Early LUGs ran on the whiff of any oily rag; members had evangelistic zeal as they passionately spruiked the virtues of Linux. Yet, it wasn’t purely technical: sure, Linux was a radically free OS with a degree of hacker mystique, but Linux was also a tremendous social phenomenon taking place. Geeks could root for this newcomer which was not only immune to, but shattered through, the business practices which commercial software monopolies used to wither their opponents.
A regular and popular component of LUGs was an install-fest; here anyone could bring along their desktop or laptop and receive unbridled help with getting any Linux distro of choice up-and-running. Back in the day, so to speak, Linux was still regarded as a system for experts and it was par for the course that arcane command-line instructions and tweaking were required for success. There was none of this “even your granny can run Ubuntu” back then. The real live assistance of others who had already trodden this path was an invaluable resource – not only was the value immeasurable, but you would barely have been able to find paid, commercial support if you tried, yet here it was for free.
Another historical segment of the LUG meeting was a spot of Microsoft bashing; this was never the purpose for the group but was generally an enjoyable sport. After all, nobody was a LUG member because they felt Windows was the world’s best OS.
Yet, today, if you have a question regarding some aspect of Linux – hardware compatibility, say – your answer is frequently milliseconds away in the form of a Google search. And while students still take part, it’s not uncommon for the average LUG member to be a professional, paid, systems administrator. Some are of the heterogeneous type, who brushes off their continued use of Windows as being “pragmatic” in their selection of platform for any given task. Some may even be of the proprietary UNIX variety, snootily scoffing at the Linux newcomers who are being excited about things they did “20 years ago.”
What of the major drawcard, the installfest? Well – in this case, there’s never been any operating system easier to install than the modern Linux distro and its rich support for hardware and streamlined graphical loading process. Indeed, the prominence of Live CDs make testing out Linux a no-brainer; just insert a CD, boot your computer and check it out. If you find a hardware glitch or are turned off for any reason just shutdown and remove the CD: you’ve not touched your hard disk one jot.
What do you think? Is there a case for the modern day LUG?
I canvassed the opinion of members of my local LUG, LOGIN, putting forth the provocative question, “What can your LUG do for you?”
I intended to summarise responses, but I received one reply in particular which was so well-expressed I couldn’t do justice without quoting it in full. So, let me give the floor to Jonathon Coombes of Cybersite Consulting for his take on the role of the modern-day LUG:
I can speak with some experience here having gone through previous (before Internet) times and into the new network-based collaboration.
The original idea of user groups was to help professional and/or people of common interest in some area or product e.g. Linux, MySQL, PHP etc. This was because the people held the knowledge and it was often the only way to discuss issues that you found during the day that you could not solve. There was no email, no web, no Wikipedia or Google.
However, now there is easy access to problem solving with Google and email and all the resources of the internet at hand. This means that either the user group's purpose has to change or they cease to exist.
For some areas, I have already seen these groups cease to exist. So how do they change their purpose? Looking at our LUG it works very much the same way - there can still be queries that are unsolved by querying Google, and can be solved by collaboration at the LUG. The biggest use however, is interactive knowledge sharing, particularly for new or complex areas. For beginners, it is important to have talks and demo new applications or techniques and let them ask questions. For knowledgeable people, looking at quirks in how things work, or implementing tricky or new features is reassuring before trying it out themselves either at work or home.
So what is the outcome? It comes down to the will of the people in the group. Some will simply find it no longer of value and it will close down. Other groups can see the value and participate to make it better and useful. Sometimes this involves cross-networking with other groups. This can be seen with groups such as PHP, Python and Perl groups combining with MySQL and PostgreSQL groups once a quarter for example to talk about common areas of interest. The point is that the LUG is only as strong as the people who are willing to make it work. Once people stop working together to make it go forward, then the group will gradually die and cease to exist.
The human aspect that Jonathon points out was also echoed by others. Predictably, my “what can your LUG do for you” evoked a natural response of correcting the question to be “what can you do for your LUG?”
Is that rephrasing on the money? Read on!
It sure is; that's dead right. After all, why did the original LUGgers meet? It was because they shared a common passion. Yes, newcomers could come and receive expert help – but this only worked because there were people present who were rabid and infectious with their obvious affection for the work of Torvalds, Stallman, Raymond and others.
It’s wrong to question the relevance of LUGs in the face of Google being perceived as the source of all wisdom – because this implies the sole reason anyone goes to a LUG is purely to receive help.
Yet, even Google would be nothing if all people did with the web was search; it’s the fact people produce content which makes a search engine valuable.
Similarly, the LUG is where smart, like-minded people can go to discuss Linux with others – to impart their technical knowledge and their viewpoints, and to give – not receive – assistance to those who need it.
If you enjoy talking about Linux, if you want to see people converted, if you want to help others get up-and-running on their hardware, then you need to join your nearest LUG.
If you enjoy a technical challenge – maybe you want to hack the built-in WiFi card on your laptop and get it working under Linux – then you need to join your nearest LUG and enlist the raw curiosity and skill of your counterparts.
And if you want to network, you need to join your LUG. I’m not talking about TCP/IP here but just good old fashion letting people meet new people and become friends. This is the heart of the LUG and this is where the Internet can’t compete: each time a good LUG has a meeting, “LUG buddies” get together and talk amongst themselves. People can sit down and have a drink with real life friends who talk about things that matter to you, be it DRM, eeking out performance, finding a great open source app, or more.
This isn’t peculiar to Linux, or even computing. User groups are an integral part of the world. Hot rod car groups and sports clubs are good examples. Social companionship is greatly enhanced when there’s a primary subject of focus and fans come together to bond, no matter what it might be.
It’s true: LUGs aren’t the same. Linux isn’t brand spanking new anymore. There’s no need for meetings which merely introduce the technology over and over. This doesn’t mean LUGs aren’t relevant, but merely they have evolved.
Again, this is not dissimilar to other groups; membership of the local hot rod car club originally mandated mechanical prowess simply because the projects were still new and home-grown; now car club members will still get together and talk; sure, there’s less dirty work under the hood as the vehicles have become more complex and less penetrable, but at the same time the barrier to entry has decreased allowing a greater spread of car enthusiasts to take part.
In the same way, the modern-day LUG talks about new technology and more importantly what can be actually done with this technology. My local LUG finished last year talking on virtualisation technologies. The collective knowledge was greater than what an individual working alone would have uncovered, and those in the audience who were unfamiliar with virtualisation got a lot out of it, being introduced to a topic they would not have ordinarily thought to Google on.
So, yes, the LUG still matters, and is still a great bastion of knowledge, of sharing, of activism and of socialising. The development of technology has necessitated LUGs evolve, but join in – you’ll find members are still as avid and cultish as ever.
Here’s where you can find your nearest LUG – whether in the U.S.A., the U.K., Australia or the rest of the world.