The Desktop Critic: When the Grass Roots Die

Know why I am still a Macintosh guy, despite all the hard times? Because I got my start in a Mac user group. In 1985, right out of college, I was the office manager for the New York Mac User Group (NYMUG), and the counterculture spirit of the time still shapes my attitude. Deep down somewhere, I'm still cheering as the sledgehammer in the "1984" ad smashes Big Brother's face.

But something is going on. One by one, the big user groups are dying. The biggest user group on earth, the Boston Computer Society, shut down a couple of years ago. In January, the Los Angeles Macintosh Group (LAMG) filed for bankruptcy, $250,000 in debt. NYMUG was also bankrupt when, two years ago, it was taken over by a Manhattan consulting firm and remade as a for-profit entity. Even BMUG–the hippest, most famous MUG of all; the one with the 400-page newsletter–recently fired its staff and closed its Berkeley, California, office.

It's not just user groups; the EvangeList has closed shop, too. This 40,000-member e-mail list was started by Guy Kawasaki three years ago. Its purpose was to spread good Mac news, to combat the mainstream-media Apple bashing.

What's happening here? Why are all these useful, grassroots institutions dropping like gnats after a blast of Raid?

Kawasaki says he shut down his because it had "served its purpose" in countering Apple bashing. But that explanation holds about as much water as a thimble. The media still teem with anti-Apple bigots. The battle is far from over.

The actual reason for the EvangeList's demise is more mundane. In 1998, both Kawasaki and the EvangeList's editor, John Halbig, left Apple to join a start-up company. They agreed with Apple to continue the list for one year after leaving–and now the year is up. More important, Halbig says, is that dozens of Web sites and mailing lists, such as MacMarines ( http://www.macmarines.com ), now fulfill precisely the same mission as the EvangeList–and with far more editorial freedom. MacMarines can call a dog a dog, without worrying about ruffling some Apple partner's feathers.

But what about the user groups? Why are they collapsing all at once? Former LAMG president (and Macworld contributing editor) Tom Negrino sees user groups' current financial problems as a delayed reaction to Apple's dark days of 1995 to 1997. "User groups are a trailing indicator of Apple's health," he says. "As Apple's ocean rises, it will lift all the boats." LAMG's declining revenue was compounded by what he calls "end-stage user-group disease," in which jaded veteran group leaders fall into endless cycles of bickering but take no action.

The bigger story, though, is once again the Internet. BMUG's motto was, "We're in the business of giving away information"–but that's not much of a business when the Internet offers 200 quadrillion times as much. In the old days, you'd go to a user-group meeting to buy a shareware disk, hear industry gossip, and see software-company demos. But the Net offers infinitely better access to shareware, news, and rumors. And downloading trial software is often more pleasant than sitting through live software demos, especially those that involve excruciating PowerPoint presentations by wooden vendor reps.

But user groups aren't dead, nor are they irrelevant. Smaller groups, in cities such as San Diego, Kansas City, and Detroit, are thriving; their social nature still draws enthusiastic crowds. Even among the megagroups, survival is still possible; the successful ones decentralize, responding to the Internet as just another competitive pressure. BMUG, for example, lives on through smaller, more spontaneous meetings–in fact, Raines Cohen, cofounder of BMUG, says there are more meetings per week now than before the group's official closing. He calls it the "open sourcing" of the group; now members don't have to wait for permission or a schedule slot to undertake a new project.

In other words, BMUG plans to survive the Internet age by both embracing the Web–moving BMUG's newsletter and BBS operations there–and exploiting its greatest weakness: the lack of live social contact. LAMG, meanwhile, is returning to its roots as an all-volunteer operation. In both cases, these big groups are starting to resemble smaller, all-volunteer Mac user groups, which generally don't face the same problems of political infighting, high rent, and staff costs. "Small and medium user groups have always been the most effective," says Cohen. "The spirit is what's important."

http://www.davidpogue.comThe iMac for Dummies

August 1999 page: 176

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