Mar 15, 2011

Whither the User Group?

I’d love to hear some opinions on this so please leave comment(s) below or send me a tweet.

The Problem and Some Questions

In recent times in the Sydney area there have been a number of user group closures, extended breaks, sabbaticals and hiatuses.  The Sydney Mobile User Group has closed, the Sydney Business and Technology User Group is on an extended break, the Sydney Architecture User Group is going on sabbatical, the Sydney .NET Users Group has been on an extended break recently, the Sydney Windows Infrastructure User Group is talking of resurrection after being dead for over a year and both the Sydney Deep .NET User Group and the Sydney BizTalk group have been closed for quite some time now.

Whilst there are still a number of groups in action, it seems that the traditional user group format is losing traction.  The question I pose to you is this: Why? And what can we do about it?

Is it because the way we consume information has changed over the last few years?  For example I reach a much larger number of people via the Talking Shop Down Under podcast each week than I can via a face to face user group meeting.  Larger podcasts like Dot Net Rocks regularly get 60,000+ listeners per show, but a large user group only reaches 100 people once a month.

Is it because our sense of community is now online.  Twitter, mailing lists, social coding, Q&A sites like stack overflow and more all help us form online communities and allow people to connect with each other in ways that we’ve not done in the past, and help us avoid the awkward "I have to introduce myself to people in the flesh” moments that a lot of developer types find really difficult and that are needed if people are going to really communicate at user groups.

Is it because face to face meetings can be somewhat hit and miss?  There’s a time cost to attending a user group meeting and they occur at specific times.  Do people find the value of attending to low to make the time and inconvenience cost of being there in person worthwhile?

Do virtual meetings work?  Virtual is great for learning and reflects the changing nature of how we consume information, but they’re not so great for interactive discussions. We’ve run virtual alt.net meetings in the past and it worked for a while, but it was less than what I’d hoped it would be. Can we improve how these are done and make them really valuable for people?

Or is it something as simple as those who were running the group became burnt out or left the community and no one else stepped up to fill the leadership gap?

Some Thoughts

As a scrum person I like to regularly have retrospectives and “inspect and adapt”.  Add to that the alt.net approach of wanting to push the boundaries and challenge the status quo then it’s probably no surprise that I think it’s time to reinvent the user group as we know it.  The question now is how?  What would it look like?

If we go to the source of all truth (Wikipedia!) and look at the online communities topic we see that there are a few stages that people go through to enter and participate in a community.  They are:

  1. Peripheral (i.e. Lurker) – An outside, unstructured participation
  2. Inbound (i.e. Novice) – Newcomer is invested in the community and heading towards full participation
  3. Insider (i.e. Regular) – Full committed community participant
  4. Boundary (i.e. Leader) – A leader, sustains membership participation and brokers interactions
  5. Outbound (i.e. Elder) – Process of leaving the community due to new relationships, new positions, new outlooks

A user group generally targets the Insider/Boundary members, but there is often a barrier of entry for the lurkers and novices to overcome.  Attending a group when you don’t know anyone is hard.  Attending a group in a location you’ve not been to before is hard. Attending a group at night when family beckons is hard. People who have been attending for some time often forget about this and whilst they are more than welcoming of newcomers, most groups fall into behavioural patterns where the regular attenders talking to each other and the newbies sit quietly on the outer feeling semi-ostracized until someone drags them into a conversation.

A virtual group on the other hand encourages the peripheral and inbound people by making the barrier to entry low, but without the “stickiness” of face to face communication few people transition to insiders and help build a true community.

Another thing to consider is what motivates people to join a community, to remain in it and to participate in it.  Looking at the online participation topic you see a few key ideas.  Ideas that are simply reflections of real world communities.

Reciprocity – there’s got to be something worthwhile in return for the time cost of participating
Recognition – obvious enough
Influence – people want to have some effect on others in the community through high value contributions
Sense of community – it’s all about connections with other people.  We’re social beings, even if we’re introverts.

User group meetings provide the opportunity for all of these ideas to be borne out, though online communities do so as well.  Facebook being the poster child for this.  That said, the connections made via facebook, twitter and other online communities are far looser that those made face to face.  There’s nothing like meeting people in person that you’ve only talked with online – it turns “friends” into friends, for example:

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A Proposal

So what can we do to reinvent user groups?  I don’t like talking about a problem without at least throwing some ideas for a solution out there to prompt conversation, so here’s a few tweets from some discussions this morning after I asked a few open ended questions about user groups…

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So what do you think?

Is it time to move the traditional monthly user group meeting to become a more social event with regular online presentations around the topics the group is interested in? It’s how the Perth Alt.Net group operates and I know of a number of other groups that are starting to do the same.

If your user group did become a mixed virtual/physical group, how would you want to see the things run?  Social meetings at a bar, restaurant, someone’s house with a barbeque? Would you like the virtual meetings via Livemeeting? Livestream or Kyte.TV, etc? Or something else.

Click the comments link below and let me know (or send a tweet or start a thread on the Australian Alt.Net mailing list).  I’m really curious to hear what you think.

4 comments:

  1. Two things:

    The most successful user groups I've been a part of have always involved way more beer and socialising than I experienced at the sydney alt.net meetup.

    But more importantly, I suspect that a large percentage of interested devs aren't tinkering with .net stuff in their spare time. I see a lot of java/.net devs regularly turning up at the ruby and sydjs groups which are flourishing in sydney. The ones i've met who don't attend user groups seem to be working in .net precisely because they're not all that interested in software development generally.

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  2. Maybe we can mix several features of both social and online events...?

    I was thinking of something like: when I put my hand up to ask a question, everyone gets a chance to second my question and vote for it - earning me 5 "reputation" points.

    Similarly, giving an answer would entail being rewarded with everyone getting a chance to "like" my answer (ala Facebook) or make another comment - voting down would just be a quick, loud "boo" without any exchange of points.

    At the end of the night, the person with the most reputation points, gets beat up for being a smart-arse.

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  3. Interesting post, we have similar problems with user groups in Canberra (I'll just pause for a moment while you run the joke through your head about Canberra being a little back water town with no one there anyway ... ok, good :-P)

    We have found more success in making our events more social and less about the technical content, and we have been maintaining some good numbers. I do like the idea of taking some of it online though, I might steal it and float it around to see what people think of it. Thanks for the post mate :-)

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  4. Richard, the (many many) agile meetups in Melbourne all rely on varying content and form to keep things interested. In the groups in which I am a facilitator we also try to share ownership and distribute the workload to get things done.

    It's not specifically dev work, but there are some observations for you.

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