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Where Technology Actually Puts People Face to Face

There's a relatively new way for people to meet face-to-face, and these Meetups are fostered online and are beginning to crop up all over Central and Western Virginia.WMRA’s Kara Lofton has the story.

Like Facebook, Meetup is an online social networking platform. Unlike Facebook, in which users connect primarily online with people they already know, Meetup events are organized online around a topic of common interest and then attendees “meet up” at public spaces like parks, coffee shops or restaurants to talk, make or do something.

Although there are Meetups about pretty much anything you could want (current Meetup groups range from hiking to music to crafting), it’s technology Meetups that appear to be most popular and quickly growing in Central and Western Virginia.

Tamara Funk is a co-organizer for the Meetup Open Source Staunton.

TAMARA FUNK: A lot of the events that I go to, and the folks I know go to, it’s because it’s a topic of genuine interest to them that they might use in either a project they’re working on as a volunteer or in their professional day-to-day work. So Open Source Staunton for example, we have definitely had presentations where people, as they’re leaving say, ‘this is cool, this is exactly what I needed for my problem at work.’

Most tech Meetups focus on specific programs. Between Harrisonburg, Staunton and Charlottesville, one can find groups that meet to talk about web applications, web design, hacking, Ruby, Javascript, Python and Wordpress, among other things.  

But there are a few more generalist groups. First Wednesdays, run by John Feminella in Charlottesville, is one of these.

JOHN FEMINELLA: “I find First Wednesdays interesting because I think the cross section of people you get is much more surprising than the cross section you might get from a specific Meetup that is focused on a set of technologies or on a way of doing things. And I think that exposes you a lot more to what people who are not like yourself are working on. And I think that is particularly valuable in Charlottesville where we have so many people who are working on so many different things and if you want to keep track of that or at least keep your toe in the waters for everything, it is a good way to get experience with that.”

The biggest Meetup-type events in Central Virginia, though, are two events called beCamp and beSwarm. This year Funk organized beCamp and Feminella organized beSwarm, which are called “unconferences.”

FUNK: An unconference is a participant driven experience where the participants are going to determine what happens at the conference. So the way it’s handled, is Friday night we come in, we hang out and have some food together and folks just gather and chat. And then we all come together in a large room and we give folks the opportunity to pitch whatever idea they want to hear about and they will stand up in front of everyone with a little notecard, and they’ll write their idea on the notecard and they’ll say, ‘this is what I would like to learn about, share about, or present on,’ and then all the notecards go up on a wall and we make lots of maRkers available and people just walk around and they put a tick mark on anything they would be interested in seeing the next day…the ones that get the most votes make it onto the conference slate.”

Although Funk and Feminella are excited about the vibrant, burgeoning tech community in central Virginia, they both advocated for more diversity.

FUNK: “I want more people to see that tech is for everyone. And there are so few women in the tech area, and I feel like they just may not have had the encouragement, or they may not have seen that tech could be for them, but they’ve got the core skills that are needed in order to be successful technical professionals.”

One meetup that is working to address this imbalance is called Girl Develop It, a Meetup that according to their website “exists to provide affordable and accessible programs to women who want to learn software and web development through mentorship and hands-on instruction.”  

Ann Lewis is the founder of the Central Virginia Chapter of Girl Develop It. Despite the name, she is quick to say that Girl Develop It is not just for women, though.

ANN LEWIS: “It’s an inclusive organization so men are welcome to join, to come to the social events, they are welcome to become teaching assistants or teachers for the classes—I think it’s important that organizations like this are inclusive because it’s not just women who are left out of the growing field. There are a lot of men who don’t happen to be part of the dominate demographic that also feel a little bit left out and want access to supportive classroom environments and just more information about what careers in software engineering are like.”

Lewis, Funk and Feminella are all high level tech professionals who spend most of their days “connected” through one piece of technology or another. Perhaps that is where tech Meetups have found their niche though: the Meetups allow people to “connect” via technology in order to be with one another in person.

Kara Lofton is a photojournalist based in Harrisonburg, VA. She is a 2014 graduate of Eastern Mennonite University and has been published by EMU, Sojourners Magazine, and The Mennonite. Her reporting for WMRA is her radio debut.