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Something to Watch: Huckabee and Meetup

BY Zephyr Teachout | Friday, October 19 2007

I'm a long-time Huckabee watcher and a long-time Meetup watcher, so I'm fascinated that the two have just come together.

Huckabee is using Meetup for events on October 21, and he may keep using it. So far, there are only a handful of groups, but I bet that will change if he pushes it.

I tend to think that Meetup is better designed for creating community around Presidential campaigns than most social software tools that the campaigns have build themselves. (I say this as the person who brought in the Presidential software developers to build Get Local and Deanlink, the precursors to most of the campaigns' event and social networking services--as someone who used to be intensely frustrated with Meetups limitations.)

Unlike most campaign tools, Meetup starts with regular events, and then provides tools to maintain connections around those events. The key here is that the events are regular and offline. If you were starting a church, or a book club, or an amnesty international group, you'd start with a meeting, and then go from there. This is what Meetup taps into. Regular Meetups live in that land between top-down and bottom-up--they are not wished into existence when the campaign needs a media event or a fundraising push, and the fact of their normalcy necessarily puts power locally, but because they are findable and regular and create solidarity, the campaign can easily connect and communicate with the Meetup members.

Game theory, experience, analogies from church--all evidence points to the possibility of far deeper collaboration when interactions are repeated, iterated, whatever you want to call it. You encounter people differently when you think you are likely to meet them again, when you are joining something instead of attending something.

Group-based tools, you might say, are also about continuity. They start with groups, and the provide tools to create events (this is the Edwards/Obama model). So you are joining in that sense, but you are not joining an offline group with online support--the opposite. There is less fuel to maintain the groups--polemecists have other fora, and organizers will want to act.

Event-based toolsets start with sporadic, non-repeating events (the Clinton model, the Bush 04 model), and provide limited tools for maintaining the connections.

All of these models have different answers to the question, "what are supporters for?" Event-based toolsets reply, "they are for raising money and doing particular things." Group based toolsets say, "they are for joining groups that show community." Regular event based tools, like Meetup, answer "they are for figuring stuff out, delegating authority, and acting." Mailing lists are great for many things, but working through an agenda and delegating tasks and celebrating the completion of tasks are not particularly efficient online.

Meetup has one additional feature--its not owned by the campaign. You aren't giving up data when you go to a Meetup. You are using a service like yahoo!, and it feels safer to join, less like assigning your citizenship to another person. (Granted I'd prefer if Meetup were a nonprofit, but that's another article.)

Huckabee's Meetup button is now hard to find (three clicks in), and it may be that he drops it after the debate watching party. But if he doesn't, I'd say the combination of Meetup and Huckabee will be very interesting to watch. My guess is that Huckabee will start raising money because of Meetup, as the Meetup groups around the country spawn deeply committed supporters. My guess is that within a month, there will be about 200 Huckabee groups around the country, and you'll start seeing the fruits of it in increased Huckabee paraphenalia, letters to the editor, general excitement, etc.

Granted, this may happen anyway. But it does not surprise me that a Governor is more likely to adopt Meetup than Senators seem to be. Governors are far more used to being slightly out of control, and living with it, than Senators, whose campaigns, staffs, and messages are built around watertightness, instead of true seaworthiness.

Ron Paul's use of Meetup, of course, shows that some Congressmen are comfortable with it (are representatives less controlled than Senators? probably), and Paul's Meetup groups undoubtedly contribute and feed the community around that campaign.

There are three big differences between Meetup 07 and Meetup 08, and those differences may matter a lot, however, and slow Huckabee growth.

The first is that while Meetups still assume regular offline meetings, the regularness of them is not built into Meetup, making it much more difficult for people to come together (imagine a church's congregation voting every time on when they were going to meet again...). The second is that Meetups now need leaders. I imagine for most nonpolitical groups, this is a good thing. For political groups, the best leaders are often those that don't know they are (and the worst are those that assume they are). So if a group can occur once x people sign up, instead of once someone takes on the "organizer" role, then you are more likely to find emergent leaders, and the people who have never done politics before are far more likely to create magic.

The third is that Meetup used to provide an amazing service--a database of places--that I believe it no longer does. The organizer now has to do the work of finding a place in which its okay to meetup. This is fine for a seasoned activist, but completely intimidating for the people taking the gateway drug of Presidential politics for the first time.