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Drinking Liberally group finds life through social media

Posted by Maureen Quinlan  May 3, 2012 10:07 AM

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Although the sun was just beginning to set, the bar was dark.

People gathered around muted televisions and talked sports, while a waitress pushed tables together on the balcony floor and fixed place settings.

But this set-up was not for some celebratory dinner or family party. In fact, the same group of people use that area of the bar every month.

The group is the Boston chapter of Drinking Liberally, and meets at the Globe Bar in Copley Square every first Wednesday of the month to discuss progressive politics and current events.

The chapter is part of a national organization that aims to “build democracy one drink at time” by connecting like-minded individuals and facilitating local conversation.

Merry Rutrick hosts Boston’s Drinking Liberally chapter with Wendy Matarazzo. She got involved with the organization in 2006 after she graduated from Boston University.

“I was looking for a different organization to get involved with that pertained to my interests, one of which is progressive politics,” Rutrick said.

As Matarazzo ordered the salmon and Rutrick sipped her red wine, the meeting began.

Drinking Liberally members filtered into the Globe around 7 p.m. and ordered their first round of drinks while discussing the Occupy Boston members protesting the MBTA cuts on the State House steps. Other topics included American investment in infrastructure and job creation, high-speed rails in Kazakhstan and Boston’s recent black out.

Rutrick was asked to help run the chapter five years ago and said the group is not for die-hard political activists, but rather for those who have a passionate interest and want to socialize and discuss. She reaches out to people through Facebook, email and the Boston Drinking Liberally website.

“We email everyone two or three times a month just to let people know about the upcoming monthly meeting and we frequently mention topics that we might discuss in the meeting,” she said.

Every time an email is sent, it automatically appears on the website as a blog post. Rutrick said she makes sure the website has the most up-to-date information and uses the Internet to connect with people without bombarding them.

“Every time we send out an email we also send out a group Facebook message,” she said.

She said many Drinking Liberally members post on their personal Facebook pages, but the group page is often updated, especially when there are special events like a big debate or a guest speaker.

While Rutrick uses Facebook consistently, she is not a fan of Twitter.

“I don’t like Twitter,” she said. “I wouldn’t be against it, I’m just not into it.”

Matarazzo is the co-host of Boston’s Drinking Liberally chapter and helps coordinate its social media presence. She doesn’t remember how she heard about the group, but said it would be useful to see how other members have joined.

“Maybe we should throw in a line on Facebook about how they heard about us,” she said. “It would be kind of nice to see how they heard about it.”

Matarazzo also heads a group that goes to trivia every third Wednesday and involves many of the same people as Drinking Liberally.

“We alert people in similar ways,” she said, listing Facebook and email, but said that attendance has plateaued.

“We are sort of static, we need something,” Matarazzo said, and suggested Patch or Hub Pages. She also thinks the Boston chapter should use href="">Twitter more often.

Justin Krebs helped found Drinking Liberally nine years ago, when he noticed a lack of vocal and effective liberal leadership. Krebs is a political writer and organizer and decided to volunteer to help solve that problem.

“It felt like a deflating time to be liberal,” he said.

So Krebs started meeting his friends in a Manhattan bar once a week to discuss politics and current events. Their meetings soon attracted friends of friends, and the group grew.
Krebs still attends meetings in Manhattan, but also oversees Drinking Liberally on a national level, along with spin-offs including Laughing Liberally, which involves comedy shows, and Streaming Liberally, which involves films. An umbrella organization called Living Liberally was developed in 2007.

“Whatever it is you’re doing, we hope you’re doing it liberally,” Krebs said.

In order to continue growth and maintain existing projects, Krebs relies heavily on the Internet.

“We use digital media to draw new people in and reinforce those relationships,” he said.

Krebs said Drinking Liberally uses Facebook and Twitter on the national level, but local chapters have their own social media accounts. He said that while these outlets are useful for promotion, the goal is to get people to meet in person.

“It’s definitely more about attracting new members than facilitating conversation,” Krebs said. “Online communication has expanded our reach, though it’s clear from the tens of thousands of people, that while people enjoy the communication and contact that they find online, they really value face-to-face interaction.”

He said local blogs have played a critical role, and that when communities formed around such blogs, Drinking Liberally was a natural move.

“People were seeking that sort of connection and reaffirmation of their political values,” he said.

Tish Grier is a social media specialist and helps companies and projects use digital media and social forums effectively. Grier said at first, conservatives used those forums better than liberals.

“The conservatives were really on top of this stuff very very early,” she said. “The mainstream and even the liberal media had not caught on and used new media the way the right wing had.”

And while Grier said she has noticed a rise in the liberal blogosphere, she thinks there will always be a need for both ends of the political spectrum.

“I think there’s always going to be a place for talk radio as long as there are people who feel they are disengaged from the mainstream,” she said.

In terms of social media, Grier said Facebook is here to stay.

“My sense is that Facebook is going to be around for a while,” she said. “I call it the lazy man’s Internet.”

Grier said Facebook users can access information easier than through the web, and can read news, share news, learn about local events, get entertainment updates and participate in e-commerce all in one place.

She said the key to building community through social media is making forums friendly for adults.

“Adult socializing patterns are different than young people,” she said. “Facebook becomes the easier way for people to stay in touch.”

Grier is not as sure about the future of Twitter, and said most people use it as an RSS feed or during emergencies, rather than staying in touch with people.

She said blog technology has come a long way and with the increasing effectiveness of a Google search, blogs can do great things.

“They have the potential to just do so much,” Grier said. “They can unite groups of people as well as divide groups of people.”

Grier pointed out that what is said in blogs often gets shared on several social media platforms, which is exactly what bloggers want.

“When someone goes to blog they want a bigger audience than just their immediate circle of friends,” she said.

But Grier said that while social media is a good way to make connections users must transcend the online and meet people face-to-face.

She said Drinking Liberally’s strategy to attract members online but encourage in-person interaction is great.

Grier said, “You can be someone who only lives through the Internet, or you can be someone who actually gets a life and doesn’t live just through the Internet.”

See a photo gallery here.

This article was reported and written by Northeastern University journalism student Melissa Werthmann, under the supervision of Journalism Prof. Dan Kennedy, as part of a collaboration between The Boston Globe and Northeastern.

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