NEW YORK — Marissa Meizz, 23, was out to dinner with a friend in the East Village in mid-May when her phone started buzzing. She tried to silence it, but the texts kept coming. They all wanted to know: Had she seen the TikTok video?
She clicked the link and a young man appeared on screen. “If your name’s Marissa,” he said, “please listen up.” He said he had just overheard some of her friends say they were deliberately choosing to hold a birthday party when she was out of town that weekend. “You need to know,” he said. “TikTok, help me find Marissa.”
Meizz’s heart sank. After getting in touch with the man who posted the video, which amassed more than 14 million views, she confirmed that she was the Marissa in question and that it was her friends who had conspired to exclude her from their party.
Her feelings were hurt. But rather than sulk, Meizz decided to do something about it. She went on TikTok to reveal that the video had been about her. The reaction was instantaneous. “People immediately started messaging me saying, ‘Let’s be friends!’ ” she said. “ ‘Screw your old friends.’ ”
Meizz’s story took hold as the coronavirus pandemic has radically transformed relationships. Some old friendships have withered after a lack of in-person interactions and people have forged more online connections to alleviate loneliness. What happened next to Meizz encapsulated those changes, with her online and offline worlds blurring to create something new — and joyful.
Within days of her revelation on TikTok, Meizz, a costume designer, received more than 5,000 messages. Strangers invited her to their birthday parties, housewarmings and weddings. Some who lived outside New York City asked if she could set up a post office box so they could be pen pals. Thousands — especially Gen Zers and millennial adults — seemed hungry for new connections as summer began and coronavirus restrictions lifted.
“I was like, OK, how can I use this to help people?” she said.
The answer: Meizz decided to hold a meetup.
In June, Meizz posted a TikTok telling everyone looking for new friends to meet at Central Park on a Saturday. The video went viral. On the day of the meetup, 200 people showed up. For more than eight hours they laughed, played games, chatted and bonded.
The event was such a success that Meizz started No More Lonely Friends, an online community of people looking to make friends in real life, or IRL, meetups across the country.
Meizz has since held meetups in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Boston, Washington, Philadelphia and elsewhere. The events are free and open to anyone. Though the crowd skews young, hundreds of attendees of all ages have showed up as word of the events has spread through TikTok’s “For You” page, which is powered by the app’s recommendation algorithm.
“At some point everyone has had that feeling of loneliness or, man, I have no friends,” said Max Grauer, 24, a pastry baker in Los Angeles who recently attended one gathering. “Being locked in your house for months on end, there’s a release of going out, seeing new people and experiencing new faces.”
The No More Lonely Friends gatherings are the latest example of online interactions turning into real life events in the pandemic. In May, after an invitation to a 17-year-old’s birthday party went viral on TikTok, thousands of teenagers showed up in Huntington Beach, California. YouTubers, TikTokers and live streamers went to make posts about it for those who couldn’t attend. Eventually, there was a riot and the police moved in, arresting 150 people and issuing an emergency curfew.
Meizz’s effort is far less chaotic. She said she tries to greet all the attendees and help make connections between them. She bops from group to group to ensure that no one is left alone. To break the ice and help cover event costs, Meizz recently began selling merchandise, including T-shirts that say, “If you’re reading this, we should be friends.”
“The cool thing is everyone there is to make friends, so everyone looks like they’re already friends but in reality everyone’s showed up alone,” she said.
Many attendees bond quickly. A large group from the Los Angeles gathering reconnected the next weekend for a beach trip and have started a group chat on Instagram to plan future outings.
Some people have joined multiple meetups. Makenna Misuraco, 26, a mental health counselor in Philadelphia, attended a No More Lonely Friends event in her city and recently traveled to one in New York City. She said Meizz’s exclusion by her friends resonated with her, as did how Meizz then took the experience and turned it into something positive on and off the internet.
“Social media can be a very bad place for people,” Misuraco said. No More Lonely Friends “brings people that are all in the same boat, looking to make friends and craving good human interaction. When you go there, you know everyone has the intention of meeting friends.”
Jiovanni Daniels, 25, a singer in New York, said he has been to all three meetups in the city after finding out about it on TikTok.
“You never know who you might meet,” he said. “Every type of demographic has popped up there. I’ve met people in their 50s and early teens.” The main attendees were those in their late teens to late 20s, he said, and they “go at 11 a.m. and stay until 8 p.m. or 9 p.m.”
Meizz is planning more gatherings in U.S. cities and said she hoped to expand internationally when the pandemic eases. Though No More Lonely Friends isn’t a business, the events have attracted interest from brands. This month, representatives from Arizona Iced Tea showed up to one gathering with free drinks and merchandise.
Meizz said she was keeping an eye on the latest coronavirus surge, fueled by the more infectious delta variant. To be safe, she only holds events outdoors.
“I check the cities, I go to vaccination rates and make sure that things are still open and I’m not doing anything illegal,” she said. “I always look out for everyone’s safety and everyone feels comfortable.”
As the gatherings have grown, some logistics have become more complicated. One Sunday meetup this month in Central Park attracted more than 600 people over eight hours.
“I looked it up and as long as I don’t have a foldout table or giant speaker, I don’t need a permit,” Meizz said. “We’re just a group of people gathering. But we’re talking to people about permits and stuff to make sure.”
The community also extends online. People search the No More Lonely Friends hashtags and Instagram comments to reconnect with people they met or to discuss attending the next event together.
At the recent Central Park meetup, Meizz was calm and upbeat. As people clustered in groups, some mingled and greeted potential new friends. One man brought out his acoustic guitar and played under a tree. Others played card games or volleyball. Some ate snacks on picnic blankets.
At one point, in a moment captured for TikTok, Meizz grabbed her phone and panned to the cheering crowd behind her as they raised their hands. Meizz, who hasn’t spoken to the former friends who excluded her from the birthday party, said she has more than enough new friends now.
“It’s kind of just turned into a big giant family,” she said.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.