Hey you, sitting up front ... yeah, you! Pry your eyes off the Rune for Linux screensaver and the free Yellow Dog T-shirts. Turn around for a minute. See that guy behind the potted ficus with a confused look on his face? Look at those three people in the back row -- they came to your LUG meeting because they heard Linux is easy to install, it's free, and it doesn't crash five times a day like Windows. One of them also heard that user groups are full of nice people who would like nothing better than to help them get started. A couple of years ago, my colleague Emmett Plant wrote The Welcome Wagon. He rightly pointed out that we should welcome the curious with open arms. As Linux matures and we get to the point where a significant percentage of the computer-using universe has heard of Linux, knows it is an alternative to Windows, and might even be able to pronounce it correctly, welcoming new people and encouraging them becomes more urgent.
It is very easy to forget how we felt when we first ditched Windows for Linux. Some of us never even had to make that transition; we grew up in the "church," so to speak. It's hard to relate to someone, to use an imaginary example, who has tried five distributions and can't get any of them to install properly because he has a RAM problem that he doesn't know exists and he's blaming it on Linux.
And then there are people who do have a decent understanding of their system, have managed to get Mandrake installed, and just have lots of questions about things that seem so obvious to us now. There are a couple of them at your LUG meeting, with glazed-over looks in their eyes, as three of the old timers stand up front and discuss possible phone phreaks against Ransom Love for putting a per-seat license on Caldera. They can't relate to philosophical rants yet. They need practical, hands-on, step-by-step help.
And while you don't want to turn your LUG meetings into a baby nursery, there's no reason why Linux gathering should not be welcoming, reassuring, and enfolding to budding Stallmanites or Raymondites. Here are some suggestions:
Make a plan and stick to it
Publish a schedule for each meeting on your Web site. Have printed copies of the agenda to hand out to each person who enters the meeting. That way, even while you're making sure everyone knows how to get to Love's house for the protest, your newbies can look at the schedule and see that you will be talking about "how to get your HP inkjet printer working in Red Hat" in 10 minutes.
Acknowledge those who took the time to travel to your meeting for the first time. Ask, "do we have any first-time visitors?" This allows those who do not want any attention to remain silent. Encourage those who are attending for the first time to introduce themselves and say why they came. This is a great way to connect with each person and not only make them feel welcomed, but also make sure they get the information they need.
Don't count on all your visitors being outgoing, initiative-taker types who will introduce themselves without being asked to. If you never recognize your visitors and don't ask them specifically what they need or what they can offer, they might not tell you, and not only that, they'll probably just disappear as quietly as they came.
Plan activities especially for beginners
It seems obvious to have a question-and-answer session at the end of the meeting. But taking an aggressive stand on meeting the needs of fledgling Linux users is a good idea, because many times people don't know the right questions to ask, or they don't want to look stupid or face possible scorn (ever asked a newbie question on your friendly neighborhood mailing list and felt like blackened grouper afterward?)
Consider breaking your meeting up into chunks. Having a presentation on Samba for the regulars is great, but during the same meeting, you could add a mini talk on "how to unarchive and install files via the command line." Not everyone has a problem that would warrant them bringing their computer to the meeting, but they would love to pick up snippets of useful information like this. With a little planning, you could also include a handout.
Make lots of information available
Speaking of handouts, have a stock collection of them to give to the new people. Save the notes from your mini talks and have a library, filed by topic, that you can whip out. Or publish them on your Web site and direct newbies there.
IBM recently released an article entitled Transitioning from Windows to Linux, in PDF format. The author, Mark Chapman, hopes that it will be a useful tool for LUGs. "The file is up on the Web site to be downloaded by users, and the more the better," he says. Point your visitors who are thinking about installing Linux to this file, after you have given much encouragement, answered all their questions, and showed them just how great membership in the Linux community can be.