Schelling Meetings

In “The Strategy of Conflict” ur-game theorist Thomas Schelling discusses a special type of coordination, which he illustrates [I’m working from memory here, so forgive me if I slur details] with the following example:

Suppose you find yourself in New York city, and you have to meet a stranger. You have no way of communicating with them, but you know that they too want to meet you. Where and when do you go?

Apparently, someone did a study and found that a substantial majority of New Yorkers (in the 1950s) answered, ‘under the clock in Grand Central Station at noon’ — this being the stereotypical meeting place and time for Manhattanites. And, being the most common answer, it was therefore also the right one.

For a while there, it looked as if Meetup was going to be the Grand Central Station clock of the Internet — the default place to look for like-minded strangers. Then economics reared its head: Meetup, which was free and no doubt burning funds at a prodigious rate, decided to start charging for Meetups.

Naturally, meetings are fleeing to the free services. For example, the other day I saw this announcement via The Blogging of the President from the Dean for America campaign:

DFA-Link: DFA is finally moving away from using Meetup.com and has created DFA-Link, its own online organizing tools for local meetings, etc. Please sign up at DFA Link. After August 31, DFA will no longer be using Meetup.com for events or communicating with members.

That same day I got an email promoting a free version called Gatheroo, and promising that it “will not charge”:

Information technologies have been blamed for (among many things) increasing alienation (e.g., game potatoes). The Meetup phenomena moved in the opposite direction – using technologies to bring folks together and thus reversing if not a trend, a perception. … we feel technologies like ours are a response. I have expanded on this in our blog

As I’ve written previously (see Building the Bottom Up from the Top Down), I agree that meetup-style services are of great potential value and importance. The problem is that while there was one, famous, meetup.com, there are at present many free alternatives, with no one service seeming likely to achieve dominance. But this game is non-constant-sum: unless some player can evolve a dominant strategy — or someone can design a crawler/aggregator that combines them all into one feed — we are poorer for it.

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One Response to Schelling Meetings

  1. Dan Ryan says:

    “The problem is that while there was one, famous, meetup.com, there are at present many free alternatives, with no one service seeming likely to achieve dominance.”

    Gotta disagree. The nature of these services (think the Grand Central example again) is that one will emerge to dominate the market place. (Which is not to say that I know enough to predict which one). There are compelling network economies at work here, and most users will migrate to whichever service they see most of their peers using.

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