Computer user groups have both private and public functions. Their private function is to serve the needs of their members. Their public function is to do what they can to serve the needs of the general public.
In most user groups, the private function of the group far out shadows the public function of the group. This is only to be expected, as it would not be fair to the paying members of user groups to devote a lot of attention (and financial resources) to assisting the public in general.
Yet a tension exists. About the only way for user groups to increase their membership numbers is to devote time and money to helping those in the general community. User groups, by definition, don't have advertising budgets. So about the only way they can maintain a public profile is to allocate part of their limited resources to helping the public in general.
The interesting phenomenon to note is that while computer ownership continues to climb at ever increasing rates, user group membership numbers tend to stay relatively flat. Why is this so? Is it that user groups are not serving their function? Far from it. User groups, by and large, perform valiantly well given the fixed financial resources in their operating budgets. In my view, user groups are the bedrock of the entire microcomputer industry. Without them, software and hardware companies would have to spend billions of dollars more in technical support services. Not millions of dollars more: billions of dollars more.
Any way you measure it, user groups are hugely successful at the work they do. Why is it, then, that membership numbers in user groups tend to remain flat?
Here is my view on the subject. Membership numbers tend to remain flat because a lot of newcomers to computers don't find their needs being met by user groups. A lot of novice computer users choose to not renew their membership because they don't feel that user groups are giving them what they need.
This is the fundamental paradox of user group existence. For user groups to grow, the needs of computer novices need to be given a lot of attention. But if a lot of attention (in time and financial resources) is devoted to novices, this reduces the quantity and quality of services given to the more experienced computer users in the group.
User group supporters universally agrees that newcomers to computers deserve greater attention and assistance than people who are more experienced with computers. But providing that extra attention and assistance is far beyond what can be achieved by the goodwill of a few user group volunteers.
Anyone who has been involved as a user group volunteer can attest to the fact that the patience of user group volunteers can get frayed at times. The most patient and kind volunteers can have their patience tested by the quantity of the needs out there.
What is missing in this equation is the recognition by society that user groups are performing a vital function. If we are to move forward into the exciting possibilities of this technological age we need to find ways of bringing external financial support into the operations of user groups.
Where might such support come from? Several sources come to mind. Foundations are one source. Local, state, and Federal government is another source. And the media is a third source.
Each one of these entities could play an important role in supporting the work of user groups. If all three of these entities supported user groups, the resulting benefits to society as a whole would be incalculable.
Philanthropic foundations are in the business of supporting initiatives in which people help others to help themselves. It makes plain sense for philanthropic foundations to support the work being done by user groups.
Supplemental funding for user groups can help them support the existing work they are doing and can allow them to provide new and better services for their local communities. Foundation funding could work wonders in helping to unleash the energies of dedicated, caring user group volunteers.
Governmental support of user groups sounds far-fetched at first. But the government is already engaged in several initiatives to increase the knowledge and technological expertise of the general public. Governmental support of user groups is entirely within the realm of possibility.
What existing initiatives is the government involved in to expand the general public's knowledge of technology?
NTIA gave is a newly created office in the Department of Commerce. It's mission is to support community, business, and medical initiatives that help develop the National Information Infrastructure.
In 1995, NTIA awarded $26 million in grants. While this is a small sum to be distributed to initiatives nationwide, it does signal a heightened interest by the Federal government in the benefits of developing the non-technological, human side of the National Information Infrastructure.
In October of 1995, the National Science Foundation awarded the Community Technology Centers' Network (CTCNet) a $2 million, five year grant to help further support the building of free-to-use and almost-free-to-use community technology centers around the country. Here again, the size of the grant is not particularly large, the awarding of the grants is another indication that the Federal government is taking a stronger interest in helping raise nationwide general technology using skills.
The Department of Housing and Urban Development also launched a new initiative in 1995. (Further info about HUD Notice H95-81 appears here.)
The media can help support user groups in several ways. One way is to simply give greater media coverage of the goings-on in user groups. People who are not members of user groups have little idea of how user groups function. The press could help change this.
Another way the press could help support user groups is to give them free or low-cost publicity space. User groups are not in the business of making money, so it would be a kindly thing to do to charge them lower advertising rates.
The sharing spirit that lies at the core of the user group experience is in some ways a model of human interaction. In user groups people help one another for no other reason than the fact than it seems like the right thing to do. Another way of saying this is? If the Amish used technology, they'd feel right at home at any user group gathering.
In user groups people pull together to help one another, instinctively appreciating the fact that the progress of the whole depends entirely upon the progress of the parts. People who are new to user groups are often surprised when user group veterans go out of their way to be of help. This should come as no surprise. This is how things should be, both inside and outside of user groups.
User groups speak to the best of who we are as human beings. With greater external financial support, the sharing ethic that bubbles forth from within user groups could bubble forth out of user groups, as well. This would be a good thing for all of us.
The author has been an active volunteer in the Washington Apple Pi user group for the past ten years. Along with teaching introductory computer classes for the club, he has written over 150 articles for the club's newsletter, the Washington Apple Pi Journal.
He currently works as an educational technology consultant and freelance writer.
Personal home page at http://users.aol.com/pshapiro/
The United States government spends approximately $70 billion per year on kindergarten through 12th grade education. While schools expenditures are indeed important, consider the idea expressed in the following table.
1991 $70 billion
1992 $70 billion
1993 $70 billion
1994 $70 billion
1995 $70 billion
Total $350 billion
Do computer user groups merit $350 billion less support than schools? Do user groups not perform a public education function? If so, what public moneys do they deserve to receive?
Two hundred years ago schools in our country were organized informally by families who shared a value in education. In some sense, early schools were not much more than "education clubs." At that time in our nation's history there was no general sentiment that schools performed an important community function. Within the past century our country came to the realization that the fate of the country itself rests on the combined educational level of its citizenry. And so the concept of universal education came to take hold.
Today, at the dawn of the Age of Creativity, our country is once again coming to understand how important it is for its residents to have facility with the tools of the modern day. And so in the past two years national leaders have been talking about the importance of raising the general population's skill with technology tools.
But exhortations are not enough. The next level can only be reached if user groups are given external financial support, so that they can more earnestly devote themselves to their public function.