I can still remember my first LUG meeting; the Greater London Linux User Group at the GND building, London. I met developers, end users, geeks, sysadmins, and a magazine editor who, although neither of us knew it at the time, would later publish my first articles on Linux. These were people with intelligence, soul, and consideration. I had finally found a like-minded milieu for my free software tendancies.
To contrast, in my capacity as the local “geek about town", I recently attended a one-off event intended to bring together the local geek community to examine the future of the Web 2.0 technology platform. Of all the people present I met only three geeks. Everyone else was a corporate schill wanting to tell me of how their corporate strategy was going to change the face of Web 2.0. Or a marketroid relentless pushing their closed-source buzzword-compliant platform. Or bourgeois recruiters intent solely on badmouthing every employer they didn’t represent. Or a hanger-on, desperate for free beer. Alas, this was not the first geek event hijacked by corporate import.
So what happened to the community?
In my mind, there have been two changes: the decrease in popularity of the LUG as a place for users to meet, and an increase in corporate events aimed at promoting [insert arbitrary technology or company here]. There are only so many evenings in the week, and so the LUG is squeezed out.
Demise of the LUG
So where has the LUG gone wrong? In truth, probably nowhere. I think that times have just moved on. In the beginning, a 28.8 dial-up connection was cutting edge, Google didn’t exist, desktop wars involved the preference of LF over CRLF, and it took longer to download a PDF than it did to walk to the shop and buy the equivalent book.
In those days, the only way of learning the opinions, thoughts, solutions, and situations involved in GNU/Linux was to work with a mentor. Installation is now so easy that even my boss can do it, and any problems can be solved by disengaged the brain and typing google.com. Who needs humans?
In those days, attending a LUG was the cheapest way to get a complete Linux distribution, either on disk or CD. And that would include the train fare. Now, with broadband being incredibly common, there’s less need for the sellers.
In those days, everyone was a newbie. To some extent, at least, since GNU/Linux was still quite a new operating system. But it’s been around for so long, that now the difference between the most experienced in the group, and the least, is so large that you have splinter groups of each ability level in the same crowd. Only, you don’t! A lot of newbies get turned off by the over-their-heads chatter of the uber-geeks, and many of the top brass are bored with the newbies who should FAQ off first. Many of these users have opted instead to organize their own meetings outside of the LUG, leaving only would-be learners from which no one can, er, learn.
In those days, everyone was new to the LUG, and every stranger was a new friend that hadn’t been met. Now, the old hands huddle together in their allotted groups to exchange gossip of the month, as new users are left without a friend or mentor-to-be. Those that do try to integrate often get side-lined quickly because they have no starting reference point, or try and pitch themselves above their station and annoy those already there.
In those days, the speakers hadn’t spoken. Every talk was a first draft. Now, they’ve done the circuit so many times I could probably give their presentation for them. And when speakers originate from within the group, it only takes a few months before you start at the top of the list again. Familiarity breeds boredom and non-attendance, rather than contempt.
Rise of the junket
Nowadays, companies have discovered that there’s money in them thar hills. So companies are providing technical speakers to deliver marketing spiels to whichever corporate event might turn them a short term profit, ignoring the grass roots support they used to gain by engaging the community directly.
Nowadays, the technical problems have been solved, documented, and printed onto t-shirts. Our next problem is to monetize, and corporate events help facilitate that. This is the domain of money men and business brains; something very few old school geeks have.
Nowadays, us humans are comfortable with virtual meetings and discussions, so we have less need for meetings.
But personally, I would die without at least two geek-oriented pub meetings a month. The buzz of technology got me into this industry, and the LUGs have kept my buzz alive for the last ten years. I can feel a direct correlation between my internal buzz-o-meter, and the fervor of LUG meetings.
Don’t let the junket dominate.