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Need to show off your apps? There's a group for that

Tech-minded people gather regularly to network, exchange knowledge, and just plain socialize

By Joel Brown
Globe Correspondent / March 17, 2011

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NEWBURYPORT — Trying to connect an iPad to one of the bar’s large flat-screen TVs, Joshua Porter calls out for tech support: “Does anyone have a mini-DVI-to-VGA connector?’’

A couple of people put down their beers and rummage in their bags. In the back of the room, another member of the North Shore Web Geeks sees a reporter put pen to pad and groans, “Noooo, don’t write that down.’’

He doesn’t want the group (www.northshorewebgeeks.com) to seem too geeky. But the monthly meet-up of tech-minded people from Essex County and beyond both fits and breaks the mold. While there’s plenty of knowledge-sharing and networking going on, the purpose seems just as much to get out of that home office, consume adult beverages, and hang with people who get the same jokes.

“In the early years I was an independent consultant working from home, and this was a big part of my social life,’’ says Porter, cofounder of the Cambridge-based marketing analytics firm Performable Inc. “It still is, but at that point all my clients were in Silicon Valley. I didn’t have a lot of contact with people, so this was great.’’

On this night, a light crowd of about 20 people gather in a private room upstairs at the Port Tavern. The agenda is beers, laughs, and a round of “lightning talks,’’ when members share their knowledge and opinions for five minutes apiece and take questions. Direct business pitches are prohibited. Previous talks have included everything from a lawyer talking about intellectual property rights issues to a sort of show-and-tell when the first iPads came out.

Tonight, a self-employed software developer, John Brayton, has come from Manchester, N.H., to talk about creating and marketing an iPhone app, and he takes several questions about dealing with the sometimes arcane business practices of Apple. Julian Rex, an independent iPhone developer with a history in the gaming industry, talks about the future of handheld game devices, consoles, smart phones, and tablets like the iPad.

Porter talks about the coming generation of user interfaces. His prime example is Mint.com, which communicates about personal finance and bills to its users, with reminders and helpful tips.

“Is there a point with notifications where it stops being helpful and starts being creepy?’’ asks Trevor Stair, creative director at a local marketing agency, to general amusement.

The gatherings are good for meeting potential clients and employees, Stair says later, but it’s more than that: “Getting exposed to people with a bunch of different backgrounds and disciplines helps broaden your own horizons. I think, finally, just drinking with people that you’ve become friends with is always a good thing.’’

North Shore Web Geeks started three years ago, when Porter’s friend Jeff Watkins came back from a tech job in California for the holidays, and they organized a get-together at the bar (then under another name) via Twitter and e-mail. Soon Porter was organizing regular meet-ups along with Tom Summit, who had started organizing similar lunchtime events. A monthly tradition was born. There are also impromptu summer gatherings, usually at a waterfront location.

Porter, Rex, and Stair, all Newburyport residents, do most of the organizing lately, Porter says, but the events are free, and participants buy their own drinks from a waitress, so the work consists mostly of updating their Internet presence and recruiting the speakers.

“It was actually this group that was my way into Newburyport, when I first arrived a couple of years ago from the UK,’’ says Rex. “It was perfect; it was right on my doorstep.’’

Porter says, “There are some great meet-ups in Boston, but getting down there on a weeknight — it doesn’t work.’’

On a few occasions, companies have sponsored the evening, and the turnout usually triples then.

This night, the North Shore Web Geeks defy stereotype in another way, with nearly half the group being women. That’s not the norm.

“There have been times, I think, when I’ve been the only woman there, at least for the first hour,’’ says Christine Green, an Amesbury consultant on social media and Web design for small business. “It’s mostly men. I don’t have any problem with that.’’

She has gotten at least one client from the gatherings, which she’s attended for a year and a half, but says the camaraderie is still the main attraction: “Working at home can be isolating; being a geek can be isolating. With my friends, they don’t know what I’m talking about when I talk about some of this stuff . . . so it’s really nice to have people to talk to about that.’’

North Shore Web Geeks normally meet on the third Thursday of the month, but due to St. Patrick’s Day, they’ve postponed this month’s gathering to March 24 at 7 p.m. at the Port Tavern, 84 State St., Newburyport. Joel Brown can be reached at jbnbpt@gmail.com.

Get your geek on
The North Shore Web Geeks events are just one of the high-tech meet-ups in the North area:
Mac-centric NSHappyHour
(www.nshappyhour.org)
WHEN: First Wednesday of each month in Salem.
WHAT YOU’LL FIND THERE: “The gathering gives you a chance to show off your apps, seek help or assist others, and most importantly meet and get to know other fine folks in the development community.”
Build Guild
(salem.buildguild.org)
WHEN: Second Tuesday of the month in Salem.
WHAT YOU’LL FIND THERE: “A monthly gathering of Web folks that enjoy chatting over drinks. Mustaches optional. No presentations ever ever ever.”
“e-brew” gatherings on the New Hampshire seacoast
WHEN: First Thursday of the month, run by the Greater Portsmouth Chamber of Commerce eCoast Technology Roundtable (www.portsmouthchamber.org/ecoast.