During the South by Southwest Interactive Conference and Festival this weekend, you'll be hard-pressed to find someone walking around downtown without a smartphone in his or her hand. As social media has become mainstream in recent years, its users get a lot of flak for being so plugged in all the time.

But for many, social media sites such as Twitter and Facebook are a vehicle for building offline relationships, and few websites generate as much passion in their offline events as Meetup.com, an interest-based social network with more than 90,000 groups worldwide. More than a million Meetup users joined groups in January, the highest number since the site was founded almost 10 years ago.

There are about 100 food-related Meetup groups in the Austin area, with countless others that meet at restaurants, coffee shops or bars. Some, such as the Conscious Eating Support Group, meet on a regular basis at the same place, while others, like the Fearless Foodies group out of Leander or the Austin Food and Wine Lovers group, offer opportunities to visit wineries, restaurants, farmers markets and pick-your-own farms. With more than 1,300 members, one of the largest groups is Chocolate, Coffee and Wine Lovers, which often incorporates networking or even knitting into its events. Several of the groups have book clubs within the group, but the Food Think group meets at BookPeople about every six weeks to talk about books such as "The Food of a Younger Land" or "The Jungle."

One of the fastest growing groups is the Austin Wine Tasters, which was about to dissolve when New York transplant Theda Sandiford saw that the former organizer was looking for someone else to take over the group. "I didn't know a soul, and I thought, ‘I'm a marketing person; I know how to run a group,'" she says. She signed on, and within months, she had increased the number of events, rejuvenated members and drawn in an additional 200 people.

"I moved here to retire from the music business," Sandiford says, unironically. "But food and wine have always been my passion." Sandiford says her goal is to provide as many opportunities as possible for members to get together offline, no matter if they are preparing for their sommelier certification or are just starting to explore the difference between Chardonnay and Champagne. In New York, she moderated a similar group on Facebook, and she says that Meetup brings in a more diverse group of people, rather than just friends and friends of friends. "On Facebook, everyone already knows each other, but Meetup is for people who have this interest and want to meet more people with that same interest," she says.

She posts free tastings, wine dinners and get-togethers like a chili cook-off at her house last month that drew more than 50 of the group's members, many of whom brought slow cookers filled with chili and a bottle of wine to go with it.

Standing on Sandiford's East Austin porch while a chilly rain fell on her xeriscaped yard, Stephanie Howard said that even though she'd been a member of the group for a while, it was her first event to attend. Howard has lived in Austin for six years, but when her children were in elementary and middle school, her social life revolved around them. "Now that my kids are older, I was looking to meet new people in Austin and to learn more about wine," she says.

Also seeking refuge from the packed house was Sean Walgren, who said he started joining Meetup groups to pursue a number of interests, including running and chocolate. The constant privacy and design changes on Facebook prompted him to delete his account, but he prefers the interest-based social interactions on Meetup and sees it as an alternative to dating sites like Match.com.

"This is a more organic way to meet people" with whom you share an interest, he says.

McCartney Taylor started the Texas Wild Mushrooming Group after a particularly rainy spring in 2010 meant more mushrooms than usual popping up around Central Texas. (Taylor emphasizes on the group page that they are focused on edible mushrooms, not the psychedelic ones.)

"We're taking the average Texan who has very little knowledge about mushrooms to get them up to speed to know what they are looking for, which ones will melt your liver and kill you," and which ones taste like chicken, he says. (Yes, there is such a thing. It's called the chicken mushroom, and one can grow to more than 20 pounds.) Taylor does much of the teaching, but part of the draw for these groups is that everyone can contribute based on whatever knowledge base they have. For Taylor's group, some of the most active members are those who grew up in the Northeast — "Yankee refugees," he calls them — and remember going on family morel hunts as kids.

You can search the site by location and topic and read reviews of the group that members (or former members) have left. Some groups are private and you have to be a member to explore the kind of events they host, but others, like Taylor and Sandiford's, are open so you can see photos from events, upcoming activities and member comments.

"Meetup is more focused on the person who is willing to take action, while Facebook is more for people who just like something," Taylor says. Unlike Facebook, which is free, Meetup does charge group organizers, but not members. Some organizers pass that cost, which is about $150 a year, to members through membership or event fees, while others either absorb the cost or seek a sponsorship from a local business that might host some of the meetings or see marketing value in sponsoring the group.

Enthusiast groups such as the Central Texas Mycological Society once thrived, but as members grew older and few younger ones joined, the groups diminished in size. Social media can give established groups based around age-old hobbies and interests such as beekeeping or quilting new life, Taylor says.

Websites can be expensive to build, and sites like Meetup or Facebook make it easier for them to attract new members who might have just done a quick Google search to see if there's a group based around their interest.

"Meetup is designed to help people find you and your club," he says. "It has shortened the cycle of trying to find a likened soul."

Contact Addie Broyles at 912-2504

Local food groups

Here are a few other food-related Meetup.com groups in Central Texas:

Austin Cooking Club

Epicure's Delight

Bizarre Foodies of Austin

Trailer Friends

Central Texas Foragers

Central Texas Foodies

The Central Texas Aquaponic Group

Addicted to Sushi

Cook By Your Wits

San Marcos Raw Food Meetup Group

South Austin Wine Lovers

Austin Urban Beekeeping

The Austin Backyard Poultry Meetup Group

Beer & Cookies Book Club

The Austin Beer Meetup Group

Wilco Wellness Cafe