First the basics: groups organized through wwwm.meetup.com to support the primary candidates seem to have mainly three strengths:
* Fundraising. The Hillary meetup in New York even charge a $10 cover fee. The relevance of this, especially for candidates without many corporate sources of financing, is obvious.
* Crowsourcing of media watching and reactions to press and blog stories about the candidate. Check for instance the Obama Media Watch just started by the New York Obama meetup. Even 15 minutes now and then can become a contribution to your favorite cause if it has tailored its campaign to allow you to participate when it suits you.
* Organization of volunteers for the campaign. Basically, the majority of the people who get involved through the meet-ups will be core voters in the primary, and they should ideally also function as ambassadors for the candidate, spreading the word in face-to-face situations and through whatever other networks they are tied into.The resources coveted are, in other words, money, time, and people. If I have missed a clever use of meetups, let me know!
Meetups are good for these things for the same reasons they are good for your reading group or what have you, they make it easier for people to meet up (acute observation, I know). To speak academes, they can facilitate participation because they lower the entry costs. As a lot of people have already pointed out, they are useful tools for grassroots engagement.
But what are their weaknesses? Here are four:
* Conflicting purposes – fundraising does not necessarily fit seamlessly with crowdsourcing and organization – I, for one, do not think the cover fee charged by the Hillary group at this early state of the campaign is a smart move – undecided sympathizers are, everything else being equal, more likely to join a free group. And many of the potential volunteers are, I think, unlikely to pay $10 for every meeting from now on till November 2008. And without them, your campaign will not get the time and people it needs. Obviously, the balance between the three has to be carefully sought out – some commentators for instance suggested that the Dean campaign of 2004 failed to capitalize fully on its netroots appeal because it neglected to activate them through organization, but mainly focused on fundraising and crowdsourcing.
* They are fragile things, because the people who join rarely know each other. The level of mutual trust in difficult and trying situations is likely to be low. Thus, a bad organizer, a few outspoken people inattentive to the priorities of other members, or a lack of openness to new people showing up can ruin everything – and it is not easy to start over once the name that attracted people in the first place has been sullied. Who will set up a competing meetup for the same candidate if the first one implodes? And how are outsiders going to tell the difference?
* They have to resist becoming associations. For meetups to be something distinct, and not just an extension of existing party associations (or your social movement or whatever), they have to maintain the character that attracts newcomers – maintain their forwards momentum in terms of setting concrete goals and achieving them, avoid the echo chamber character of many political associations (which makes for great insider gossip and group loyalty, useful in hard times, but is unwelcoming to outsiders), avoid demanding a set level of engagement from the hopefully very different people who will drop by. People and resources can then later be channeled into these other forms of activity.
* They may not stay on message. As long as they remain distinctively meetups, and are not subjected to campaign planning and coordination, meetups will probably be a long shot from nineties-style on message political campaigning. A good thing at the face of it, but it is probably to early to discount the worries of traditionalists among political analysts – a benign observer will know that something done by a meetup is not necessarily endorsed by the candidate they support, but a journalists hunting for a scoop, or a ruthless opponent will probably eventually pick up on anything stupid done by overeager or incompetent volunteers – then again, stupidity and over-eagerness are hardly traits monopolized by volunteers.
Are there other weaknesses I have overlooked? Will a meetup somehow generate a gaffe during this election and blow some poor candidate’s chances? Will one be taken over by neo-nazis and used for devious purposes? What do you think?