isolation was
replaced by a feeling of belonging. They all report a point at which
they realized, "I'm not alone". In that pre-election period during
which the interviews were conducted, members consistently mention
feeling reassured and united by what felt like a realistic
possibility of transforming dissatisfaction and longing for "Anybody
but Bush" into momentum and, as Simon said with irony, "Regime
change." In this way, the local Meetups, with their consistent buzz
of online and offline activity and capacity crowds showing up week
after week for meetings, both created and reinforced a sense of
optimism and belonging. This is seen as one of the most important
benefits that members derive from the Meetup experience and speaks to
the potential of Meetup as a tool for increasing political efficacy
Official and Unofficial Versions of the Meetup Ethos
In order to understand the Meetup culture, it is important to
note that Meetup is not strictly an online community; rather it is a
vehicle for creating communities offline in "the real world," so its
site functionality is organized around the tasks that contribute to
facilitating these informal offline connections. In keeping with this
very narrow mission, the site interface is uncluttered, simple, and
functional. The design and navigation are the same on every page of
the site. There are no "sticky" features, those interactive elements
that Web designers use to keep people on the site for long periods of
time – no central bulletin board, no chat room, and no blog - in
other words none of the community-building interactive features that
have become standard in online community sites (Bimber, 2003). Unlike
online communities which rely heavily on message boards, there was
only a very limited (see Appendix 1) "Meetup MiniBoard" for each
interest group. This feature was afforded only a limited piece of
real estate on the member page. This is clearly a conscious choice
given that research has shown that users consistently favor sites
with greater levels of interactivity and specifically, the kind of
interactivity that involves human interaction rather than just
interactivity facilitated through advanced automated feedback
mechanisms (Stromer-Galley, 2000). As a result of these design
choices, at the time of the study, online interaction among Dean and
Kerry Meetup members was mostly confined to voting on locations and
suggesting and voting on agenda items.
That simple web site structure is only the beginning of the
Meetup experience however. The political Meetup groups in this study
share several characteristics that set them apart from the official
culture verbalized in the FAQs and manifest implicitly in the
structure of the Meetup web site. Fueled by that need for pragmatism
and desire to get things done, there is an unofficial, member-created
Meetup culture that is often at odds with the official culture. For
example, groups often extend the experience by embedding links within
their signature profiles on the Meetup site to related areas on other
web sites where these online community building features are
provided. So, when potential new Dean Meetup members visit the Dean
Meetup page, they might see a message from an existing member
directing them to visit an unofficial Dean Meetup site which is
hosted externally. All three of the political organizations had
created unmoderated Yahoo Groups, free email list servs that are easy
to create and manage. Whereas the official Meetup culture emphasizes
"Real life, real local communities, real groups of people" (see
Appendix I, The Meetup Site FAQ), through these unofficial web sites,
blogs and email lists, the members created a more involved virtual
community than sanctioned by the organization.
In addition to these community-building technological
enhancements, participants all explicitly expressed a desire to bring
some structure, direction, and even hierarchy to their meetings and
groups. Whereas Meetups are intentionally and self-consciously
laidback and non-hierarchichal, members of political Meetups
consistently reported that they almost immediately recognized the
need to establish a more formal structure. Although the members are
clearly very informed, proactive and self-motivated, without
structure they find that the Meetups are, in the words of one of the
activist members, "anarchy." For all four organizations whose members
I interviewed, there was a moment right at the start in which someone
said, "I took charge" or "I decided to highjack the meeting" and
As Simon recounted:
…when I showed up at the Reston Virginia Meetup, it was basically
pretty disorganized in the sense that it was just folks getting
together and talk about how much they support reproductive rights,
how horrible Bush is, and uh, you know wouldn't it be great if we
could get those bums out of the White House. Which is great, but they
weren't really doing anything.
New people were showing up and leaving after one session because, you
know it was like, they, people didn't really wanna just sit around
and torpedo – a few people did, but most people didn't really want to
just sit around and talk. They wanted to actually do stuff. And they
found that this was not a place where stuff was actually getting done.
So we decided to take that Meetup and break it up into working groups
that would meet every week and have a regular basically off the Meetup grid. ….
That has worked better. That has worked great. You know that you know
fundraising meets every Thursday at 7 at you know such and such place
and outreach meets every Monday at such and such place. We use Meetup
as a place for all the different groups to report back and for
crosspollination of ideas.
These member-imposed structures sometimes became quite
elaborate. Again, here the Dean organization is at the forefront. In
contrast with the laidback image implicitly verbalized in the
official Meetup site, the unofficial Meetup world includes an
elaborate online community with its own definite hierarchy, language
and subgroups, very consistent with Van Dijk's model of ideologically
based groups (Van Dijk, 1998). For the local Chapel Hill chapter
alone, members have created a Dean/Democracy for NC web site (Figure
1), a private, invitation-only list serv for select Dean organizers,
another list serv open to all Dean members (see the Appendix for a
sample welcome letter from the Dean Meetup Yahoo Group), and even a
protocol which includes "secret rule" that no one who joined the Dean
Meetup after the candidate's attention grabbing Falls Church speech
of August 2003 can moderate meetings. This rule is kept secret to
avoid fostering tension between these post Falls Church "newcomers"
and more longstanding members.
These elaborate structures serve multiple needs of the Dean
Meetup members. On one level, by fostering greater communication and
ensuring that the most dedicated and longstanding members can steer
the ship, they satisfy the pragmatic sphere of member needs which is
characterized by the drive to "get stuff done". On another level,
though, these enhancements also serve the second set of needs which
are not as tangible and the line between the pragmatic and emotional
is not always clear. These aspects of the member-driven Dean Meetup
culture, such as the Falls Church rule, invitation-only email lists,
and "inner circles" as Dean Member Robert calls them, speak to the
human need for recognition and status differentiation even in the
most self-consciously liberal groups.
Along these lines, whereas Meetups are officially described
as intentionally informal and fluid, its members express a desire for
clear group definition. This is evident in Robert's proud and
revealing description of the Dean group as being "a cohesive group"
one that is more markedly more unified than other political Meetup
groups (Kerry for example) and "like a fraternity," He was quick to
explain that this particular group is both selective and merit based,
saying, "You have to show up and prove yourself useful. It's like a
fraternity. There's even more circles. Inner circles… You show up,
prove your merit, you get invited."
Despite some of the philosophical inconsistencies that this
kind of selectivity and group structure poses, it seems to help
strengthen the group identity and feelings of efficacy. Dean Meetup
members are proud of themselves as a group and of their accomplishments.
In contrast, within groups that seem more closely aligned
with the casual and inclusive Meetup ethos, in the absence of someone
"taking charge," participants' impressions of the Meetup experience
are markedly less positive. Although participants may acknowledge the
sense of empowerment that comes from a flat, grass roots driven
organization, they are also frustrated by it. Often describing
themselves as "disappointed," these members complain of chaos and "a
lack of organization" or even "disorganization" and feel that there
should be more traditional support and involvement from the official
party or campaign representatives. They are not eager to go it alone.
Heather is representative of this perspective. She attended
the Kerry Meetups, which at the time of the study were still going
through the process of trying to coalesce into a comfortable
structure and leadership. After attending two of these Meetups, she noted:
The frustrating thing about it is certainly the lack of organization
which I guess is sort of inherent in Meetup period. I guess it's sort
of the beauty of it in the sense that it's nothing establishment in
the sense that it doesn't have a preset structure.
I think I was a little bit more disappointed about the Meetup last
night. I sort of understood the chaos in January because it was
really right around the time that certainly Kerry's campaign was
taking off and there was only 7 of us there. And it was the only
Kerry Meetup around.
So certainly it was a sign of ok at least there are other people
around here and I can understand because the campaign hadn't really
taken off yet. So I can understand some of the disorganization.
People were still very focused on New Hampshire. … Anyplace else was
sort of in the distant future
So in terms of last night, I was still sort of surprised that there
was not a Kerry person so to speak in terms of somebody officially
linked to the campaign--in the sense of really getting a focus of
'these are the tasks that need to be completed' and this is where we
can assign people to perform specific tasks.
When probed, some members recognized that in imposing this
structure they were essentially straying from the Meetup format, but
they also felt strongly that this was a necessary step. As Heather expressed:
…I can understand the beauty of it in terms of its grass roots lack
of structure, but at the same time, the nature of what we want to do
at our Meetup in terms of having a specific political goal, it makes
it difficult to make any progress.
Even though she was a relatively new member, having only
attended two Kerry Meetups, Heather immediately vocalized both that
often-invoked need for "structure" and the sense of ownership and
group identity that so many members seem to be driven by, referring
to "what we want to do at our Meetup". By using collective, insider
language, she both accepts and asserts her identity within the Kerry
group, even while pointing to its significant flaws. Whereas the FAQs
state that "nobody" leads the Meetup, that it's peers talking to
peers, like the Dean people, as a member Heather's vision of the
Kerry Meetup is more structured, defined, and goal driven than that
articulated by the Meetup organization.
Similarly, when probed for more information about the
aforementioned selection process or meritocracy within the Dean camp,
Robert invokes the plural voice and emphasizes the need for new
members to prove their worth to established ones:
For almost everything it's you have to show up you can't just email
us. Email is cheap. We all get a thousand emails a day. It's bullshit
to send us a suggestion on email or to promise to do something in
email. That's why we have all these events. House parties. Meetups.
Or petition drives. Causes people to get of their butts. Once we know
somebody will get their butt off the couch we know something
important. That's it. We're qualifying volunteers.
In addition to describing the specifics of the process,
Robert's also reveals a great deal about the group's implicit
ideology and values. He consistently invokes the group in his
discourse, using collective pronouns "us" and "we" rather than I or
me. In this way he implies that communicating with one member is
synonymous with communication with the whole, for example "It's
bullshit to send us a suggestion on email" and "you can't just email
us." Also, he reveals an assumed commonality of experience within the
group, asserting, "We all get a thousand emails a day." So while the
online experience is central and great deal of time was invested in
improving the Dean Meetup's online presence, group membership was
also very much contingent upon "real life" activity.
The group's dialogue here is also, again, strikingly
consistent with Van Dijk's model of ideological discourse. There is
clear "us versus them" polarization and evocation of set of assumed
shared values. The specifics of how these members define the "other"
is somewhat unexpected. In addition to obvious adversaries like
President Bush, the Republican party, and conservatives, these
Members use "they" to refer to many different types of outsiders,
including Meetup attendees who have not yet "proven their merit" and,
perhaps most surprisingly, other Democratic groups.
As a result, for all the rhetoric about "Anybody but Bush,"
when asked in a follow-up conversation what his involvement would be
in the election after the North Carolina primary (since Dean had by
then resigned from the race for the Democratic nomination), Robert
indicates that he is "unsure" about how involved he'll be as a
volunteer. Declaring, "It's hard to stomach Kerry because of the war"
and "he voted for everything we're against," Robert reveals that he
still does not feel a group affinity with the presumptive nominee,
Senator Kerry. Instead he reasserts his Dean group identity. In this
response, it's clear that Kerry is very much an outsider, one who
"we" find it difficult to tolerate or "stomach."
This sentiment is echoed by Meetup members outside of the
Dean camp as well. When Leigh, a member of the Democratic Party
Meetup, is asked whether she has attended a Kerry Meetup or signed up
for his e-mail list, she replies, "Kerry was not my first choice so
I'm not gonna subscribe to anything he does really." Again, like
Robert, she expresses a lack of group identification with John Kerry
and an equating of him with the other. When pressed about her plans
to campaign for the democratic candidate she explains:
I don't think I'd specifically work on his campaign. I like him
obviously much better than I like Bush. But I think that's a tough
one. I don't know. I don't especially like him, but I really want
Bush out of office so it's kind of a toss up. I don't think I'd work
on his campaign specifically but I think I'd work for the Democratic
Party in general.
In this way, Kerry and gains acceptance only in relation to
George Bush, who represents the ultimate other, the chief adversary
of these groups.
Commitment Bordering on Religious Fervor
To be fair, as members like Robert and Leigh make clear, the
relative failure of the Kerry Meetups did not simply result from
inadequacies in the Meetup system or a lack of cohesion within that
local group. If Dean's campaign was the "killer app," the Kerry
campaign was one that didn't translate as well to the new platform.
In addition to the members' comments, this is reflected in the lower
number of Kerry Meetup members registered nationwide despite Kerry
receiving the party nomination. Although the Dean and Kerry campaigns
were numbers 1 and 2 in terms of their Meetup following, there was a
quite a large gap in size, with the Kerry camp attracting an
estimated 105,000 members at its peak versus 165,000 for Dean
(Meetup.com April 2004).
Like other grass roots political movements or volunteer-run
organizations, these Meetups are fueled by people who fervently
believe in their cause. Howard Dean was able to achieve a high level
of resonance that with his audience that made this formula work. As
the lead coordinator for the Chapel Hill Dean group put it:
Dean was very persuasive on his own. The first rule we learned was
don't speak for Dean. Let Dean speak for himself. And the thing I
said once to one of our Meetup hosts was, you know, we don't have the
problem of an inarticulate candidate. All we have to do is pop in one
of his videos.
This Dean member is convinced that just by virtue of hearing
and seeing Dean on video, people will be won over. In contrast, at
the Kerry camp, no one was saying anything of that confident nature
about their candidate. Even later, with Kerry's nomination assured,
Dean's followers were still clearly more passionate in their advocacy
of their candidate.
If you never experienced a Dean for America Meetup or spent a
significant amount of time talking with one of its members, as I had
not before this study, the buzz surrounding the Dean faithful and
their Internet following can seem hyperbolic, a product of media spin
and exaggeration. After you attend a meeting, however, that
impression is wiped away.
First, it becomes clear given how plugged in Dean Meetup
members are, that the Internet is naturally and necessarily a central
component of their political experience. Second, the Dean experience
was unique because it was the only political Meetup group in the
Chapel Hill area that came close to meeting members' needs and
desires in both spheres - the emotional and the pragmatic. This was
achieved through cultural and technological enhancements to the
Meetup experience and also because of the members' intense attachment
to the candidate. Robert described a typical scene at Meetups during
the height of the initial burst of Dean fervor in spring 2003:
There are two speeches he made that if you were all pent up inside
and upset about what was going on, it made people cry. And they were so moved.
Actually for the first few months when it was really most intense at
the beginning of the war, I would just turn the video on and just
kind of watch to see how many criers we had. I mean it was … usually
only one or two. But people got very emotional.
When asked if these emotional scenes pertained to men or
women, he responded, "Both. I've cried."
The Dean organization was also more technologically
sophisticated and further leveraged the effectiveness of their
candidate as a communicator by providing direct contact with the
candidate through coordinated mass conference calls in which Dean
Meetup groups could hear him speak live and ask questions of their
candidate. Whereas the Kerry in 2004 and Democratic party Meetups
were decentralized and often provided only limited contact between
the campaign establishment and Meetup members in the form of campaign
buttons (which had to be paid for) and the intermittent attendance of
local campaign staff at meetings, the Dean campaign was in almost
constant contact with the grassroots via its Meetups. This generated
a tremendous amount of goodwill and was unique among the Meetup
political groups. In this way, they strengthened the Meetup model by
combining technology and human interaction. Dean was able to make
personal contact with a national audience in a much more meaningful
way than he would have through the traditional, one-way communication
of a televised speech or interview. Members came away from these
meetings feeling greater personally ownership. As Robert put it, "it
felt like our campaign."
The Meetup Impact: Meeting a Need in the Democratic Base
In many cases, getting involved in the political process
through Meetups was not these participants first choice. Some members
had tried unsuccessfully to get involved in the process through
traditional channels such as phoning campaign or party offices.
Heather, a Kerry Meetup member, is a former Senate intern and
Research Fellow, working towards her doctorate in economics. She has
both legislative and campaign experience and would seem like an ideal
volunteer, but when she called the Democratic Party to volunteer, she
never received a response.
At the end of the research process, I realized I had also
inadvertently come upon some findings that were specific to the
Democratic Party as well as those who want to further use the
Internet for political goals. Among these highly educated, highly
motivated Internet savvy North Carolinians, one clear message was
that although the Party has certainly invested in the technological
knowledge, infrastructure, and resources to meet the practical
requirements of online political organizing, they were not meeting
the emotional needs and sense of community that are also essential
for maximizing this potential. If the feelings of this group are at
all indicative, then the Democratic base, the party's most viable
constituency, seemed to be deeply dissatisfied. They feel as though
they don't have access to the party and their volunteer efforts are
being severely underutilized. They also revealed a strong
dissatisfaction with a culture of political pragmatism. Although they
said they were willing to support Senator Kerry in order to win,
these supporters were not at all passionate or even enthusiastic
about his candidacy, feeling that he was on the wrong side of too
many important issues. All of these members were registered voters.
They had the time, motivation, political knowledge, and funds to
fully participate in the process as volunteers, donors, and as
voters. At the time of the study, all of the Meetup members had
already participated in or definitely planned to participate in their
state primary or caucus (some were registered elsewhere). The
commentary displayed in the electronic signature of a Kerry in 2004
Meetup member is indicative of the sentiments expressed by many:
"I've no doubt Democratic candidates will win big in November. But
once in will they be progressive and pragmatic, or stooges? If we're
lucky, "Dean for America" means backbone for Kerry."
The Current and Future Learning Curve
Although the broad question of whether the medium will
actually increase levels of participation still remains, the 2004
presidential election has provided a tremendous amount of exposure
and opportunity for learning for those who believe in the potential
of the Internet's as a political communication tool. The present
study can hopefully contribute a few useful insights in this regard.
The experiences of the Meetup members in this study reaffirm the
importance of human interaction and the too often overlooked
emotional aspects of the political process. For now, because of their
unwillingness or inability to provide the human interaction that is
necessary to support and enrich these virtual communities, political
organizations are neither making the most of their online investments
nor maximizing the potential of online technology. Even more
important, the striking variations in the success and member
satisfaction of these political Meetup groups speak to the reality
that neither technology nor even community alone is enough to shore
up political support. Ultimately, the resonance of the message and
personal appeal of the candidate were the most essential
characteristics of a positive engagement with these citizens,
independent of an organization's skill in deploying this new mode of
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procedures and techniques. Newbury Park, CA: Sage.
Stromer-Galley, J. (2000). On-line interaction and why candidates
avoid it. Journal of Communication, 50(4), 111.
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Washington, D.C.: Pew Research Center for the People and the Press.
Van Dijk, T. (1998). Opinions and ideologies in the press. In A. Bell
& P. Garrett (Eds.), Approaches to media discourse (pp. 21-63).
Malden, MA: Blackwell.
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Internet for grassroots organizing. Unpublished manuscript.
Appendix I. Meetup Site
The Official Word on Meetups: The Meetup FAQ
Dean/Democracy for America in 2004 Meetup Site Main Page
Meetup Group Rankings
1. New York City
2. Washington, DC
3. Chicago, IL
4. Boston, MA
5. Houston, TX
6. Philadelphia, PA
7. Seattle, WA
8. San Diego, CA
9. Toronto, ON
10. London, England
11. Dallas-Plano, TX
12. Atlanta, GA
13. San Francisco, CA
14. Portland, OR
15. Orange County, CA
16. Austin, TX
17. Phoenix, AZ
18. Denver, CO
19. Minneapolis, MN
20. Detroit, MI
21. Sacramento, CA
22. Baltimore, MD
23. Alameda County, CA
24. St. Louis, MO
25. Santa Clara County, CA
Retrieved from Meetup.com web site April 14, 2004
1. Democracy for America
2. Kerry in 2004
3. Wesley Clark
4. Democratic Party
8. Kucinich in 2004
9. Investor's Business Daily
12. March for Women
13. John Edwards
14. Spanish Language
15. Newly Single
17. French Language
19. MTV and RTV
21. Insane Clown Posse
24. Graphic Design
25. Human Rights Campaign
FASTEST GROWING CITIES (past 7 days)
1. Porto Alegre, Brazil +16%
2. Seoul, Korea +14%
3. Dhaka, Bangladesh +13%
4. Manila, Philippines +11%
5. Sao Paulo, Brasil +10%
6. Chennai, India +10%
7. Rio de Janeiro, Brasil +8%
8. Quito, Ecuador +8%
9. San Juan, PR +7%
10. Saigon, Vietnam +7%
11. Riga, Latvia +7%
12. El Dorado, AR +6%
13. Great Bend, KS +6%
14. Meadville, PA +6%
15. Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia +6%
16. Bangkok, Thailand +6%
17. Taipei, Taiwan +6%
18. Columbus, IN +6%
19. Watertown, SD +6%
20. Arhus, Denmark +6%
21. Norfolk, NE +6%
22. Arlington / Irving, TX +5%
23. Riverton, WY +5%
24. Belfast, Northern Ireland +5%
25. Frankfurt, Germany +5%
FASTEST GROWING TOPICS (past 7 days)
1. Human Rights Campaign +27252%
2. Lesbian Literature +9400%
3. UN Foundation +562%
4. Whippet +92%
5. American Candidate +42%
6. Ragnarok +33%
7. Chinese Chess +31%
8. Firefly +29%
9. California Democratic Party +29%
10. Barbara Boxer for Senate +28%
11. The L Word +27%
12. Environmental Defense +24%
13. Hilary Duff +23%
14. Anti Federal Marriage Amendment +22%
15. B2K +19%
16. halo +18%
17. Digital Rights +13%
18. Fotolog +12%
19. Spades +12%
20. Eminem +11%
21. Work at Home Moms +11%
22. Graffiti +9%
23. Kabbalah +7%
24. Nader in 2004 +6%
25. Arabic Language +5%
Appendix II. Chapel Hill Dean Yahoo Group- Home Page
Appendix IV. Dean Yahoo Group Welcome Letter
Appendix V. Meetup.com Interview Guide
March 19, 2004
o Could you tell me a little bit about yourself, what you do,
educational background, age, interests. How long have you lived in the area.
* MEDIA USE
o Could you describe your media usage in general not necessarily for
information gathering (TV, Print, subscriptions?)
o And then specifically where do you turn for sources of political information?
o Internet activity (type of access, time per day, week, frequent
sites) - frequency and duration
o Do you belong to list servs, subscribe to enewsletters, take part
in bulletin boards? Post messages?
* VOLUNTEER AND POLITICAL PARTICIPATION
o What political experience did you have prior to their attendance at
Meetups? Have you ever volunteered for a campaign or other organization?
o Do you belong to any political groups before/outside of Meetup.com?
o What other kinds of political activity are participants currently
engaging in outside of Meetups?
o Have you donated money to any political organizations?
o Prior voting experience?
o Other nonpolitical volunteer activity?
* MEETUP INVOLEMENT
o How did you first hear about Meetup.com?
o When did you get involved with Meetup.com?
o How many and which Meetup groups do you belong to?
o Please describe your impressions of the Meetup experience - both
yours personally and what you've observed and heard?
* BENEFITS/Motivation and IMPACT
o Why did you join?
o Can you describe your personal Meetup experience, your overall
impression of the process?
o What do participants see as the primary benefits after having attended?
o Has your involvement changed your attitude toward politics in any
way, if so how? Do members feel more or less motivated to be
politically active as defined by voting, fundraising, or donating
money, and volunteering with political organizations?
o How does the Meetup experience affect a participant's interest in
and relationship with a particular political group (Dean Campaign,
Kerry campaign, or Democratic Party) during this election cycle and
will this extend beyond 2004? Are they more or less committed to the
candidate or party or unchanged?
o Besides political activity, what are the benefits? Have you become
socially involved outside of the meetup context?
* IMPACT OF MEETUP EXPERIENCE
o On a broader scale, what would you say is the single most important
contribution or impact Meetup is making to the political process and
this election season?
o Thinking about what you've observed around you do you see Meetup
strengthening support for candidates, issues, etc?
o What, if any, increase in political participation is generated
through Meetup attendance?
o Looking beyond 2004, will any increases in participation likely
carry over beyond the 2004 campaign season?
o What about the Internet in general?
o Do members join multiple groups and use Meetup as a way of learning
more about candidates before committing?
* MOVING FORWARD
o How does the Meetup experience fit in the context of other
activities for the organizers of political campaigns?
o How could the experience be better?
o Is there anything on the site that could be more effective?