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Current HOWTO: Linux User Group HOWTO


Linux User Group HOWTO: What does a LUG do? Next Previous Contents

4. What does a LUG do?

LUGs' goals are as varied as their locales. There is no LUG master plan, nor will this document supply one. Remember: Linux is free from bureaucracy and centralised control; so are LUGs.

It is possible, however, to identify a core set of goals for a LUG:

  • advocacy
  • education
  • support
  • socialising

Each LUG combines these and other goals uniquely, according to its membership's needs.

4.1 Linux advocacy

The urge to advocate the use of Linux is widely felt. When you find something that works well, you want to tell as many people as you can. LUGs' role in Linux advocacy cannot be overestimated, especially since wide-scale commercial acceptance of Linux is only newly underway. While it is certainly beneficial to the Linux movement, each and every time a computer journalist writes a positive review of Linux, it is also beneficial every time satisfied Linux users brief their friends, colleagues, employees, or employers.

There is effective advocacy, and there is ineffective carping: As Linux users, we must be constantly vigilant to advocate Linux in such a way as to reflect positively on the product, its creators and developers, and our fellow users. The Linux Advocacy mini-HOWTO, available at the Linux Documentation Project, gives some helpful suggestions, as does Don Marti's excellent Linuxmanship essay. Suffice it to say that advocacy is important to a LUG's mission.

A time may come when Linux advocacy is irrelevant, because Linux has more or less won the day, when the phrase "no one ever got fired for using Linux" becomes reality. Until then, LUGs play a vital role in promoting Linux use. They do so because their advocacy is free, well-intentioned, and backed up by organisational commitment. If a person encounters Linux through a LUG's efforts, then that new user's already ahead of the game: She knows of an organisation that will help her install, configure, and even maintain Linux on whatever computers she's willing to dedicate to it.

New Linux users already in contact with a LUG are ahead of others whose interest in Linux has been piqued by a computer journalist, but who have no one to whom to turn for aid in their quest to install, run, and learn Linux.

It is, therefore, important for LUGs to advocate Linux, because their advocacy is effective, well-supported, and free.

4.2 The limits of advocacy

Advocacy can be mis-aimed; advocacy can go wrong and be counterproductive; advocacy can be simply inappropriate in the first place. The matter merits careful thought, to avoid wasted time or worse.

Many attempts at advocacy fail ignominiously because the advocate fails to listen to what the other party feels she wants or needs. (As Eric S. Raymond says, "Appeal to the prospect's interests and values, not to yours.") If that person wants exactly the proprietary-OS setup she already has, then advocating Linux wastes your time and hers. If her stated requirements equate exactly to MS-Project, MS-Visio, and Outlook/Exchange groupware, then trying to "sell" her what she doesn't want will only annoy everyone (regardless of whether her requirements list is real or artificial). Save your effort for someone more receptive.

Along those lines, bear in mind that, for many people, perhaps most, an "advocate" is perceived as a salesman, and thus classified as someone to resist rather than listen to fairly. They've never heard of someone urging them to adopt a piece of software without benefiting materially, so they assume there must be something in it for you and will push back, and act as if they're doing you a personal favour to even listen, let alone try your recommendations.

I recommend bringing such discussions back to Earth immediately, by pointing out that software policy should be based in one's own long-term self interest, that you have zero personal stake in their choices, and that you have better uses for your time than speaking to an unreceptive audience. After that, if they're still interested, at least you won't face the same artificial obstacle.

At the same time, make sure you don't live up to the stereotype of the OS advocate, either. Just proclaiming your views at someone without invitation is downright rude and offensive. Moreover, when done concerning Linux, it's also pointless: Unlike the case with proprietary OSes, Linux will not live or die by the level of its acceptance and release/maintenance of ported applications. It and all key applications are open source: the programmer community that maintains it is self-supporting, and would keep it advancing and and healthy regardless of whether the business world and general public uses it with wild abandon, only a little, or not at all. Because of its open-source licence terms, source code is permanently available. Linux cannot be "withdrawn from the market" on account of insufficient popularity, or at the whim of some company. Accordingly, there is simply no point in arm-twisting OS advocacy -- unlike that of some OS-user communities we could mention. (Why not just make information available for those receptive to it, and stop there? That meets any reasonable person's needs.)

Last, understand that the notion of "use value" for software is quite foreign to most people -- the notion of measuring software's value by what you can do with it. The habit of valuing everything at acquisition cost is deeply ingrained. In 1996, I heard a young fellow from Caldera Systems speak at a Berkeley, California LUG about the origins of Caldera Network Desktop (the initial name of their Linux distribution) in Novell, Inc.'s "Corsair" desktop-OS project: In surveying corporate CEOs and CTOs, they found corporate officers to be inherently unhappy with anything they could get for free. So, Caldera offered them a solution -- by charging money.

Seen from this perspective, being conservative about the costs and difficulties of Linux deployments helps make them positively attractive -- and protects your credibility as a spokesman. Even better would be to frame the discussion of costs in terms of the cost of functionality (e.g., 1000-seat Internet-capable company e-mail with offline-user capability and webmail) as opposed to listing software as a retail-style line-item with pricing: After all, any software project has costs, even if the acquisition price tag is zero, and the real point of open source isn't initial cost but rather long-term control over IT -- a key part of one's operations: With proprietary systems, the user (or business) has lost control of IT, and is on the wrong side of a monopoly relationship with one's vendor. With open source, the user is in control, and nobody can take that away. Explained that way (as opportunity to reduce and control IT risk), people readily understand the difference -- especially CEOs -- and it's much more significant over the long term than acquisition cost.

4.3 Linux education

Not only is it the business of a LUG to advocate Linux usage, but also to train members, as well as the nearby computing public, to use Linux and associated components -- a goal that can make a huge real-world difference in one's local area. While universities and colleges are increasingly including Linux in their curricula, for sundry reasons, this won't reach some Linux users. For those, a LUG can give basic or advanced help in system administration, programming, Internet and intranet technologies, etc.

In an ironic twist, many LUGs have turned out to be a backbone of corporate support: Every worker expanding her computer skills through LUG participation is one fewer the company must train. Though home Linux administration doesn't exactly scale to running corporate data warehouses, call centres, or similar high-availability facilities, it's light years better preparation than MS-Windows experience. As Linux has advanced into journaling filesystems, high availability, real-time extensions, and other high-end Unix features, the already blurry line between Linux and "real" Unixes has been increasingly vanishing.

Not only is such education a form of worker training, but it will also serve, as information technology becomes increasingly vital to the global economy, as community service: In the USA's metropolitan areas, for example, LUGs have taken Linux into local schools, small businesses, community and social organisations, and other non-corporate environments. This accomplishes the goal of Linux advocacy and also educates the general public. As more such organisations seek Internet presence, provide their personnel dial-in access, or other Linux-relevant functions, LUGs gain opportunities for community participation, through awareness and education efforts -- extending to the community the same generous spirit characteristic of Linux and the free software / open source community from its very beginning. Most Linux users can't program like Torvalds, but we can all give time and effort to other Linux users, the Linux community, and the broader surrounding community.

Linux is a natural fit for these organisations, because deployments don't commit them to expensive licence, upgrade, or maintenance fees. Being technically elegant and economical, it also runs very well on cast-off corporate hardware that non-profit organisations are only too happy to use: The unused Pentium 133 in the closet can do real work, if someone installs Linux on it.

In addition, Linux education assists other LUG goals over time, in particular that of Linux support: Better education means better support, which in turn facilitates education, and eases the Linux community's growth. Thus, education forms the entire effort's keystone: If only two or three percent of a LUG assume the remainder's support burden, that LUG's growth will be stifled. One thing you can count on: If new and inexperienced users don't get needed help from their LUG, they won't participate there for long. If a larger percentage of members support the rest, the LUG will not face that limitation. Linux education -- and, equally, support for allied projects such as the Apache Web server, XFree86, TeX, LaTeX, etc. -- is key to this dynamic: Education turns new Linux users into experienced ones.

Finally, Linux is a self-documenting operating environment: In other words, writing and publicising our community's documentation is up to us. Therefore, make sure LUG members know of the Linux Documentation Project and its worldwide mirrors. Consider operating an LDP mirror site. Also, make sure to publicise -- through comp.os.linux.announce, the LDP, and other pertinent sources of Linux information -- any relevant documentation the LUG develops: technical presentations, tutorials, local FAQs, etc. LUGs' documentation often fails to benefit the worldwide Linux community for no better reason than not notifying the outside world. Don't let that happen: It is highly probable that if someone at one LUG had a question or problem with something, then others elsewhere will have it, too.

4.4 Linux support

Of course, for the newcomer, the primary role of a LUG is Linux support -- but it is a mistake to suppose that Linux support means only technical support for new Linux users. It should mean much more.

LUGs have the opportunity to support:

  • users
  • consultants
  • businesses, non-profit organisations, and schools
  • the Linux movement

Users

New Linux users' most frequent complaint, once they have Linux installed, is the steep learning curve characteristic of all modern Unixes. With that learning curve, however, comes the power and flexibility of a real operating system. A LUG is often the a new user's main resource to flatten the learning curve.

During Linux's first decade, it gained some first-class journalistic resources, which should not be neglected: The main monthly magazines of longest standing are Linux Journal and Linux Gazette (on-line; note new site). More recently, they've been joined by LinuxFocus (on-line), Linux Format, LinuxUser and Developer, Linux Magazine, Linux For You, and LinuxWorld Magazine.

Standout on-line magazines with weekly or better publication cycles include Linux Weekly News, Linux Today, FreshNews, and Newsforge.

All of these resources have eased LUGs' job of spreading essential news and information -- about bug fixes, security problems, patches, new kernels, etc., but new users must still be made aware of them, and taught that the newest kernels are always available from ftp.kernel.org, that the Linux Documentation Project has newer versions of Linux HOWTOs than do CD-based Linux distributions, and so on.

Intermediate and advanced users also benefit from proliferation of timely and useful tips, facts, and secrets. Because of the Linux world's manifold aspects, even advanced users often learn new tricks or techniques simply by participating in a LUG. Sometimes, they learn of software packages they didn't know existed; sometimes, they just remember arcane vi command sequences they've not used since college.

Consultants

LUGs can help Linux consultants find their customers and vice-versa, by providing a forum where they can come together. Consultants also aid LUGs by providing experienced leadership. New and inexperienced users gain benefit from both LUGs and consultants, since their routine or simple requests for support are handled by LUGs gratis, while their complex needs and problems -- the kind requiring paid services -- can be fielded by consultants found through the LUG.

The line between support requests needing a consultant and those that don't is sometimes indistinct; but, in most cases, the difference is clear. While a LUG doesn't want to gain the reputation for pawning new users off unnecessarily on consultants -- as this is simply rude and very anti-Linux behaviour -- there is no reason for LUGs not to help broker contacts between users needing consulting services and professionals offering them.

Caveat: While "the difference is clear" to intelligent people of goodwill, the Inevitable Ones are also always with us, who act willfully dense about the limits of free support when they have pushed those limits too far. Remember, too, my earlier point about the vast majority of the population valuing everything at acquisition cost (instead of use value), including what they receive for free. This leads some, especially some in the corporate world, to use (and abuse) LUG technical support with wild abandon, while simultaneously complaining bitterly of its inadequate detail, insufficient promptness, supposedly unfair expectations that the user learn and not re-ask minor variations on the same question endlessly, etc. In other words, they treat relations with LUG volunteers the way they would a paid support vendor, but one they treat with zero respect because of its zero acquisition cost.

In the consulting world, there's a saying about applying "invoice therapy" to such behaviour: Because of the value system alluded to above, if your consulting advice is poorly heeded and poorly used, it just might be the case that you need to charge more. By contrast, the technical Linux community has often been characterised as a "gift culture", with a radically different value system: Members gain status through enhanced reputation among peers, which in turn they improve through visible participation: code, documentation, technical assistance to the public, etc.

Clash between the two very different value-based cultures is inevitable and can become a bit ugly. LUG activists should be prepared to intercede before the ingrate newcomer is handed her head on a platter, and politely suggest that her needs would be better served by paid (consultant-based) services. There will always be judgement calls; the borderline is inherently debatable and a likely source of controversy.

Telltale signs that a questioner may need to be transitioned to consulting-based assistance include:

  • An insistence on getting solutions in "recipe" (rote) form, with the apparent aim of not needing to learn technological fundamentals.
  • Asking the same questions (or ones closely related) repeatedly.
  • Insisting on private assistance from helpers active in public (Linux community) forums.
  • Vague problem descriptions, or ones that change with time.
  • Interrupting answers in order to ask additional questions (suggesting lack of attention to the answers).
  • Demands that answers be recast or delivered more quickly (suggesting that the questioner's time and trouble are valuable, but that helpers' are not).
  • Asking unusually complex, time-consuming, and/or multipart questions.

In general, LUG members are especially delighted to help, on a volunteer basis, members who seem likely to participate in the Linux "gift culture" by picking up its body of lore and, in turn, perpetuating it by teaching others in their turn. Certainly, there's nothing wrong with having other priorities and values, but such folk may in some cases be best referred to paid assistance, as a better fit for their needs.

An additional observation that may or may not be useful, at this point: There are things one may be willing to do for free, to assist others in the Linux community, that one will refuse to do for money: Shifting from assisting someone as a volunteer fundamentally changes the relationship. A fellow computerist who suddenly becomes a customer is a very different person; one's responsibilities are quite different, and greater. You're advised to be aware, if not wary, of this distinction.

Please see Joshua Drake's Linux Consultants Guide for an international list of Linux consultants.

Businesses, non-profit organisations, and schools

LUGs also have the opportunity to support local businesses and organisations. This support has two aspects: First, LUGs can support businesses and organisations wanting to use Linux (and Linux-based applications) as a part of their computing and IT efforts. Second, LUGs can support local businesses and organisations developing software for Linux, cater to Linux users, support or install Linux, etc.

The support LUGs can provide to local businesses wanting to use Linux as a part of their computing operations differs little from the help LUGs give individuals trying Linux at home. For example, compiling the Linux kernel doesn't really differ. Supporting businesses, however, may require supporting proprietary Linux software -- e.g., the Oracle, Sybase, and DB2 databases (or VMware, Win4Lin, and such things). Some LUG expertise in these areas may help businesses make the leap into Linux deployments.

This leads us directly to the second kind of support a LUG can give to local businesses: LUGs can serve as a clearinghouse for information available in few other places. For example:

  • Which local ISP is Linux-friendly?
  • Are there any local hardware vendors building Linux PCs?
  • Does anyone sell Linux CDs locally?

Maintaining and making this kind of information public not only helps the LUG members, but also helps Linux-friendly businesses and encourages them to continue to be Linux-friendly. It may even, in some cases, help further a competitive environment in which other businesses are encouraged to follow suit.

Free / open-source software development

Finally, LUGs may also support the Linux movement by soliciting and organising charitable giving. Chris Browne has thought about this issue as much as anyone I know, and he contributes the following:

Chris Browne on free software / open source philanthropy

A further involvement can be to encourage sponsorship of various Linux-related organisations in a financial way. With the multiple millions of Linux users, it would be entirely plausible for grateful users to individually contribute a little. Given millions of users, and the not-unreasonable sum of a hundred dollars of "gratitude" per Linux user ($100 being roughly the sum not spent this year upgrading a Microsoft OS), that could add up to hundreds of millions of dollars towards development of improved Linux tools and applications.

A user group can encourage members to contribute to various "development projects". Having some form of "charitable tax exemption" status can encourage members to contribute directly to the group, getting tax deductions as appropriate, with contributions flowing on to other organisations.

It is appropriate, in any case, to encourage LUG members to direct contributions to organisations with projects and goals they individually wish to support.

This section lists possible candidates. None are explicitly being recommended here, but the list represents useful food for thought. Many are registered as charities in the USA, thus making US contributions tax-deductible.

Here are organisations with activities particularly directed towards development of software working with Linux:

Contributions to these organisations have the direct effect of supporting creation of freely redistributable software usable with Linux. Dollar for dollar, such contributions almost certainly yield greater benefit to the Linux community than any other kind of spending.

There are also organisations less directly associated with Linux, that may nonetheless be worthy of assistance, such as:

  • The Electronic Frontier Foundation

    Based in San Francisco, EFF is a donor-supported membership organization working to protect our fundamental rights regardless of technology; to educate the press, policy-makers, and the general public about civil liberties issues related to technology; and to act as a defender of those liberties. Among our various activities, EFF opposes misguided legislation, initiates and defends court cases preserving individuals' rights, launches global public campaigns, introduces leading edge proposals and papers, hosts frequent educational events, engages the press regularly, and publishes a comprehensive archive of digital civil liberties information at one of the most linked-to Web sites in the world.

  • The LaTeX3 Project Fund

    The TeX Users Group (TUG) is working on the "next generation" version of the LaTeX publishing system, known as LaTeX3. Linux is one of the platforms on which TeX and LaTeX are best supported.

    Donations for the project can be sent to:

    TeX Users Group
    c/o Robin Laakso, executive director
    TeX Users Group
    PO Box 2311
    Portland, OR 97208-2311
    
    or, for those in Europe,
    UK TUG
    c/o Dr RWD Nickalls (Chairman, UK-TuG)
    Department of Anęsthesia,
    Nottingham City Hospital NHS Trust,
    Hucknall Road,
    Nottingham, NG5 1PB, UK
    

  • Project Gutenberg

    Project Gutenberg's purpose is to make freely available in electronic form the texts of public-domain books. This isn't directly a "Linux thing", but seems fairly worthy, and they actively encourage platform independence, which means their "products" are quite usable with Linux.

  • Open Source Education Foundation

    The Open Source Education Foundation's purpose to enhance K-12 education through the use of technologies and concepts derived from The Open Source and Free Software movement. In conjunction with Tux4Kids, OSEF created a bootable distribution of GNU/Linux (Knoppix for Kids) based on Klaus Knopper's Knoppix, aimed at kids, parents, teachers, and other school officials. OSEF installs and supports school computer labs, and has developed a "K12 Box" as a compact Plug and Play workstation computer for student computer labs.

  • PingoS e.V.

    "PingoS e.V." is a registered non-profit entity with the goal of promoting the use of Linux in schools. Any German school can use it for free support concerning Linux, and PingoS staff give presentations about Linux in schools. Also, PingoS e.V. is the legal head of SelfLinux, a project aiming to create a comprehensive and free set of German-language documentation about Linux and free / open-source software.

  • Open Source Applications Foundation

    OSAF is Mitch Kapor's non-profit foundation to create and popularise open-source application software of uncompromising quality, starting with its pioneering personal information manager, Chandler.

(Please note that suggested additions to the above list of Linux-relevant charities are most welcome.)

Linux movement

I have referred throughout this HOWTO to what I call the Linux movement. There really is no better way to describe the international Linux phenomenon: It isn't a bureaucracy, but is organised. It isn't a corporation, but is important to businesses everywhere. The best way for a LUG to support the international Linux movement is to keep the local Linux community robust, vibrant, and growing. Linux is developed internationally, which is easy enough to see by reading the kernel source code's MAINTAINERS file -- but Linux is also used internationally. This ever-expanding user base is key to Linux's continued success, and is where the LUGs are vital.

The Linux movement's strength internationally lies in offering unprecedented computing power and sophistication for its cost and freedom. The keys are value and independence from proprietary control. Every time a new person, group, business, or organisation experiences Linux's inherent value, the Linux movement grows. LUGs help that happen.

4.5 Linux socialising

The last goal of a LUG we'll cover is socialising -- in some ways, the most difficult goal to discuss, because it isn't clear how many or to what degree LUGs do it. While it would be strange to have a LUG that didn't engage in the other goals, there may be LUGs for which socialising isn't a factor.

It seems, however, that whenever two or three Linux users get together, fun, hijinks, and, often, beer follow. Linus Tovalds has always had one enduring goal for Linux: to have more fun. For hackers, kernel developers, and Linux users, there's nothing quite like downloading a new kernel, recompiling an old one, fooling with a window manager, or hacking some code. Linux's sheer fun keeps many LUGs together, and leads LUGs naturally to socialising.

By "socialising", here I mean primarily sharing experiences, forming friendships, and mutually-shared admiration and respect. There is another meaning, however -- one social scientists call acculturation. In any movement, institution, or human community, there is the need for some process or pattern of events in and by which, to put it in Linux terms, newcomers are turned into hackers. In other words, acculturation turns you from "one of them" to "one of us".

It is important that new Linux users come to learn what Linux culture, concepts, traditions, and vocabulary. Linux acculturation, unlike "real world" acculturation, can occur on mailing lists and Usenet, although the latter's efficacy is challenged by poorly acculturated users and by spam. LUGs are often much more efficient at this task than are mailing lists or newsgroups, precisely because of the former's greater interactivity and personal focus.


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