Work commitments kept me from going often, but I managed to attend maybe a dozen meetings of the Sydney Linux Users Group (SLUG) from the late 1990s up until a couple of years ago. SLUG meetings were an overwhelming experience. Well over a hundred people filled a university lecture theatre (or two) every month to socialise, share problems and solutions, and see presentations from people who looked at first glance like average university students but turned out to be stellar luminaries in the free software world.
Thanks to a presentation from Jeff Waugh, I changed overnight from a person who loathed GNOME and KDE to a person who only loathes KDE. I would never have persevered to the point where I actually got an OpenLDAP server working without a SLUG presentation by Anand Kumria about how cool LDAP really is. (Coolness is not LDAP's most immediately apparent quality.) And the SLUG mailing list remains a resource when Google fails to come up with the answers to my problems.
I've lost count of the times I've had difficulty with some piece of software only to find one of the package's developers on the SLUG list. I fancy that even if most Microsoft developers weren't uncredited drones, your chances of exclaiming, "Hey, I know this guy!" and resolving your problem with a quick email message would still be slight. You can't buy community in a shrink-wrapped box.
Non-free computer user groups: The ugly and the really ugly
When I left Sydney a couple of years ago for a town of just under 70,000 people, finding or forming a free software users' group was a major ambition. One group already existed in the area, but the members were widely dispersed geographically (at least by the standards of city folk like me), and regular meetings had long ceased due to lack of interest. On advice garnered from LUG mailing lists, I decided to join the two existing computer clubs in the area, with a view to spinning off a special interest group from one or the other.
What immediately struck me was how both groups were struggling to keep going. One had a perilously dwindling membership. I once prepared a presentation for this club on photo manipulation with the GIMP. Only the club president and I turned up. I bravely forged on, demonstrating how to correct colour balance and how to remove red eye. Then I learned that my audience was colour blind. He was glad to know in principle how to remove red eye; unfortunately, in practice he couldn't see the slightest difference.
The other club has a regular attendance of 50 or more; the problem is that, beyond a core group of diehards, it's likely to be a different 50 people each week. Retirees who've recently received a castoff computer from a relative will drop in for a few meetings to learn the basics, and never set foot in the door again.
I've been to meetings at these groups where as soon as someone announces the topic for discussion a handful of people walk out, complaining that the topic is of no interest to them. On occasion I've tried changing the topic on the fly to hold an audience, only to find a different handful of people getting up to leave. Obviously, no topic will please everybody, but nobody seems willing to be bored for 15 minutes while waiting for the discussion to change tack.
I can't imagine something further removed from the jolly community spirit of a SLUG meeting. And I won't even attempt to describe the petty personal politics of general computer user groups. While I'm tempted to dismiss the majority of the population as irredeemably selfish and uncooperative (the members of a few fortunate LUGs being the exception), I think something more subtle is at work here: Outside the free software and open source communities, most people genuinely can't seem to comprehend the notion of a self-help community of peers.
I've rarely come across a visitor to a computer group who is genuinely miserly; in fact, people are happy to hand over a couple of dollars at the door for coffee and biscuits. A fee-for-service relationship seems comfortable and familiar. I was once advised that nonprofit computer training classes must charge people a significant amount of money, even if the money isn't actually needed. People can't seem to believe that something with no cost can have value -- a problem familiar to free software and open source advocates.
The notion of a community of equals in which everybody is encouraged to contribute is utterly foreign -- and perhaps even distressing. People seem to insist that they're completely ignorant, even profoundly stupid, and such protestations grow louder when neither is the case. Hence the popularity of books for "dummies" and the reluctance of an increasing percentage of the population to engage with the wider world in any capacity but that of a passive consumer of goods and services: "I can't help my neighbour; I'm not qualified!"
Speculation on why this phenomenon should exist is an interesting topic. In his book Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community, political scientist Robert Putnam observed that (at least in America and, one presumes, similar western societies) participation rates were plummeting in all kinds of social and civic activities from political party membership to participation in sporting clubs. In that case, whither the LUG?
The LUG of the 20th century was largely run by hardcore geeks for hardcore geeks. Club Linux in Coffs Harbour, Australia, couldn't be further from this model. I will hereby go out on a limb and predict that all-geek LUGs will soon become something of a rarity.
For evidence of a shift in user demographics, you need look no further than the choice of name. NewsForge readers may be surprised to learn that a large portion of the populace finds obscurely witty acronyms alienating. At the first meeting, "Club Linux" was judged to be suitably inviting.
Club Linux was not started on a university campus, nor do many club members use computers in an academic or professional capacity. Most of those who've attended so far are retirees from professions with minimal exposure to information technology. Some have just started using a computer for the first time, and have never used even a Windows system.
The meetings take place on the premises of a business that sells and supports GNU/Linux-based systems. OpenPC Labs is run by David Chapman, a longtime Linux aficionado who recently took the plunge into specialising in free software. One of David's customers, Peter, started the club. He came to OpenPC Labs with a hand-me-down Windows system with the usual long list of problems. After being introduced to Linux, Peter says, "I suffered Windows withdrawal for some time and often felt that I would change back." He decided to start a user group in order to support his efforts to kick the proprietary software habit.
For Peter, the existence of professional support services for his new computer system right on his doorstep doesn't mean that a user group is superfluous. "I could get someone else to set it all up but that costs money and it does not teach me independence," he says.
Independence, freedom, and community are recurring themes among the mostly non-technical users at Club Linux. "I like to find things out for myself," says Terry, 60, "and I enjoy pooling knowledge with others. It's quite gratifying to discover that you know the answers to somebody's questions."
Club Linux may be a resounding success or a flash in the pan, but let's assume for the sake of argument that as free software makes inroads into the mainstream, the community around it will grow and become more mainstream. What would be the implications of such changes?
One welcome consequence would be a large class of computer users -- previously spending much frantic effort maintaining personal firewalls, antivirus updates, and inscrutable black-box software patches that you have to accept on faith -- who could redirect their energy to learning how to use their computers and appreciating their newfound freedom.
I can think of an even more exciting possibility: In the same way that the philosophy of freedom motivating the free software community has been applied in other domains to create a "free culture" movement (and soon, predicts Tim O'Reilly, a "free data" movement), people may start applying the community spirit of their local LUG and the ethos of self-empowerment through freedom and cooperation to other domains.
Wouldn't it be ironically satisfying to see a movement started by people stereotyped as possessing minimal social skills, evolving into the catalyst for a wider reinvigoration of public participation in civic life, and a shift to a healthier society?