Spice up your LUG!
Do you attend or run a Linux User Group (LUG)? Looking for some fresh ideas to give it a new lease of life? Read on and discover how your LUG meetings can be more than a general Linux-related chit-chat down the local pub...
If there was one thing we learned from the Readers' Round Table event we organised for Linux Format magazine issue 113, it was that us Linux folk like to get out and have a good chat. Over the several hours we were all together, we covered dozens of subjects, and the conversation was lively and opinionated. And that was with only nine of us. Imagine what such a meeting could be like if there were more attendees, more of a schedule and a little better organisation?
This is the realm of the Linux User Group - a network of Linux enthusiasts that weave a web of community across the UK, and across almost every country in the world. Many Linux fans get a great deal of camaraderie and satisfaction from attending their local meetings, as well as support, website portals, forums, mailing lists and IRC channels, all of which help to glue the local Linux community together.
You might think that in the age of the internet and the wiki, physical entities gathering together into some form of communion would be considered out of date, but there's nothing quite like meeting people with similar interests and seeing things for yourself. It's for this reason that the local LUG is often the first port of call for people just beginning to ignite their love of Linux, as well as people who just want to meet people with similar interests. They provide a vital role in helping the spread of Linux adoption, and a focal point for local educational institutions and businesses.
Running a LUG isn't straightforward, and it requires a considerable amount of effort and time. But there's a great deal you can do to make the whole process easier to manage and more effective, while at the same time revitalising your LUG and your membership. And anyone can do it.
As every be-suited middle manager knows, delegation is the key to both success and instilling a sense of duty in the team. And it's the same for LUGs. Many are run using a form of disorganised democracy, with no official leader or spokesperson at the helm. If you take a look at the list of LUGs on lug.uk.org, for example, you'll see dozens of LUGs that don't even have a contact name. This leaves many LUGs rudderless, even if there are people in the locality who would like to be more involved. It's absolutely essential that there are some people clearly in control.
As Rick Moen, editor of the LUG Howto and leader of many LUGs over his time, puts it: "LUGs have succeeded wonderfully on the strength of ongoing efforts from as few as four energetic and inquisitive people." From this we can deduce that you need to find four people who are prepared to find time to fit the LUG into their lives.
Beer and Linux seem to make a natural partnership, but that doesn't mean you always have to meet down the pub.
This makes the task of creating roles for people particularly difficult. But there is a solution. Rather than subject your members to the LUG equivalent of a US-style presidential election campaign, simply rotate the leadership between the people who want to take a bigger role in the running of their user group. It's then a simple matter of choosing between the other active members who were up for greater involvement in any of the other roles you'd like filled.
The first job we'd recommend you fill is that of the communications person. Whether it's to deal with Linux Format trying to pester you for a photo, or prospective members looking for further information, it's important that you have a first point of contact who's a real human being. If that human being can keep on top of web site updates, meeting notes and membership lists at the same time, even better. The would solve the single biggest problem we've experienced when dealing with user groups - finding the right person. And if we have difficulty getting in touch with user groups, there must be dozens of potential members give up before they get that far.
- Put someone in charge of the website and keep it up to date.
- Have a few people to make decisions and make someone the single point of contact.
- Consider meeting at the weekend.
- Forge a relationship with a close LUG.
- Forge a relationship with a distant LUG.
- Hold an event, such as an installfest.
- Get in touch with local IT businesses.
- Keep Linux Format magazine informed of any developments.
Location location location
Another common block to Linux User Group domination is the lack of a suitable venue for meetings. The easiest option for many, especially in the UK and the Republic of Ireland, is to opt for the local hostelry. There are a few good reasons for this. First, it shouldn't be too difficult to find a decent pub in a locality that's suitable for all attendees, and second, there exists a universal harmony between Linux and beer.
On a more practical level, landlords are normally only too happy to oblige in helping a regular mid-week meeting get its feet off the ground. You might find that they're happy to give you use of a private room at no cost, or a discount on food. This is what we found when we organised the far more modest round table meeting, and the average LUG should have a much more powerful pull on what would otherwise be a quiet week night.
But pubs and beer aren't for everybody, and they're far from ideal for more serious discussions or presentations. Neither are they a good choice if you regularly have more than 15-20 attendees, as the group is likely to become fragmented. In these cases, it's a much better idea to find a more formal venue for your meeting. Most LUGs don't have the budget to pay much for a location, which means you've got to be imaginative and use your local communities resources as best you can. For example, many LUGs choose to meet in a spare room at the local university. This is particularly common in the USA, where the computing divisions are often the spawn point for LUG activity for local enthusiasts and students.
But even without the direct connection to an institution, if your LUG is based within a university town, it's likely that one of your members will have links to the university and could help to negotiate a a room or lecture theatre. And a good relationship with a university can help in all kinds of ways. They're the perfect location for annual events such as installfests or expos, because they'll often have computing, network and wireless facilities, as well as some form of catering and coffee.
York LUG, for example, meets at the local university and holds its regular installfest in a couple of rooms at Langwith College. And the relationship with the university doesn't have to be one-way - local luggers help to promote the university and its facilities, as well as presenting a human face to their computing division.
Think outside the booze box
Even without a local university, there's still lots of potential in local facilities. Our favourite is the strategy taken by Tyneside LUG, which meets in a classroom at the Discovery Museum, located in the heart of Newcastle upon Tyne. Another great idea from Tyneside LUG is the day and time of their meetings.
They get together at midday on a Saturday, which means that almost anyone should be able to attend and stay as long as they like. The result is that Tyneside LUG is well attended, a fact which hasn't gone unnoticed by other LUGs in the locality. Durham's LUG, which meets at the local Amateur Rowing Club, considered exactly the same move after seeing the success at Tyneside. Midday Saturday is quite a contrast to the times and days typically favoured by the pub-goers, which may broaden your LUG's appeal.
Which brings us onto our next target - your LUG's online presence. This is going to be the first port of call for most prospective members, yet the average LUG's web page (if they have one), is usually months or years out of date, full of unfulfilled promises and poor design.
In the age of blogging and micro-blogging, it's difficult to consider a LUG where there hasn't been an update since the last "Welcome to 2006!" message. This situation is even more absurd when you consider the amount of computing skill and knowledge that must lurk in the attendees of the average Linux user group. An active web page is absolutely essential to the well-being and growth of your LUG, and can be used for almost anything, from news updates to hosting archives of previous meetings, photographs and maybe even audio and video files from presentations. The website is your launchpad, and you need to have a member or two dedicated to maintaining it.
In the UK, you don't have any excuse not to have an active website and online paraphernalia like a mailing list and file server. That's because it's all available for free through http://lugs.org.uk. This is a portal to all things LUG in the United Kingdom, offering domain registration, PHP and CGI-enabled web hosting (with MySQL), a mailing lists and email. You even have the option of redirecting requests to your own server so that your URL is aligned to other LUGs, but we'd recommend the fully managed service if you don't already have an established web presence. The vast majority of UK LUGs are already hosted at lugs.org.uk, and this is a great advantage over independent hosting because news and announcements are aggregated on to the mail site. The general news page on the main site is a rolling list of news bulletins posted on the various LUGs throughout the country.
This is a brilliant way to build a sense of community and gain valuable exposure, as other LUGs can see what their neighbours are up to in an instant. Many LUGs like to create their own forums, or starts an IRC instant chat channel. You could also use a service such as Google Groups for LUG chat and information.
Why not take your LUG to a local computer fair? The Paris branch of Novell Users International, for example, hosts a stand at many French conferences.
Finally, there's no reason why your LUG can't embrace the social networking revolution, and create a community on one of the many social networking sites. This has the advantage of being more media rich than traditional communication channels, and is usually more pervasive and immediate, with people keeping in touch on their mobile phones, for instance. This is worth looking at if the average age of your membership is on the lower side, as older folks seem to have an in-built cynicism towards the benefits of social networking. But whichever strategies you do take, the most important part about being online is that the website is kept up to date. Without that, it's worthless.
Don't forget that you must also consider people without an internet connection. There are still Linux users out in the wilderness who don't have the opportunity to spend the day Googling random images, and these same people are more likely to turn to the local LUG for help. We take quite a few telephone calls from people like this, as they often have no other recourse than to pick up the phone to ask for further information, but they're usually itching to get more involved in their local Linux community for help and support. What would really help us, and those people trying to contact local enthusiasts, is a clearly labelled contact for each LUG, as well as a telephone number if that's possible.
Sometimes, speaking to someone is the easiest way to get the information you need. An obvious next step for any LUGs that want to spread their wings is to build affiliations with other LUGs in their area. This tactic is particularly successful in Scotland, where a single Scottish LUG encompasses many smaller user groups spread across this geographically challenging country. Even though ScotLUG is based in Glasgow, there are members from as far afield as Shetland and Dundee, and many members have dual membership with a closer LUG. The University of Abertay Dundee Linux society, for instance, is closely affiliated with both ScotLUG and the Tayside LUG, which we think is a great way to bring strength through numbers.
While we're in the realm of good ideas, ScotLUG has also mooted the notion of a national Linux Festival that could bring all the Scottish Linux community together. This is a particularly brilliant idea as log as people can overcome the logistical problems, and if Scottish LUGs can organise something like this in the future, we think it would be a success. And there's no reason why the same thing couldn't be done in other parts of the UK.
Create your own LUG
There's nothing stopping you and a few friends having an informal get-together ever couple of weeks. But there's nothing stopping you making a more official job of it either, and if you do, you'll find a lot of help and advice along the way. As the Linux User Group Howto puts it, "any group is better than no group at all."
After you've ensured there's no active local LUG, and tried to track down the maintainer of one that's fallen off the radar, your first point of call should be the Linux User Group Howto. This is a massive document with its roots firmly planted in the early stages of the LUG movement, around 12 years ago. As a result, it reads more like a manual page than a practical hands-on approach to dealing with getting started, but it does contain some good ideas. We'd also recommend announcing your intention to any other LUG in the area, as it's more than likely that they'll want to do whatever they can to help you get off the ground, and offer good advice on what local facilities may be on offer.
You should also create a basic website on lugs.org.uk, and fill on a schedule for at least the first official meeting. When you've all this sorted out, get in touch with us and we'll help publicise the creation of a LUG in your area.
As a group of technically astute, motivated people, your user group is a valuable resource. This means that there's a good chance you can negotiate special rates from local book shops, or even online stores. At Linux Format magazine, for instance, we're more than happy to send spare copies to user groups that request them (just let us know if you're interested). Group buys have also become particularly popular. If everyone wants an Eee PC, for example, there's no harm in asking the supplier for a discount on so many units.
Some companies are also clued into the potential that LUGs have to offer, and the publisher O'Reilly is perhaps the best example. The O'Reilly User Group & Professional Association Program aims to support groups such as your LUG by providing review copies of its products, donations of books and other promotional items and a discount on all O'Reilly books and conferences. Joining is as straightforward as your nominated representative pointing their browser at the registration page on ug.oreilly.com, and filling in the details. The only requirements are that you have more than five members and some sort of regular newsletter or website.
O'Reilly also offers its own news bulletin and portal for user groups on this side of the globe. It's called O'Reilly GMT, and aims to cover news and events within four time zones of the Greenwich meridian, from Iceland to South Africa. It's organising and sponsoring several user group events in the UK, including the Ignite UK North conference that's held at the end of January. This is a new take on technology meet ups using something called the ‘Ignite' concept. This is very similar to a lightning talk, where each speaker has 20 slides for a talk, and those slides are rotated automatically after only 15 seconds, resulting in a five-minute restriction on the presentation.
This seems to be the way that user groups, social events and open source conferences are going - the same way as the internet - with short, sharp and content rich nuggets of information presented in an informal and convivial atmosphere. If people find the information interesting, there's usually ample opportunity to take the conversation further with the presenter.
This kind of thinking will be increasingly common among the new generation of Linux enthusiasts looking for a user group. They will have grown up in the online world, where world where everything is available at the touch of a button. And competing with the internet to get people attending your user group is going to be the real challenge over the next ten years. Don't waste time: get started now, and let us know how your LUG gets on!
First published in Linux Format magazine