There’s been a lot of criticism of social media lately. 

Most of us have experienced the person who forgets to turn his cell phone off when he comes into church and right in the middle of the prayers the theme of Rocky announces to the whole congregation that the guy has an incoming call. There’s the spouse who can’t resist checking the new email when you’re trying to have a talk about your kid’s report card. And then there’s this new phenomenon of sexting.

Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other is the subtitle for Sherry Turkle’s book on technology Alone Together. “Does virtual intimacy,” Turkle asks, “degrade our experience of the other kind and indeed, of all encounters, of any kind?” She observes:

 We enjoy continual connection but rarely have each other’s full attention. 

 We can have instant audiences but flatten out what we say to each other in new reductive genres of abbreviation. 

 We have many new encounters but may come to experience them as tentative, to be put “on hold” if better ones come along.

 “We are lonely but fearful of intimacy,” she contends and then adds, “I hear a certain fatigue with the difficulties of life with people.”

Does that ring true? Are we basically a lonely collection of people in this town who fool ourselves into thinking we have strong relations because we have so many “friends” online?

I was recently turned onto an online site which seems to be swimming against this “alone together” tide. Meetup is an online social network, the whole goal of which is to get people off the internet and bring them together face to face. Say you’re a Green Bay Packer fan. You can start a Packer meetup group, find the other five cheese heads who live within a 25 mile radius of Forest Park, and invite them to gather behind locked doors at your place to watch the games together.

Its official website states, “Meetup is an online social networking portal that facilitates offline group meetings in various localities around the world. Meetup allows members to find and join groups unified by a common interest, such as politics, books, games, movies, health, pets, careers or hobbies.” (italics added)

I confess that I’m not into the social media. I use my old flip open cell phone maybe once a week. Don’t know how to text. Just started posting on Facebook to keep my new book on people’s minds. I’m proud of myself, because I know how to email. I’d rather have two good, intimate conversations a day than to connect with 200 of my closest friends.

That said, I think Meetup is a pretty cool invention. It uses a social medium to help users get away from their computer screens and get together, face to face, with real people. If I were new in town, I’d still join a church, because I would want to be part of a worshiping community but I’d also do it with the hope of making some friends there. I’d get involved in some kind of charitable organization like CROP or Kiwanis, partly because I would want to give back to my community but also because I’d be looking for new friends.

In addition, I would, as old school as I am, fire up my computer, go online and check out the Meetup web page. When I did so last week, I found 100 groups within 25 miles of Forest Park.

Some were definitely not for me like The Chicago Black Professionals Social Network (5,560 members) or Geekfest (1,956 geeks) or Chicago SEX Calendar [Swingers, Kinky, Poly + more] (2,008 “interesting” people).

If I were new in town, however, I’d probably check out I’m Not Dead Yet—50 Meetup (1,627 Baby Boomers) or Just Write Chicago (1,605 writers) or the Chicago Philosophy Meetup (1,245 philosophers).

It’s like every other new thing that comes along. Medical science, for example, has come up with thousands of new drugs in my lifetime. Some have made my life better. Others have ruined lives when misused. The trick is to figure out ways to find out as quickly as possible if the “new and latest thing” is good for me, boring or addictive. 

It seems to me that when social media are used to avoid engaging in “the difficulties of life with real people” by keeping them at a safe distance but thinking it’s real friendship, it’s time to get into a 12 step program. On the other hand, services like Meetup can be a blessing for people in this mobile society who need a little help getting offline and establishing authentic face to face relationships.