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A social media renunciate gives grubwithus a try

July 7, 2011

Confession: I am something of a social media luddite.  This often surprises people who are aware of the fact that I sometimes study social media.  Methodologically, I like to point out that it is often a very effective interviewing strategy to begin a thread of inquiry by saying, “I don’t actually know all that much about how this works, can you explain it to me?” I’ve found that for a lot of people*, this creates a really rich flow of information about social media use, and given the operational fluidity of applications like Facebook and YouTube, one important thing that comes out of this is a documentation of highly-malleable technological tools.

Personally, my reasons for avoiding social media sites are somewhat different, ranging from those that people tend to accept somewhat grudgingly (Privacy! Context collapse!) and those that people find less convincing (Poor grammar! Photos of pets!).  Anecdotally, I’ve noticed that in the past few years, reactions to learning that I’m not on Facebook have changed from “Wow, what’s it like not to have a social life?” to “Good for you, I spend way too much time on there.”  Note the switch from assuming that not being on Facebook keeps you from having a life to assuming that being on Facebook keeps you from having a life.

Despite my current rejection of most (but not all) social media sites, when I first found out about grubwithus, I was interested right away. Basically, grubwithus allows users to pre-pay for a dinner at a local (urban) restaurant.  Other users sign up and then everyone hangs out and eats food at the appointed time and place. It seemed like the kind of thing that used social media in ways that I really liked. Rather than a dating site (where people presumably have loosely-aligned relationship or hook-up intentions) or a meet-up (where people presumably have loosely-aligned interests or hobbies), grubwithus piles people together solely on shared location and an interest in meeting other people.  (Obviously you could use grubwithus to find dates, but not being single, this wasn’t on my agenda.  Also, it’s not that I don’t like dating websites or meet-ups, it’s just that I’m interested in the potential for meeting people without knowing  (much) about what you have in common.)  It seemed to position itself as a low-key way for 20-somethings to hang out with other people in their surrounding urban area.  Fitting those categories, I thought I’d give it a try.

I went to the site, made an account, wrote up a fittingly terse bio.  I was gratified that as an early-adopter, I was awarded a badge for being a beta tester.  The downside of being an early-adopter was also immediately apparent when the first meal I signed up to attend was cancelled due to low interest (my credit card was refunded right away).  On the second try, I successfully signed up for a meal at a local Cambridge restaurant with a respectable four attendees.

As an eating experience, grubwithus gets full marks – the food was great and the drinks (which you buy separately from your online meal purchase) were cheap.  As a social experience, it was mixed.  It turned out that one of the attendees was a grubwithus “ambassador,” a gregarious and easy-going young graduate student whose stated role was to make sure that things went smoothly.  I found it slightly odd that our  “ambassador” periodically sprinkled her conversation with questions about our experience with grubwithus: What drew us to the site?  What kinds of restaurants would they like to see included?  Anything we would change about the meal? About the site?  As someone in the midst of doing research using semi-structured interviews, it was interesting to see her navigate the boundaries of insider (“just another diner”) and outsider (“corporate representative”).  I think one of the main points of shared connection between the non-ambassador diners was simultaneously feeling a little used and wanting to find out how we could become grubwithus “ambassadors” and thus get to eat at nearby restaurants for free.

Would I use grubwithus again?  I’m not sure.  The meals hover around $30 per person, not including drinks, which is about double my usual food budget when I’m out eating with friends.  I haven’t been in touch with any of the other diners since, and none of us has used the grubwithus feature allowing users to post on the pages of people with whom we’ve dined.  I also noticed that none of the other diners from the meal I attended have (so far) signed up for another meal.  On the other hand, I would be curious to see what meals are like in other cities, and have thought about using the site again the next time I’m in NYC, which seems to have more meals and more attendees.  Grubwithus isn’t likely to be the gateway application to a rampage of social media use, at least not for me, but it was nice to give it a try.  At the very least, I’m hoping it will chip away at my only partially-deserved reputation for being a total curmudgeon when it comes to social media.

*This dynamic is obviously subject to really interesting/problematic dynamics of gender (as well as other things), something that I try to track and note when I’m employing this tactic.

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