Angela Haupt

Sites like offer a chance to find others who share an interest

Frances Reckholder didn't want to hula-hoop alone. When she moved from California to Tucson, Ariz., in 2006, she didn't know anyone--so she turned to, creating a hula-hoop fitness circle and joining several other groups. It was the first step toward success, she says, in her quest to make a better life in her new home.

"It's amazing how much you can learn from all these groups," says Reckholder, 53. "I like the site. It's helped me make some really good friends, and it's very user-friendly." She has since returned to California, where she leads Girlfriends Live Your Best Life, a 100-woman Meetup group that plans hot-chocolate tastings, cookie exchanges, and spa days.

Meetup, a free social networking site that doubles as a self-organization platform, launched in 2002 and boasts a growing base of more than 8 million members who happen to be interested in, well, everything. Log onto the site, enter your ZIP code and a topic you're interested in, and start joining. After organizing online, members meet offline--maybe every couple of months, or several times a week. Group members communicate via online message boards, suggesting events and planning carpools. The site is touted as a way to make friends, pursue hobbies, and immerse yourself in your community.

"No matter what you care about, there's a Meetup group for it," says Andres Glusman, the site's vice president of strategy and community. "When you go to an event, you come home with this great feeling. You've found your people."

Meetup groups are as eclectic as those who join. You're a pug lover? Try one of the 200 groups scattered across 176 cities--more than 40,000 pug people already have. Other groups revolve around vegan lifestyles, or pagan lifestyles (practicing Wicca), or even anticonsumerist "freegan" lifestyles, dumpster diving for food and other goods discarded by retailers. There are board gamers, karaoke singers, and language learners, as well as political groups formed to support candidates, debate current events, and plan rallies. Social groups attract thousands, particularly in cities with transient populations.

Mothers and dancers.Most popular, though, are mom groups, Glusman says. New mothers connect to compare parenting notes, go stroller-jogging, and plan play dates at the park. Fitness and hiking groups also attract large followings. There are groups for pole-dancing exercise, as well as kayaking, rock climbing, surfing, and waltzing, and leagues for kickball, baseball, bowling, and more. Most welcome both novices and experienced participants.

Six months ago, Shane Hinkle of Springfield, Va., created Back Road Warriors, a group for motorcyclists who prefer the byways to highways, and mom-and-pop diners to chain restaurants. At least twice a month, members get together to ride--typically 150 to 300 miles, round trip. "Just a few days after I started it, we were up to 60 members. It's exciting," says Hinkle, 42. "In the past, I would do a ride or go somewhere and think, 'That was really cool. I wish I could have shared it with somebody.' Now I can reach out to all these people."

It's not all new hobbies and friends, though. Meetup can also make a difference professionally. In some groups, members review one another's résumés; others hold mock interviews. Swap groups facilitate dressing for success--on a budget. Members update their wardrobes by trading clothes at events.

"The key thing is that all these groups are organized for people in a community by other people in that community," Glusman says. "It's a way to instantly bring people who have a shared passion or interest together in the real world."