In the world of Linux, many things have changed in the last decade. The operating system itself has grown up, and is no longer an "upstart." But one mainstay of the Linux community, the Linux user group (LUG), appears to be on the decline in some areas. Attendance is down, LUG presidents say, and some groups have stopped meeting. Does this mean we don't need LUGs anymore?
The faithful are more inclined to think that the function of the LUG is changing from that of an incubator for Linux newbies to a social gathering for like minds. Others say that even though fewer people attend LUG meetings, it doesn't change the fact that the LUG is an indispensable help in an environment where traditional support is often hard to come by.
A few years ago, LUGs enjoyed a heady heyday. If you were lucky enough to have a LUG close enough to drive to, you probably attended meetings regularly. Enthusiasm, both for Linux and the ideals for which it stands, drove an agenda full of exciting presentations, nights dedicated to getting a new distribution installed on your desktop, and lots of free stuff from companies like Red Hat, Corel, and SUSE, who wanted us to catch the fever.
Today, many LUGs have seen a slowdown in attendance, and some Linux events typically sponsored by local user groups have ceased to exist, such as the Atlanta Linux Showcase (ALS). Chris Farris, one of the founders of ALS and a sponsor of the Atlanta Linux Enthusiasts group, says the quality of ALE has dropped "since the dot-com-bust period of 2001-2003. For me, part of the drop-off had to do with shutting down ALS, which was a driver for a lot of my participation in the Linux community." Farris says that ALE has split into three groups to help members avoid Atlanta traffic jams: Central, Northeast, and Northwest. "Northwest has been on and off," he says. "Northeast has a small group of people who attend -- under 10. Central still gets decent turnout, but nothing like we saw back in 1995-1998 at Georgia Tech, where we could fill a 100-person room."
Brad Spry, the contact person for the UNC Charlotte Linux Users Group, says attendance at that LUG is down, "but the reasons are not cut and dry." He says that because the LUG is university-based, it's hard to find a meeting time that works. Because of that, Spry says the most valuable asset for his group is the listserv. "Email isn't burdened by time. People can participate whenever they have a chance. It's a busy world."
Vernard Martin of ALE agrees. "While [ALE] has broken into several groups, the overall mailing list hasn't fragmented yet, and has many more people subscribed than actually attend all the meetings combined." He says that the communication that mailing lists provide shows that the LUGs still are "quite useful."
The Suncoast Area Linux User Group (SLUG), based in the Tampa Bay area of Florida, had splinter groups in at least three different counties in busier days. Now, SLUG is contracting. President Paul Foster says, "This isn't necessarily a bad thing. I don't know that you have to repair LUGs because their attendance is down. Times change, the market changes, conditions change." But Foster doesn't agree that attendees aren't willing to drive miles to a meeting. "Gas isn't that expensive yet," he says. "If people don't come, then there's obviously nothing compelling enough to get them there.
"The height of SLUG was the Tampa meetings at Price Waterhouse Cooper [office building]. We had a large room, fast Internet access, and power at each table. Lots of tech talk, lots of questions answered. We had 35-40 per meeting." When the group could no longer provide Internet access and power outlets, meeting attendance dropped, Foster says. "We dropped down to maybe 20, and I don't know what it is now.
"I've lost a lot of my enthusiasm for Linux," Foster says. "Here's what I mean by that: when I first got involved, I was stoked. Windows sucked, and here was something I could tinker with. I could write programs with the free compiler, and everything was fairly transparent. At that time, Linux was not exactly the easiest thing to figure out, though. Installs required a lot of information I didn't know and didn't have to supply to Windows. Fast forward 10 years -- I still use Linux almost exclusively and with no regrets. But now, I know most of what I need to know to do anything I need to do. Installs don't require me to know much, the software mostly figures out my hardware. I love Linux. I'm just not excited about it. It's like buying a new car. It's cool-looking. It smells like a new car. A few months go by. You still like your car. But it's now just your car. It's what gets you from point A to point B. You don't think much about it."
Foster says the conversation at LUG meetings doesn't focus heavily on Linux anymore. "In general, the discussion ranges from home remodeling to wives, to Verizon and other evil corporations. I make sure we touch on Linux at least once a meeting, but that discussion usually lasts for about 10 minutes. The guys who come are not newbies. They are engineering types or networking types who work with computers daily. We don't do presentations, but welcome anyone who wants to bring a box and have us hack away at it."
For some long-time Linux people, a social gathering is the ideal scenario. "LUGs provide other things that don't get obsolete, notably a social context," says Chris Browne, a "troublemaker/shooter" for the GTALUG in Toronto. "To hobbyists or enthusiasts, much of the point is to get together with other enthusiasts. The point is to meet socially with a group of like-minded people."
SLUG member Dylan Hardison says his sole interest in LUGs "has always been social. I don't think presentations, the promise of new knowledge, or free stuff has ever been a consideration. All of my geographically close friends I have met via SLUG. I also met my fianc&eacture;e at a meeting. Pretty much every job I've ever had has been somehow related to SLUG or someone I've met through SLUG."
Jeff Waugh, a member of the Sydney, Australia, SLUG, agrees that the social aspect is valuable. "[It] is still important to the organic, high-value growth of the userbase, mingling of ideas, and opportunity for business connections." It's possible that the "social LUG thing" ends up being the default mode once all the excitement has died down.
"Our LUG doesn't do a whole lot," says longtime Tampa SLUG member Russell Hires. "We don't really have a cool Web site. We don't have presentations that often, that I'm aware of. I did one or two myself, but I admit I didn't do a great job. We've done a few things in the past, but nothing really lately. We seem to have expertise, but no one with energy and experience and ability invests a whole lot in our LUG. I feel like we all wait for someone else to do something."
Spry says he's trying to spur more interest. "One trial balloon I floated recently was a merger between Linux and Mac user groups. I feel they have a lot in common now, and would be a stronger group together. Both groups seemed to warm to the idea, but it has gone nowhere. Apathy reigns supreme. It seems as if advocacy has become cliché."
Some see the decline in interest as more of a shift in focus from the operating system to the applications that run on it -- "showing applications, showing concepts, planting the seed of an idea for what someone who has just recently installed Linux can do," says Gareth Greenaway, president of Simi Conejo Linux Users Group. Greenaway says the Simi LUG has seen lower numbers over the last several years, "mostly due to the lack of interesting topics at the meetings." Farris says that ALE's topics have "almost always been about an application that runs on Linux: Asterisk, MythTV, dosemu, Exchange replacements, TiVo."
"I've never seen a LUG that was kernel-centric, they were always application centric," says Terry Collins, a computer hardware consultant based in Australia.
Whatever LUGs are for, and wherever they are headed, no one really wants them to go away. "We still need LUGs," Farris says. "They provide a place for professionals, students, and hobbyists to meet, discuss and network."
Foster sums it up. "You've got a group of people who are generally extraordinary. They're fairly knowledgeable about a pretty technical field. They're generally courteous and good-humored and willing to help, for free. While we don't all attend barbecues at each other's houses, and we may not agree on politics or religion, we still can count on each other more or less as friends. That's not a bad reason to have a group together."