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Like Online Dating, With a Political Spin
By LISA NAPOLI


S political events go, the gathering last week at Essex, a hip Manhattan
restaurant on the Lower East Side, was a resounding success. Several
hundred people crammed the sleekly decorated space, clutching beers and
awaiting former Gov. Howard Dean of Vermont, a Democratic presidential
candidate. Outside, several hundred more formed a line halfway around the
block.

"I guess people pay attention to the Net around here," the candidate said,
shaking every hand extended his way.

What was remarkable that Wednesday evening was not just the size of the
crowd gathered to meet a dark-horse candidate 20 months before the next
election. More surprising was that the official campaign staff did not
organize the rally.

The prime mover was instead an Internet start-up called Meetup.com, which
is something of a matchmaking service for groups sharing an interest.

Meetup.com tries to arrange events for anyone who wants to suggest a topic.
At the site, which is free, users can start groups or join ones around a
particular interest, and the themes are as wide-ranging as the conversation
at a local cafe. The site lists gatherings of ex-Jehovah's Witnesses, fans
of the cult television show "Buffy the Vampire Slayer," antiwar protesters
and those "Thinkin' About Medical School."

For the politically inclined, the site lists groups for supporters of
Democratic candidates like Representative Richard A. Gephardt of Missouri
and Senator John Kerry of Massachusetts, and for backers of President Bush.
But none so far are as well populated as those for Dr. Dean, a physician
who is an outspoken opponent of war with Iraq.

Meetup.com then chooses a random date and makes a declaration. "National
Scrapbooking Meetup Day," for instance, is coming up on Monday. Members of
that group can sign up to attend a face-to-face meeting in their area.

There are no guarantees that anyone else will be there, however. Not all of
the gatherings listed in dozens of cities on "National Dean-in-2004 Meetup
Day" were as well attended as the New York event. Some did not materialize
at all. The company reports that 2,500 other Dean supporters met in 79
other cities that day, although that number is impossible to verify. Eight
people showed up in Akron, Ohio, for instance, and three in Trenton.

There is an odd transparency to the whole process, something akin to
tracking book sales on Amazon.com, as the numbers of the like-minded
(identified by screen names) grow in one place or spring up in new venues,
sometimes far-flung. (Senator John Edwards of North Carolina, another
Democratic hopeful, has at least one declared partisan in Yakima, Wash.)

There is also the voyeuristic aspect of following the online bonding of
those enlisting in a cause, and sometimes their pique. ("Well I went to
Drip for the Meetup and no one was there," reported a Kerry backer in New
York. "What gives? If the venue was changed, no one told me. I took the
night off from work and cabbed it so I'm out quite a bit of money. I'm
done.")

Still, the fact that campaign events are coalescing without official
instigation excites Dr. Dean's campaign director, Joe Trippi, who has
worked on presidential bids by Edward M. Kennedy, Walter F. Mondale and
Jerry Brown and joined the Dean campaign days before the Meetup event on
March 5. "I've never seen anything like that, with no advance people,
totally self-organized by a bunch of citizens," Mr. Trippi said. "It was a
really great moment."

The turnout for the New York event was undoubtedly increased by the
presence of the candidate himself - a scheduling decision made after the
number signing up for the gathering passed 300.

Virtually since the Web's rise a decade ago, enthusiasts have predicted
that the medium would transform virtually every aspect of life, including
politics. To date, evidence of its influence has been clear, if not
overwhelming. The 1998 election of Jesse Ventura as governor of Minnesota
was attributed in part to his use of e-mail as a rallying tool to attract
supporters to his campaign stops.

In the 2000 Republican presidential primary campaign, Senator John McCain
of Arizona showed that the Net could be an effective and efficient
fund-raising tool by collecting more than $5 million online. And this year,
antiwar protesters spread the word worldwide about rallies on Feb. 15
through a daisy chain of e-mail.

Indeed, it has become routine for a cause or a candidate to build a Web
site to showcase position statements, information for volunteers and other
staples of a campaign. For candidates like Dr. Dean, who do not have large
coffers or high national name recognition, the Web is an indispensable
grass-roots medium.

"We're not going to have the money to build a huge national infrastructure
the way John Kerry can," Mr. Trippi said. "For us the Internet is a key
core part of our strategy."

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That strategy is clearly evolving quickly. In early February, the initial
Dean meetings organized through Meetup.com were held in just 12 places, and
a gathering in New York drew only 15 people.

Eager to take advantage of the apparently growing interest, the Dean
campaign has been negotiating to pay a fee to Meetup.com to serve as an
official clearinghouse for monthly meetings. Rather than develop or
maintain software on its own, the Dean campaign's official Web site
(www.deanforamerica.com) will use Meetup.com's software on its own turf to
encourage monthly gatherings of supporters.

It will be the first time that a partner has paid Meetup.com for this kind
of service and will allow the Dean campaign access to the e-mail addresses
that users must provide when they sign up, yielding a campaign mailing
list.

One potential pitfall of the Web, of course, is that the competition can
follow the action. Mr. Trippi expressed concern that other candidates might
drop in to meetings planned on Meetup.com for his candidate. Already, other
campaigns are taking note of the Dean buzz. Erik Smith, press secretary for
the Gephardt campaign, said that after seeing how much activity there was
for Dr. Dean at Meetup.com, his campaign decided to put a more prominent
link to the site on its home page.

The political dimension has clearly opened opportunities for Meetup .com's
co-founder, Scott Heiferman, a veteran Internet marketer who sold his last
company, i-Traffic, to the online advertising firm Agency .com for $15
million in 1999. Mr. Heiferman's goal in founding Meetup.com, he said, was
to "impact lives and communities in a good way."

Mr. Heiferman is eager to distinguish himself from the excesses of the
dot-com boom years. His company has just 11 employees, he said, and intends
to generate revenue in several ways: fees paid to Meetup .com by cafes and
bars where events are held, the sale of advertising at the site that is
pegged to a user's search terms, sponsors' messages on e-mail sent to
members, and partnerships like the one being struck with the Dean campaign.

Whether this idea will become profitable is not yet clear. But the site has
clearly proved an irresistible tool for political networking and
organizing.

Take the experience of David Nir, 25, an associate for a hedge fund in
Manhattan, who was reading about Dr. Dean in someone's Web journal early
last month. That site directed Mr. Nir to Meetup.com, and on Feb. 5, he and
14 others gathered at an event in Manhattan.

During the meeting, the group decided to start an online discussion group
about Dr. Dean, and it followed through that night. Mr. Nir also took it
upon himself to register the domain name www.newyorkfordean .com so that a
nonsupporter would not. The ad-hoc group met several times before the next
official Meetup gathering on March 5.

Mr. Nir said that a Dean campaign staff member then contacted the group and
said that the campaign was putting together a New York organization.

"We told them: 'You're better off not trying to get us involved one at a
time. We can come over to you in toto and take a lot of work off your
hands,' " he recalled.

Suddenly, a group of similarly minded people who had gathered in a bar were
working with the campaign, albeit unofficially.

"I can't believe we got together just a month ago," Mr. Nir said. "There's
no way this could have happened without the Internet."

Dr. Dean agrees. At Essex last week, recalling the Vietnam protests and
civil rights campaigns of an earlier era, he declared: "We did make a
difference. But the extraordinary thing about your generation is you have
more tools at your disposal. You can do it smarter and better. Go home and
get on the Net and tell other people."

No one, not even the candidate he admires, needed to tell Mr. Nir that.

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