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Get out and do stuff in person

The internet is great for finding people just like yourself to talk to. But there's been one lingering problem: We increasingly hide behind a screen to do it.

Although social media is isolatingly comfortable for some, psych 101 suggests it's best to socialize face-to-face, not pixel-to-pixel. What if there was something that made it easier to take the first step? There is, and thousands of Clevelanders are doing it every day. It's called Meetup and if you're not using it, perhaps you should.

The world-wide organization connects people with similar business, social, political, religious, and activity interests — and they live near you. Once you find them, the idea is to (gasp!) actually do things with them. To date, there are more than 500 Meetup groups within 50 miles of Cleveland that hold an average of 200 events every week.

You name it and Cleveland Meetup has it — board gamers, drum-circlers, poker players, Tea Partiers and Ron Paul supporters, parenting groups and play groups for dogs, foodies, artists, entrepreneurs, volunteer groups, seniors' groups, and even a couple just for computer hackers.

It's free to join and if in the unlikely event you go to and enter your zip code and find nothing that tickles your fancy, you can start your own group. That will set you back $12 a month — but Meetup's platform makes it easy to sit back and watch all the folks just like you sign on just for a chance to meet you.

The Meetup concept was a direct result of 9/11 says Scott Heiferman, a New Yorker and cofounder who wanted to recreate the community togetherness he noticed after that horrific day. Why couldn't people come together for a common reason every day? So he built Meetup and had it running by 2003. Now, there are more than 100,000 groups with over 15 million members in 45 countries.

Meetup started to really take off in Cleveland closer to 2006 and it was none too soon for Alice and Jeff Hershberger. The Chicago ex-pats moved to Shaker Heights and were about ready to turn around and go back, leaving their new jobs here behind.

"We tried to make friends for 18 months and failed miserably," says Jeff, a research and development scientist. "If it weren't for Meetup we wouldn't be in Cleveland." Without children to introduce them to their soccer or scout parents, they had a tough time finding common ground with the natives.

"We found Meetup and it breathed new life into our relationship. We were really tired of being each other's best friend," says Alice, a business analyst.

They each belong to between 10 and 15 Meetup groups and attend an event at least a couple times a month. They've become group organizers too — Jeff runs a blogger's group and Alice organizes Northeast Ohio Wine Connection, one of several local wine Meetups.

While the Hershbergers don't see Meetup as predominately for singles, there are plenty of groups for singles of all ages and Alice encourages people to join them. "I think people are afraid they will run into people who are creepy and weird and I haven't gotten that at all. That's what Meetup does, it filters out people you don't want to meet."

Meetup group organizers do share some words to the wise, however. Meetup is intended to be free. Be wary of any group charging more than a few bucks a year or per event to cover organizers' expenses.

Look out for Meetups offering "classes" — some businesses disguise their offerings as Meetup groups because they see the platform as a cheap advertising opportunity. Signing up for a yoga or dance Meetup only to arrive and find you are part of a studio's existing class is missing the point, which is to form your own unique and free circle of friends.

Stay away from Meetups organized by people wanting to charge you a fee for their expertise or advice. If a Meetup organizer wants $30 in exchange for helping you, say, put together a business plan and you really want to go for it, do due diligence as with anything else. Make sure an organizer charging to help you write a more compelling first novel is really an author or editor, for example. A quick Google and LinkedIn search will typically do the trick.

With that in mind, here are some of the biggest, best, and quirkiest local Meetup groups to get you started.

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