NEW YORK – The first Tuesday of every month, Elvis fans are likely to be gathering near you. So are crochet lovers, people who want to practice speaking Portuguese and adherents of conservative politics.
And they all get there by one means: the Internet.
It's the latest trend in cyberspace -- so-called social networking (search). Millions of Internet surfers are finding like-minded people online, on sites like Meetup.com and Friendster.com, then leaving their computers to get together in the real world.
"One criticism of the Internet has been that it discouraged social interaction," said Duncan Watts, an associate professor of sociology at Columbia University and the author of "Six Degrees: The Science of a Connected Age." "That's oversimplifying it."
Watts said better technology, such as the ability to connect faster and upload pictures, has led people to connect in cyberspace and in person.
Meetup.com launched in June 2002, but it wasn’t until Howard Dean (search) supporters started "Meetups" around the country last summer that the site's purpose of uniting people with shared interests caught on. Today, the site boasts more than one million members in 476 cities across the nation.
There are Meetups for just about every interest imaginable, including African Violet enthusiasts, Chihuahua lovers, people who enjoy making scrapbooks, flashlight aficionados, World War II history buffs, wine lovers and supporters of political candidates, the most common subject of Meetups.
The Dean Meetups make for the largest group, with 189,200 members. However, the size of a Meetup's membership isn't an indication of voter support: Democratic front-runner John Kerry's Meetups have drawn just 39,300 members.
Recently, political conservatives have also begun tapping into Meetup.com, gathering for the first time in spontaneous groups in December.
Before Meetup, many Republican supporters connected through Townhall.com, a conservative news site created by the Heritage Foundation (search). Meetup.com has helped these folks take their online group into the real world. Now, they gather monthly, and the Townhall.com Meetups have grown faster than any other group, from none to 250 around the country in two months.
“It’s the kind of thing we wanted to do for a long time,” said Townhall.com editor Jonathan Garthwaite. “But organizing grassroots meetings in all those cities would be cost-prohibitive.”
To start a new group, topics are typically proposed by someone looking for others similarly inclined. A Meetup staffer reviews the topic and sets up a regular day of each month for the meetings. There are just two stipulations: at least five people must RSVP and the meeting must be in a public place.
For Kevin Kedzierski, 57, a sound engineer in Tonawanda, N.Y., Meetup.com has transformed the first Tuesday of every month by giving him a reason to go to a local Chili’s, where he joins other Elvis fans to discuss the King's songs, movies and Graceland. About seven people usually show up, although the number and members change slightly from month to month.
“That’s the nice thing about it,” said Kedzierski. “No matter how many people show up, we end up getting together and yacking about stuff. We’re Elvis fans and we just like talking about him."
However, Kedzierski said his newfound acquaintances share more than their appreciation for the late singer.
"It doesn’t have to be Elvis," he said. "We talk about other topics, too.”
While Meetup is bringing people together around common interests, Friendster.com is drawing millions into social networks through a "six degrees of separation"-like method.
To become a Friendster member, one must be invited by someone with an active Friendster account. The site then lets people create personalized pages and connect their pages to other "Friendsters" so they can see whom they know and whom their friends know. By displaying the connections among people, Friendster members are aware of who is in their "personal network,"
Watts said Friendster appeals to a fundamental aspect of human nature.
"We're very much social creatures, influenced in about every area of our lives by the opinion of others," he said.
The site's members can reach each other through bulletin boards to solicit opinions and get advice. However, for most people, the site is just a way to create an online community.
Amy Brown, 25, a substitute teacher in Richmond, Va., said Friendster helps her keep in touch with friends and acquaintances “without this obligation to return a long e-mail or letter right away.”
And she's been surprised by the connections she's made online.
“I realized that the six degrees of separation theory was fact,” said Brown. “I have friends that I have known most of my life who, all this time, knew each other also without my ever realizing it.”
Howard Rheingold, author of "Smart Mobs: The Next Social Revolution," said networking online is a natural progression of the Internet -- and will only become more common as time goes on.
"People want to connect, period," he said, "and it's an assumption with anyone who uses the Internet that you can find someone who shares [your] interest."