group of people at a dance party
PHOTO: Samantha Gades

Meetup, a platform for finding and starting local groups, announced what appeared to be a major pricing overhaul on October 15. Later referring to it as an “experiment” that would only affect a small number of groups, the change and subsequent pull-back of the change surprised the app’s users and the tech community. The proposed change was to begin charging attendees $2 per RSVP to all free events to “evenly distribute costs between organizers and members.”

In a follow-up to the announcement on October 16, Meetup CEO David Siegel did not apologize but instead called the announcement a “confusion” and something the company was trying as a test. Several critics ventured explanations for the confusion, arguing that Meetup’s owner WeWork, in the midst of a failed IPO attempt, was squeezing revenue out of the company to “get cash any way they can.”

A Meetup spokesperson followed up with CMSWire and shared the following statement: ""We are conducting a small payment test. Currently organizers pay to manage groups and events, and we are exploring ways to reduce this cost. One of the options we are testing is to introduce a small event fee for members. We have not committed to any changes at this time."

Meetup’s history began when the service launched in 2002 — the early days of the World Wide Web — by then-CEO Scott Heiferman. Heiferman began the site in the aftermath of September 11 as a way to meet and spend time with his neighbors. Today, the app has over 44 million users worldwide, with meetups ranging from coding events to crafting nights. Over the years, it has become a central and essential, if taken-for-granted, part of the social fabric of the web. In many ways, Meetup has been a central bridge from the online to the offline world, which gave average internet users (not technologists) a way to discover and connect online and offline friend groups.

While it may not be rolling out this change universally, this is not the first time that Meetup has rumpled feathers with its organizers. In 2005 and 2011, the platform announced major pricing changes that lead to a backlash from organizers, who threatened to leave the platform. Yet Meetup has stayed strong throughout these bumps in the road and never backed down before. This time, under a new CEO, it immediately reversed its messaging under pressure. So what makes this update any different?

A few things are different now, and event organizers and professional community builders should be aware of the unique challenges this may present to their work.

(Editor's Note: The article was updated on Oct. 31 to include a statement from Meetup)

A Pivotal Moment in Internet History

The internet is far different in 2019 than in 2005 and 2011. Not only are there more options for finding and organizing events, but trust has hit an all-time low in the online world. Blunders of tech giants like Facebook, Uber and WeWork (Meetup’s owner) have chipped away at consumer trust to the point where it barely exists.

Meetup’s ability to bounce back will be determined purely on its ability to win back trust through listening to users, rolling out improvements to the platform (drastic improvements, not tiny ones), and ensuring accessibility to members and organizers who cannot afford its steep fees. The way to accomplish the latter is not through charging fees across the board to those organizing and attending free events, but to leverage and improve their enterprise Pro offering, which powers events for large groups with cash to spare.

Related Article: How to Handle the Crisis of Consumer Trust

Competition Is Fierce

If Meetup rolls out its proposed changes, there will be certain impact on membership and distribution for meetup organizers because the change largely impacts attendees. Today, Meetup is known as the place to host events for tech- and developer-friendly audiences. A few of these groups have repeatedly stated that they are working to build Meetup alternatives, but none have the distribution of Meetup (yet).

If a competitor were to enter the market and begin to aggregate events, this could threaten Meetup, but the likelihood of a large-enough new competitor with the budget to woo away and satisfy Meetup’s customers is low.

The only viable contender is the one company that is perhaps struggling more than any other with issues of trust: Facebook. Facebook Events could be a major threat to Meetup’s success, though I would argue that turning over yet another vital service like event-hosting to Facebook is not going to lead to positive outcomes for consumers over the long-term. Facebook would have little motivation to improve the platform, not use it as another data-extraction tool, and ensure attendees’ privacy.

Related Article: Facebook, A Case Study in Ethics

Meetup, A Ghost Town?

What is most likely to happen is that the seeds of distrust will lead people to diversify their efforts to build offline events. This has been happening for a while, though organizers rarely speak about it publicly. What do I mean by “diversify their efforts”? Organizers will often post meetups, using Meetup as one of a few platforms where they distribute their event. They may also post to ticketing and event aggregation sites like Eventbrite, Facebook Events, an Event within a Facebook Group, and local event listings in media outlets.

On the Meetup page, they will turn off RSVPs and request that all RSVPs be diverted through one of the other sites. Users’ ability to avoid the fees altogether is a threat to Meetup’s success and also a sign that Meetup is not delivering much value beyond being an “event search engine.” It's done little to improve the interface, ticketing, discussion and email functionality of the platform over the years, priming its organizers for the current state of distrust and frustration.

Related Article: Just Because You Call it a 'Community' Doesn't Make it One

Meetup Must Change

The Meetup of 2019 has not changed much from the Meetup up 2010. Therein lies the problem. The web has changed around Meetup, but Meetup hasn’t changed with the web.

To preserve this vital piece of the web, Meetup must become more than an events aggregator, though that is largely what it has devolved into today. For a platform that is meant to bring people together offline, this is non-optional. If Meetup wants to maintain its status as the primary place to discover and organize local events, bringing people together, it must get better at that core capability while also ensuring the high quality of the meetups hosted on its platform.

This is not an easy feat. It will require immense investment in its organizers and technology. I believe Meetup has been a vital piece of the internet and can continue to be one — it's one of the few places where online and offline worlds can collide to bring people together and cement belonging. Meetup is worth fighting for. I only hope that, for all of WeWork’s rhetoric around “community,” it can actually preserve this platform that has done so much to build real communities around the world.