When I started using Linux in 1995, there were not a lot of places I could turn for help. I was setting up a Web server in my home to house my newsletter. I found a used ISDN router on a local mailing list, and my ISP helped talk me through the network configuration. But for other help, while I found that I might get lucky searching newsgroups with Deja News -- founded by another Austinite and early user of Linux -- my best bet for solutions was the face-to-face time at the weekly LUG meetings.
Stu Green was the alpha dweeb and the local Linux guru who ruled the LUG. He both entertained and informed the group in his talks each week, as he ranted against Microsoft, rated hardware, and raved about Linux and its future. Microsoft bashing was not the purpose of the group, but it was an enjoyable part of it. Nobody was there because they were happy with Windows. Many, like myself, came from the OS/2 group, and found ourselves enthralled not just by Linux the operating system but with Linux the social phenomenon, which apparently was immune to every dirty trick and predatory business practice the monopoly used to down other competition.
In general, geeks seem to have fewer social skills than the normal populace. The history of the LUG(s) in Austin is filled with the clash of egos, with attempted hijackings based on control of the mailing list or the meeting site itself. Over the years the group has split, and perhaps split again. There are now three active LUGs in Austin that I know of. But none of the existing LUGs match the drawing power and popularity of the original group, which consistently had 25 to 50 people attending every Thursday night. These days at the Austin Linux Group, as the original group is now called, a dozen is considered a good turnout. More and more people and businesses may be adopting or investigating the use of Linux today than ever before, but it's not obvious in terms of LUG attendance -- at least not here in Austin.
Those who do come are not always happy to be there. They might be MSCEs, forced to learn something about Linux because of its sudden appearance in their personal fiefdom, previously an all Windows affair. Or they could be proprietary Unix gurus, who look down their noses at this ill-bred interloper come to free their employers from expensive hardware. There is still a healthy smattering of students, but most newcomers are admins of one flavor or another. They have a professional need to learn how to make whatever play nicely with Linux, and the LUG provides a place where they can meet and learn from others in the same situation.
When I am contacted by email by folks seeking help with Linux or an open source app, my first recommendation to them is to try to find a local LUG and spend some quality time there. I'm not sure that's still as good advice today as it once was. It's a combination of the dwindling attendance and the change in the DNA of the group that lead me to ask the question: do LUGs still matter?
I guess my answer is that yes, LUGs do still matter, but not as much as they did in the early days. They are not the primary drivers of Linux adoption that they once were. Improvements in the ease of installation of modern distributions, Linux's widespread adoption, and its acceptance as an enterprise tool have all combined to lessen the need for what LUGs offer. Today's LUG is less a vibrant beacon of a community of users and more of a professional/social club for admins.