London can be a lonely place. But thanks to community websites like meetup.com finding your tribe in the urban jungle has never been easier. These three internet groups are helping people connect in real life, no matter how obscure their passions are.
Leanne Hicks doesn’t just watch horror films, she reverse engineers them. “I wonder how they got that effect or what they did to make the blood jet like that. I’ll go research and we try to copy it,” the thirty-two-year-old men’s clothing store manager says. In a pub off Trafalgar Square, she’s upbeat despite her head looking like it’s been blown open and her chest looking like patches of skin were torn from it.
Meanwhile outside the pub, a passerby pays tribute to her work by stopping her brother-in-law Gary Hillier, who she has transformed into a zombie, to check if he’s okay. “It’s really rough in there,” Hillier says.
Hicks and her friends are waiting for more zombies to join them for a pub crawl through London’s West End organised through Meetup.com, a website that its founder Scott Heiferman says uses the internet to get people off the internet. The site helps local groups organise activities ranging from knitting to nude bike rides. The zombie event was organised by members of the London Cosplay and Harajuku group – Cosplay short for ’costume play’ for fans of dressing up as anime or video-game characters and Harajuku in reference to Tokyo-style experimental fashion.
“It’s not really an apocalypse when there’s only four of you,” says Konrad Abel, a zombie butcher with a head hanging from his belt. “But that’s how it gets started,” Hicks replies. This is a warm-up, she says, for World Zombie Day on October 13, when hundreds of zombies are expected to take to the streets. She calls up a photo on her phone showing possibly her most frightening creation: a costume comprised of doll parts that made her pregnant sister’s unborn baby appear to be tearing through her stomach.
“I usually bring a bag full of goodies so I can infect members of the public on the way if they want to get in,” she says. Her first victim today is Paul Little, a Meetup member who had only planned on taking photos. “I love the humour. Most people walk around London like zombies anyway,” he says.
Little joined Meetup only a few months ago, but since then he has played mandolin at folk music jam sessions, eaten out with Asian food aficionados and toured haunted corners of the city. “London isn’t a friendly town,” he says, but adds Meetup has transformed his social life. “Even if you turn up at a place for the first time, you’ve turned up to meet somebody,” he says. “It’s not like walking into a strange room as a complete stranger.”
“This is the first thing I’ve done with Meetup,” says thirty-four-year-old Tammy Wong as she walks through Regent’s Park on a Saturday with her six-month-old puppy, Taco, to play for the first time with other dogs of the same breed. “I thought it would be nice for Taco to meet other pugs.”
Meetup has pet groups for every animal from backyard poultry to reptiles, but pugs are the site’s top dog. London alone has eight pug groups.
Wong and Taco first spot one dog, Pedro, a ten-month-old pug. Then in a shady spot over the hill, dozens come into sight. “There’s so many pugs here,” Wong says as Taco wades into the roiling sea of over thirty playing pugs.
Dolly, Ernie, Topcho, Nina, Oscar and other pugs roll in the grass and chase each other. “They’re just such big characters in little bodies,” says Karen Friedman, a pug breeder, sitting among the dogs. ”They’re just incredibly playful, friendly. They have a sense of humour. It’s almost like they’re always smiling.”
Owners exchange dog tips and stories, but they identify each other as Goya’s or Bubba’s or Humphrey’s owner. Here, the human relationships rarely stretch beyond the hour or two of pug watching, picking up only at the next event.
“People might know Dylan but they don’t know me,” says Ramsay Wafa, the event’s organiser since 2007 — although his pug Dylan is listed as the point of contact. “It’s all about the pugs. It’s like the pug has joined and he’s bringing his owners along.”
It was Wafa’s vet who told him about Meetup and he began organising the monthly event as an alternative to a larger meeting in the centre of the city. “At the beginning, I think only one pug showed up,” he says, watching as more dogs arrive.
Wafa’s Meetup involvement is limited to the pug group, but as people sign up for his event he also catches a glimpse at all the other activities out there. “My sister just moved to China and I told her to look up Meetup there, find things you’re interested in and try to find groups.”
Unlike Facebook and other global sites, Meetup aims to help people search through about 105,000 local groups to find activities nearest to them. Heiferman, the founder, says the inspiration for the site came when he was living in New York and the September 11 attacks made him rethink the importance of community. It now boasts more than 1.1 million members in 45,000 cities.
“Change partners!” Matt Easton calls out and his twenty students resume what look like duels with invisible swords as they try to dodge and lunge, trying to tag each other on the knees and shoulders.
A Whitehall civil servant by day, thirty-four-year-old Easton is one of Britain’s top instructors of medieval sword fighting. His West London based-group, Schola Gladiatora, began in 2001, a year before Meetup, but it has depended on the internet to build a local community around a highly specialised interest.
Easton’s group has about fifty members who alternate each week between practising with Eighteenth Century sabre and Fifteenth Century longsword. “This sort of thing just doesn’t normally enter your mind,” says Simon Thurston, who first joined the group six years ago. “But these days with the internet, you can type anything into Google and you might find something like this.”
The group attracts a range from martial arts enthusiasts to living history buffs to those who just want to try something different. They include men and women, extroverts and introverts, people who find it hard to hit someone with the nylon practise swords to people who have no such problem with that. “One girl kicked me in the balls twice in one session,” says Thurston, a six-foot-six hi-fi salesman, adding that this tactic was acceptable in the Dark Ages. “To be perfectly honest I loved the sword fighting but a big reason I kept coming back was the social side of things,” he says, having been best man at Easton’s wedding.
After the beginner’s class and before the pub, the more advanced students spar. “That’s very intense and that’s why a lot of the guys here keep coming back. But you have to be at a certain level for us to allow you to do that because it’s dangerous,” Thurston says. Easton says he started translating medieval sword fighting texts in the nineties because he was fascinated by the age where fathers taught sons to handle swords as a survival skill. New translations are now surfacing all the time.
“We’re finding information and growing at a faster rate than ever before,” Easton says. “But the internet has a negative side as well. It also accelerates the rate of fractures in organisations; the forming and splitting of organisations. You see people coming together, making an organisation and splitting off in three different directions.”