Building Community Away From the Computer
By Samantha Michaels
We’ve heard the complaint a million times: social media ironically makes us less social. Though it keeps us up-to-date with each other, online networks can also isolate us behind computer screens and disconnect us from real life. Maybe that’s why Google+ has received so much hype for its group video chat feature, which allows people to actually see and hear each other as they communicate online. Personally, though, I’m even more excited about another lesser-known Website that’s going even further to put the social back in social media. The site GrubWithUs.com is helping people get past their computer screen barrier and connect at the best possible place: the dinner table.
A Chicago start-up, GrubWithUs uses social media to organize dinners at local restaurants for strangers who want to meet new people. I first heard about the Website when I read a great New York Times article by technology reporter Jenna Wortham, who described her own experience with the service in New York. After visiting the website and looking at a list of dinners in her city, she opted for Thai food and bought a ticket, which usually cost about $25. GrubWithUs works with restaurants to coordinate a family style menu for its group dinners, and after making a reservation, guests show up to eat and socialize.
Two college friends named Diashin Sugano and Eddy Lu came up with the idea for GrubWithUs when they moved to Chicago to open a pastry shop and struggled to make new friends. “We didn’t really know anyone there, and we went to bars and lounges and did the normal thing to make friends, and it was really hard to meet people,” Sugano told the Los Angeles Times this spring when GrubWithUs expanded to Los Angeles. “And one of the social settings where we, and we think most people, feel comfortable in is over dinner — it’s one of the oldest traditions out there.” The idea caught on quickly, and today GrubWithUs organizes dinners in Chicago, New York, Washington D.C., Boston, Seattle, Atlanta, Philadelphia and Austin.
As far as social media sites go, I think GrubWithUs is on to something good. It’s using modern technology to build community beyond our computers, and people are getting excited about it. As Wortham reports in her article, more than 10,000 people have registered with the Website since it began organizing dinners last August.
At the same time, part of me cringes to think that we actually need an online social network to meet people in our communities. I’m reminded of dating Websites like Match.com or eHarmony.com that are quite effective and popular for many people out there. In her article, Wortham asks, “Do we really need the Web to make friends?” and I’d like to believe the answer is no; we can meet people randomly on the streets or though other acquaintances without the assistance of Facebook, Foursquare or even GrubWithUs.
Still, while I hope that community building never depends completely on social media, maybe it doesn’t hurt to harness the Internet for that purpose. As long as we only use social media to complement – not control – our social lives, Websites like GrubWithUs are just another fun way to meet people. At the very least the new meal-based social network has sparked my curiosity, perhaps even enough to try it out myself.
We want to know:
1. What do you think of GrubWithUs? Would you ever register for a dinner with strangers?
2. Do you think we rely too much on social media to meet new people?
This post was inspired by the New York Times article, “Focusing on the social, minus the media,” as well as the Los Angeles Times article, “GrubWithUs looks to take social networking from the Web to the dinner table.”