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Social Networking 1.0

How computer geek Kevin Fitzpatrick established a community of friends before the age of Friendster

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As a high school student in Batavia, Kevin Fitzpatrick was more comfortable hanging out with his Commodore 64 computer, "information sharing" on bulletin boards, than hanging out with kids his age. "I was very much, umm, introverted and not mingling and social," he says. By the time he graduated in 1984, he was determined to be different. "It was like, OK, I want to change. I want to go out, I want to mingle—I'm going to socialize."

As a computer science major at Northern Illinois University in DeKalb he began reaching out to classmates, occasionally heading out to bars. He even organized outings, like the time he packed himself and about seven others in his 1971 Oldsmobile Ninety-Eight for a trip to Starved Rock State Park: "We did the barbecue cookout, hiked the trails."

After graduating in 1989 and taking a job as a computer programmer at the Chicago Board Options Exchange, he started calling friends in the run-up to the weekend or before going out to let them know where he'd be and when in case they wanted to meet. When he moved back to Batavia a couple years later he set up a second phone line and equipped it with an answering machine that his friends could call anytime to find out what he was up to instead. Each week Fitzpatrick recorded a new outgoing message detailing upcoming events and his own personal social calendar; he called the service "Your Event Hotline."

He didn't stop there. To keep himself organized, he kept a Word file of events he planned to announce each week on the hotline. Then he decided to start photocopying the list and handing it out at events. It was written in single-spaced ten-point Times New Roman type and covered first one and eventually both sides of a page "with no margins and no white space." By the mid-90s Fitzpatrick was handing out 30 to 40 copies a week. When he shut down the phone line and switched to e-mail, he says, things "really took off." Now the weekly Your Event Hotline, or YEH, reaches more than 1,400 subscribers.

Fitzpatrick, now based in Downers Grove, logs about 25 hours "if not more" each week scouring several dozen sources—including the state of Illinois and city of Chicago Web sites—for events. Usually by Wednesday he's put together a list of 60 to 100 items, ranging from semiprivate parties to comedy shows to wine tastings.

Recent offerings have included a 5K run, Naperville Ribfest, the Chicago Pride parade, and a Catholic mass. Fitzpatrick tries to keep an open mind. "One time," he says, "I publicized a Christian event, and this friend of mine is, like, really Catholic. He's like, 'What—are you trying to convert people?' And I'm like, 'No, I'm just being fair, you know?'" Mainly he looks for events that are free or inexpensive. "With this economy, many are trying to watch their money. There's many great events for zero to 30 dollars that include free drinks, food, and hundreds of young adults to mingle with."

Topping each YEH newsletter is a short "Join Us" section with the ten or so events that Fitzpatrick himself is most likely to attend—stuff like church socials where "it's easier to mingle and meet people and help other people meet people" or dinner and movie outings he's organized. Everything else is filed under "Regular Events," "Upcoming Events," or in the reference sections "Social Groups" and "Services for Meeting People."

Each entry is meticulously annotated in his personal shorthand, a mix of unconventional abbreviations and punctuation that he admits can read "like an algebra test." For example, a recent movie listing read: "Popcorn/soda ~$3 ea, free refills. If possible, RSVP. Meet at concessions till actual movie start (seek napkin hanging from hand), text my cell . . . or join ~2/3s way down center isle #3 (watch for me on popcorn refills :)."

Fitzpatrick goes out Thursday through Sunday most weeks, plus some Tuesdays and Wednesdays too. He'll stay two or three hours, sometimes attending several a night. Depending on the size of the gathering, he'll know anywhere from 5 to 20 people there.

"I first started seeing him every time I went out—at charity events, happy hours, pub crawls, etc," says Eve Kotlarz, who's known Fitzpatrick about eight years and has been receiving his e-mails for about six. "I don't think there was an event I attended that he was not at."

Elizabeth Denton, a 39-year-old research analyst for a boutique investment bank, has been on Fitzpatrick's e-mail list since last fall. She has a hard time believing he was so shy as a kid. "He certainly fooled me! Whenever I'm at a party with Kevin, he makes it a point to introduce people to each other." Plus, she adds, "he seems to have a comprehensive knowledge of every bar's drink and appetizer specials."

"Whenever somebody's by themselves, I try and mingle with them, 'cause I want people to feel welcome and feel part of the group," Fitzpatrick says. But he occasionally does lapse: "If I'm interested in someone and I want to ask them out, then I'm the old, shy me, you know?"

Luz Gallardo, who's in her early 30s and works for a small communications firm, met Fitzpatrick nearly two years ago at a rooftop party hosted by one of his friends. At the time Gallardo had been trying to jump-start her social life. She tried meetin.org and meetup.com but didn't really mesh with anyone. She began visiting a Buddhist temple but says even that "felt like a meat market." She gave Fitzpatrick her e-mail address; these days she joins his loose entourage about twice a week.

"As a girl, I tend to feel safe with him and the group," she says. And while she used to not want to go out without a group of friends, YEH changed her thoughts on that. "You just kind of show up somewhere and you just kind of enjoy it."

On a recent Sunday Fitzpatrick and about a dozen mostly thirtysomethings were gathered at the back of Witt's bar in Lincoln Park having drinks and sharing appetizers. Fitzpatrick's cell phone was clipped to his belt.

When a woman at a nearby table suddenly found herself alone, Fitzpatrick leaned over and asked, "Want to pull a seat over?"

"Who, me?" she said and joined the group.

In no time Fitzpatrick had her e-mail address and was promising her announcements for "a lot of fun stuff."

Finding new subscribers is generally that easy, but turning a profit might be harder. For starters, although Fitzpatrick sprinkles his listings with text ads (for cell phones, babysitters, apartment rentals), so far he doesn't charge for them.

But Fitzpatrick's got things other than money on his mind: getting people out and mingling. "I just feel bad, 'cause there's people that's sitting at home like I used to be," he says. He's proud that YEH has brought about two jobs, four engagements, and 11 marriages resulting in about a dozen children. Plus, he says, "obviously I want to go out and do things, and I'd rather not do them by myself."

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