Social networks geared for offline success?

As Yelp reviewers mesh in real life, more social-media sites encourage members to interact offline as well as online.

Caroline McCarthy Former Staff writer, CNET News
Caroline McCarthy, a CNET News staff writer, is a downtown Manhattanite happily addicted to social-media tools and restaurant blogs. Her pre-CNET resume includes interning at an IT security firm and brewing cappuccinos.
Caroline McCarthy
5 min read
NEW YORK--At an after-work event in a basement-level nightclub in Manhattan's West Village earlier this month, one partier didn't seem to approve of the fast-paced techno beats the DJ was spinning.

"This music is way too Meatpacking," he said, in reference to the Meatpacking District, a Manhattan neighborhood with a reputation for expensive drinks, inebriated tourists and paparazzi.

But that was to be expected. The critic in question was a "Yelper"--an avid member of the user-generated business reviews site Yelp, home to many a nitpicking hipster. And he likely wasn't the only one at the party willing to openly criticize the music selections, because this was an official Yelp party, and everyone in attendance was a Yelper.

Online social networking has become a mainstay of the Digital Age, and it's now evident that Internet fads can appear and disappear faster than you can say "Friendster." As a result, some sites are turning to a new strategy to keep their services "sticky" and their users satisfied: They're not just encouraging them to network online, but to attend offline events and parties in the real world as well. Yelp now regularly hosts parties in big cities around the country.

Now smaller start-ups are trying use the offline-online hybrid model to gain momentum against community heavyweights like Yelp and Meetup.

Recently relaunched Going, for example, is a "social-event calendar" that aggregates announcements, encourages members to network with each other online beforehand, and lets them maintain profiles with favorite events and photo galleries.

The invite-only I'm In Like With You, having forsaken the passive "friend request" in favor of bidding games that require one member to "win" another member's game before the two can contact each other, is a growing destination for finding dates and happy hour buddies. I'm In Like With You founder Charles Forman didn't plan to have offline gatherings--the users took that into their own hands.

"In San Francisco, I think there have been two I'm In Like With You meetups already," Forman said. "They didn't invite us, but they asked us for free T-shirts," he added jokingly. The site, which is only a few months old, hasn't had any official offline gatherings yet, but Forman said it's something he'd like to do.

The online-offline hybrid model arguably started with New York-based Meetup, founded in 2002, which rose to fame when the tech-savvy campaign team for Democratic presidential hopeful Howard Dean used it as a tool to mobilize groups of local supporters.

Being Web-savvy is no longer isolating. To Yelp's young-professional user base, the site is a potent social tool as well as a way to kvetch about annoying waiters and bad food.

"Most of the Yelpers I have met know when the best concerts are happening, know the best lounges--the ones that are really good, not just the trendy junk--ad infinitum," a Yelper named Adrian who attended the party said in an e-mail.

Even five years ago, it would be laughable to think of going online as a means to boost social knowledge and meet "in the know" people, unless the "know" in question involved fringe politics, Star Trek or one of the other geeky subcultures that proliferated with the Internet's rise.

Now, thanks to the mainstreaming of online dating and MySpace.com profiles, many people no longer consider it awkward or embarrassing to extend their social networking into the real world.

"Most of (my friends) are in the online world, like on MySpace, so they can understand," said a Yelper named Crystal when asked if her non-Yelper friends found the site's online-offline modus operandi to be odd at all. "I've invited a few of my non-Yelp friends to Yelp events, and they totally meshed with Yelpers."

But another Yelper named Jax said her friends still have yet to catch on. They "think it's weird; they don't understand why we can be so supportive of each other, like going to shows and having dinner together."

While the Yelp parties have sprung up over time in response to popular demand, Going's creators had every intention from the start of connecting people both offline and online.

As a result, there's much more administrative control than on Yelp, as the site has been carefully pruned to create "a lifestyle brand," in the words of founder Evan Schumacher, encompassing everything from barbecue festivals to black-tie charity events. The content is not entirely user-generated; members can post events, but Going also scouts out partners and promoters to keep a diverse range of events on the calendar.

Despite the fact that Going clearly comes from a different, less organic mold than Yelp, Schumacher highlighted its early success--at last count, more than 80,000 active members in four cities--and attributed it to the fact that Going taps into a community that already existed.

Cities are home to hordes of young people who want to be socially in-the-know (just look at Yelpers), and according to Schumacher, there wasn't an online hub for that until now.

"I think it's a big world when you think about what to do, and we've got a pretty good focus, now that we really nailed early adopters or hipsters," he said. But the jury's still out on whether Going will be able to develop a core base as loyal as Yelp's.

It's also still too early to predict success for I'm In Like With You. Forman is working on expanding the site's functionality as well as combating some misperceptions about it: members' propensity to meet up with each other offline has given the site a reputation as being more in the league of dating sites like Lavalife and eHarmony--a reputation he's trying to change.

"We're not a dating site," he insisted. "We're really just a time waster on the Internet. If you can meet somebody new, that's great."

It's not clear whether any of the current upstart social-networking sites have stumbled upon the "secret formula." But if Yelpers are any indicator, the next successful online-offline social network may have to go beyond simply offering profiles, friends lists, and photo sharing.

"The secret to Yelp bridging the online-offline gap is the reviews," Yelp user Adrian said. "Someone's writing can reveal a lot about that person, so before I meet a reviewer in real life, I have a general idea of who they are and what they are like. With Facebook, I might get an idea of what a person looks like, what movies and music they enjoy, but reading something (that) someone has put a piece of themselves into makes a complete difference."