Meetup has decided to charge the sum of nine dollars a group for the privelage of being a group coordinator, and all the work that entails. I will still be a member of the group, but not the coordinator.

So went a group message from the coordinator of the Springfield, Missouri Harry Potter meetup group, to the other members of the group. This was my first notification (and a Slashdot story followed soon after) that Meetup.com, the site that automates the organization of local get-togethers among groups of people with similar interests, had decided to start charging its groups for the privilege of using it to schedule their meetings. Groups that didn’t pay would be cancelled and removed.

I remember back when Meetup.com first got started; it was kind of a new and exciting thing. There was a Slashdotmeetup organized, and a LiveJournal meetup, and a Bookcrossing.com meetup, and various others. But somehow, they never really seemed to get off the ground here in Springfield. I remember one memorable Livejournal meetup where we met in a parking lot, because “Farmer Brothers Coffee” turned out to be not a coffeehouse venue, but the office of a restaurant coffee vendor (which was closed at the time). I met a few interesting people at the Bookcrossing meetups a time or two, but most of them moved out of town. And once I got a job on the evening shift, I wasn’t able to do any of the meetups because they all happened when I was working.

Meetup lately sent an apology for the abrupt and startling way in which they worded their original announcement that they were going to start charging, and a link to the explanation of the rationale for the $20 a month meetup fee (act now and pay just $10 a month for the rest of the year). The fee is supposed to be split among attendees, so that each person attending would only have to kick in a buck or two, and it was necessary to cover operating costs of the website. They tried offering value-added premium services, but that just wasn’t covering the costs. So there it is.

I’m of two minds about this, really. I can accept that it is necessary for them to have some monetary intake to be able to stay afloat; the dot-com boom is long gone, and no business can stay afloat for very long without money coming in. But Meetup is kind of between a rock and a hard place. The problem is that after so long of having the service available for free, people are used to it—and for Meetup to turn around and charge them now makes them feel like they’ve just been subject to a bait-and-switch.

What used to be a great method of bringing together people who might otherwise never have met…now feels like a ripoff. Twenty bucks a month for the privilege of getting together—when Meetup.com doesn’t even provide the venue? It feels like profiteering at the expense of the community—especially since there are by now plenty of Meetup clones who will provide the bare-bones non-value-added version of meetup’s meeting-scheduler (which was all that most people really needed anyway) for free.

Meetup recognizes this, of course. They claim in their announcement,

[None of our competitors] do (sic) such a complete job of helping you grow your membership and hold great events. None are as easy to use or come with such immediate customer support. None are focused on face-to-face events. And finally, none of them care whether or not your Meetups go well. Meetup.com, on the other hand, is 100% dedicated to making your group better.

That’s easy for them to say, but I can count on the fingers of one hand the meetups I’ve gone to locally that actually had anybody there—and the most who ever showed up were five or six. The last meetup I went to, a couple months ago, ended up with just me and the organizer (with whom I was carpooling). We waited for half an hour and headed home, declaring it a total waste of time. And this is how they’re dedicated to helping us “grow our events”? What is it I’m supposed to pay them for, again?

When it comes right down to it, this decision of theirs is going to torpedo most of the smaller meetup groups that might have four or five people show up on a good day. They will either use some other meeting-arrangement site, or they will make a mailing list so they can continue meeting without benefit of Meetup’s scheduler. And I can’t see even the larger groups really wanting to to continue using the service after this. Not because they can’t afford it (some meetup groups even pay for private rooms to hold their meetups in as it is), but because of the affront given by the imposition of these new charges.

Kos, of the Daily Kos political blog, opines that “this is [Meetup’s] last-gasp desperation attempt to stave off bankruptcy.” I think he may be right. I also don’t think it’s going to work. No matter how you try to apologize and sugar-coat it, no business can survive by offending all of its customers at the same time.

Goodbye, Meetup, you were fun while you lasted.

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