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Pittsburgh Meetup members use the Internet to get off the Internet

| Thursday, Jan. 23, 2014, 8:55 p.m.

Humans spend a lot of time interacting with, well, nonhumans these days.

Just how much time? About five hours a day, says a recent study by eMarketer. That's 35 hours a week. In other words, most of us are spending about a day-and-a-half surfing the Web each week.

So much for the great outdoors.

With all that pointing and clicking, it seems very few have time for face-to-face contact anymore. Especially when popular networking sites such as Facebook, Twitter and Instagram give the illusion of having a well-rounded, active social circle.

“People have no friends anymore,” says Erin Autenreith, “especially if you don't have kids at school. Where do you meet people?”

Enter Meetup.com. Its mission is to encourage human contact, to get people together to learn something, do something or share something. In essence, it's a way to use the Internet to get people off the Internet.

Ironically, it was the tragedy of 9/11 that inspired Meetup's creation. At the time, co-founder Scott Heiferman was living a few miles from the Twin Towers. The last thing on his mind was his neighbors or caring about what they were up to.

When the towers fell, it dawned on him that he really did care about who his neighbors were. In fact, he found himself wanting to meet them. In the days that followed, he realized he wasn't alone. People were turning to other people, looking for ways to be together. That's when the idea of encouraging community growth by bringing people who share a common interest together struck.

Fast-forward more than a decade, and his concept is still going strong. At the time of this writing, more than 4,514 meet-ups were going on in 196 countries, 16 million members strong.

“We do become a community,” says Jeff Gitchel, Pittsburgh Ultimate Frisbee organizer. His group meets about twice a week. Members have been as young as 10 and as old as 60. “We go out, and we always have a beer after a game, and lunch, but we also spend time with each other at other times. There are people who have become roommates who've met through Meetup.”

There's a broad spectrum of groups in Pittsburgh that cover just about every interest: Russophiles, Integrative Medicine Professionals, Tea Lovers, Empty Nesters, Wine Lovers, Amateur Astronomers, English Bulldog Owners, Non-native Pittsburgh Women, Mediators, Freethinkers. Tired of being surrounded by carnivores? Join the Vegan Meetup. Love to be strung along? Check out the Steel City Ukuleles.

Many of the groups get together regardless of what Mother Nature has to say about it.

“Bad weather is just an opportunity to have some fun,” Gitchel says. “Mud is great!”

The Meetup site is simple to navigate. There's no fee to join, although some clubs have nominal membership dues. Some groups are open to join and others require you to be approved by the organizer. You can search all groups in the area or narrow it down to, say, those that cater only to the outdoors. It's easy to see how many members belong to each group and the date of their next get-together. Frequency of meetings varies as does size. Some groups are as small as 14 members, while others boast 3,000-plus.

Erin Autenreith organized the Gatherings group with singles between the ages of 40 and 60 in mind.

“People should think of ways to improve (their) social life. It's not a lonely hearts group — it's people who want to get together and do something,” she says.

On average, Gatherings meets three times a month for activities including dancing, bowling or dinner and a movie.

On a recent Monday, the Pittsburgh Adventure Lovers group made their weekly pilgrimage to the Cathedral of Learning for a stair climb and subsequent carb-replenishment at Lulu's Noodles. They ascended to the 36th floor. A group gathered just outside of the stairwell, sharing inspiration that friends had given them before taking on the 700-plus steps.

“They said, ‘Good luck, you're crazy!'” says Theresa Hajko, laughing.

On any given week, you can find members of the Adventure Lovers camping year-round, snowboarding, biking, kayaking, overnight canoeing, skydiving — anything to keep them from sitting still.

“It's grown enormously. It's taken off in all directions,” says Donna Bird, one of three organizers. “We have events that go to the extreme, and then we have events that are very family-oriented or slower-paced. Whatever comes to someone's mind, people post it.”

For Jennifer Braun, organizer of the Pittsburgh Hiking Meetup Group, participation in any group has unlimited potential.

“People should try new things, because it can change their life,” she says. “It sounds kind of happy sunshine, but hiking changed my life. And I never knew until someone told me to try it. Find the thing that you love — hiking, biking, quilting — it's just everything you could think of. Once you're in one group and start looking around, you can really meet new people and do new things and get more out of life.”

Details: www.meetup.com

Kate Benz is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at kbenz@tribweb.com or 412-380-8515.

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