Not so Extremely Shy organizers (left to right): Ian Nickason and Edward Yuen | Photo by Bessie Chow
Not so Extremely Shy organizers (left to right): Ian Nickason and Edward Yuen | Photo by B.MUZE

Earlier this summer, the Vancouver Foundation, a community non-profit, reported that one in three people feel it is difficult to make new friends in the city. Immigrants who have been in the city for five years or less are particularly prone to feelings of isolation.

Meanwhile, hundreds of people are meeting up at various coffee shops, parks, pubs and galleries every week through events organized by local groups on the popular social networking site, Meetup.com.

“Meetup has definitely helped make my transition to Vancouver a lot easier,” says Ajayi, who has started his own group, Around the World in 80…, to focus on exploring cultures both globally and locally.

The site, which is designed to encourage face-to-face interaction of people with similar interests, currently hosts more than 1,000 groups in Metro Vancouver.

“Through Meetup, I can meet about 20–30 people per week,” says Remy Coulombe, a 25-year-old Montreal native who has lived in Vancouver for the last four years.

“No other social networking site offers the same opportunities,” he says.

Participants join Meetup groups for various reasons. Many are newcomers to the city, international students or local hobbyists looking to improve their skills or find new friends. Some come to look for new business contacts, jobs or dates.

Even those who have been in Vancouver for a number of years express appreciation for the opportunity to connect with others beyond their existing circles.

Shamyl Nadeem, organizer for Young Vancouver Social | Photo by B.MUZE
Shamyl Nadeem, organizer for Young Vancouver Social | Photo by B.MUZE

“If you take Meetup out of the picture, where would I go to meet that many different kind of people,” says Shamyl Nadeem, the organizer of the Young Vancouver Social Meetup group. Nadeem, who is originally from Pakistan, has lived in Vancouver for the last nine years.

“On the bus, most people are busy on their phones, headphones or texting so I can’t really talk to them,” he says.

Themes for Meetup groups vary widely: hiking, movies, learning languages and various hobbies. While cultural-specific groups do exist, the numbers reflect the majority’s desire to mingle with cultures different from their own.

“[When I first came to Vancouver], it was easy for me to go with a lot of Pakistanis and hang out with them,” Nadeem says. “But I chose otherwise…I’m coming to a new city, and if I wanted to do that then I might as well have stayed in Pakistan because there are 180 million of us.”

The varied interactions by participants have even led some to feel more connected with the community at large.

“Meetup is part of the outside community too,” says Ammar Makhzoum of the Vancouver French Language Meetup Group (VFLMG).

As with many Meetup groups, the VFLMG has connected with numerous local businesses and community associations. The CBC invited Makhzoum and his co-organizer, Glen Phillips, to provide comments from the perspective of Vancouver’s French-speaking community during the Winter Olympics in 2010.

However, Meetup groups are not for everyone. Singapore-born Kane Tan, a Vancouver resident of at least 24 years, is uncomfortable with the idea of using services like Meetup to make friends.

“Even though it’s free, services like Meetup seem artificial and contrived,” he says. “You are acquiring a ready-made network rather than growing one organically.” Tan expresses his own preference for meeting people through daily activities and social events such as work or dancing.

Other challenges abound for those who are more introverted or culturally reserved. The original founder of Extremely Shy… Looking for Friends (ESLF) left after a month when the group started to grow to a size and at a rate that she had not anticipated.

“She was kind of intimidated because she was extremely shy and didn’t want to come out to events of five or 10 people,” says ESLF’s current organizer, Ian Nickason.

While some take a more business-oriented approach, most organizers are volunteers and need to put time and effort into their events to ensure inclusivity and greater participation.

Peter Cho, organizer of six Meetup groups | Photo by B.MUZE
Peter Cho, organizer of six Meetup groups | Photo by B.MUZE

“It’s like a community centre on the Internet,” says Peter Cho, organizer for six Meetup groups. Among the responsibilities of organizers are managing attendance, securing venues and policing rude or offensive behaviour.

Despite the challenges, most attendees and organizers agree that Meetup is good for what it was made for: getting people to meet up. For a newcomer like Ajayi, such interaction may be especially vital.

“I work in IT, so my job already requires me to work in the virtual world,” he says. “Meetup provides me the opportunity to meet real people offline.”

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Reprinted from The Source Newspaper.