The scene unfolding at the Thai restaurant in Brooklyn was like that of any other casual dinner party. A small group of people sat around a wooden table, passing large dishes of spicy red curry and fried rice, drinking cold beers and swapping war stories about apartment hunting in New York.
But the twist was this: Before about 8 that evening, none of us had met before.
My newfound friends came courtesy of a Chicago start-up business called Grubwithus, an online service with the seemingly modest aim of bringing strangers together to have a meal. The concept is simple enough: People browse through a list of dinners in their cities and buy tickets, usually for around $25. Before the event, they can share a few online tidbits about themselves with their dining partners, a precautionary measure against awkward lulls in conversation and a way to ease fears about meeting up with a bunch of unknowns. For example, Eunice, one of my dining mates, wrote in her profile that she was a young nurse who loved to shop and travel.
But the service has deeper ambitions. It is using contemporary techniques to foster a kind of social networking that predates the dawn of services like Facebook and Twitter: old-fashioned conversation among casual acquaintances, without keyboards and screens.
Academics who study how we socialize online say that even in an era of almost nonstop communication across a bevy of platforms, in which so many millions of us are just a few clicks away from one another on the Web, people still crave the intimacy of face-to-face meetings.
People worry that “online contact and networking might replace offline interactions, but offline is still so precious that we’re creating ways to bring offline even more front and center,” said S. Shyam Sundar, a director of the Media Effects Research Lab at Pennsylvania State University. “Physical proximity plays a big role in terms of building relationships.”
Mr. Sundar noted the contradiction of a new generation of services that rely on the ubiquity of social networking to prompt contact that the Web calls IRL, or “in real life,” sometimes known as the real world.
“We’re using social technology to feed our need to meet up and close the gap between all the social networking that we do from a distance,” he said.
Grubwithus, which began organizing group dinners last August, says that more than 10,000 people have registered with the site. It’s hoping to turn the concept of social meals into a full-fledged business. Grubwithus helps the restaurant coordinate the menu for the group for the night and then charges a service fee to the restaurant; the amount varies by meal.
It has already sold a handful of prominent venture capitalists on the concept of social dining: the company raised $1.6 million in financing earlier this year from Andreessen Horowitz and First Round Capital, among others.
Of course, there is no shortage of ways to connect with the people you already know or have recently met. LinkedIn, Facebook, Hashable and Foursquare, for starters, have gained momentum and traction for exactly that. The challenge here is to come up with a way of gently expanding that network, something that clubs, ice cream socials and schools have done for generations.
“Friendship networks dwindle as you get older, so this is an easy and nonawkward way to meet new people,” said Sen Sugano, the development director of Grubwithus. “You have your circle of friends, of course, and the people you work with, but expanding beyond that can be hard.”
Before the proliferation of smartphones and tablets, it may have been easier to strike up a conversation with a fellow commuter or to exchange pleasantries with another solo diner or drinker. And while that certainly has not vanished, the presence of soft glowing screens may get in the way of casual connections.
Other entrepreneurs have noticed this distinctly modern quandary and are coming up with applications to deal with it.
Sonar, for example, is a new mobile application that combs a user’s connections on Facebook, Twitter and Foursquare and alerts them if they have any friends in the vicinity.
When I recently turned on the application and checked into a movie theater in Manhattan, it pinged me — letting me know that a guy named Joe and I shared several Facebook friends, and that Joe was lingering nearby. I was given the option of messaging Joe to see if he wanted to organize a quick meeting. I skipped the offer because I was late to see the thriller “Hanna,” but, given the right mix of circumstances and curiosity, it might have been a great way to spend an hour or two.
One of Sonar’s founders, Brett Martin, says the company wants to leverage the dozens, or even hundreds, of connections that many people have already made online and see if they can use those to form new, meaningful friendships.
“How often do you go to communal spaces only to see people trapped on their phones, Twittering and texting with people that aren’t there?” Mr. Martin asked. “I genuinely think people want to be around and maybe even strike up a conversation with other people, but they don’t know how.”
He says he has no interest in completely doing away with downtime. The aim, he said, is to combat the loneliness that can strike people when they are tethered to their entire social circle in the palm of their hand.
“There’s nothing wrong with disconnecting and just sitting in a park by yourself,” Mr. Martin said. “We’re just trying to give people the chance to connect offline if they want.”
OF course, is also something to be said for not becoming overly dependent on technology. Do we really need the Web to make new friends? My first instinct is to say no — that the most interesting people I’ve met have been through serendipitous and random encounters while traipsing around a new city.
But after our Grubwithus meal wound to a close — four hearty courses and two hours of entertaining chatter later — we trooped into the thick night air, lingering on the sidewalk, shaking hands and saying our goodbyes. Promises were made to keep in contact and plan a reunion meal. I couldn’t help but ask: would we really all keep in touch after this?
Nicolae, a young, bright-eyed entrepreneur, paused on his descent into the subway, smiled and said: “Of course! We’re all on the Internet.”
– Jenna Wortham, “Focusing on Social, Minus the Media”, The New York Times