Copyright © 1988 Bemard Aboba. All rights reserved worldwide.
Having been a director of one User Group, and an active participant in another, I have been involved in these fraternal associations since the MacBirth. If anything is obvious, it is that things in the Macintosh World have changed a great deal since the beginning, and that User Groups must therefore change as well. This change has not been kind to many groups, and in times of crisis it is often hard to figure out which way things are going, and why. What is needed, it seems to me, is a State of the MUGdom address. Till that arrives, let's hope this article is a proper substitute.
The state of Mac User Groups can be best understood by looking at the development of the Macintosh itself. In the early days, Mac sales went only to small businesses, individuals, and academic institutions, generally in small numbers per workgroup. The introduction of the LaserWriter gave the Macintosh a unique selling point, and with the Mac Plus, the power to compete in the Fortune 500. From that point on, Macs increased in sales to middle and large sized businesses in larger and larger lots. Not in-consequently, interest in networking and connectivity has risen just as quickly.
This short synopsis of Mac History parallels the experience of many User Groups. In the Mac Beginning, the large majority of users often focused on gaining basic proficiency with their machines, and hungrily gobbled up whatever freeware and shareware came down the pike. In my first year of ownership, I probably bought over 35 disks from my local user group, at a cost of $6 each. Later on, I gained an interest in new products, and expanding the capabilities of my machine. I bought more memory, an upgrade, and still more memory. My user group helped out with bulk purchases. Finally, at some point I had all the hardware and software I needed, and had mastered the basics. My interest turned to specific topics like Scientific Computing, Telecommunications, and Developer information. As my local group was not particu-larly well informed on these subjects, I joined BMUG.
More and more users are traveling the road that I went down as a new Mac owner, and are arriving at the last stage where local groups begin to lose their utility, and where expertise and training in specific areas of Mac use becomes paramount. Have you ever noticed how training seminars, and "How to" tapes and programs have begun to pro-liferate lately? These are signs of the times, signs that User Groups must heed.
The shift of Mac users from small businesses to medium and large corporations is also a very important phenomenon, which has inaugurated the rise of the Corporate User Group. Corporate user groups are often better suited towards the specific training and networking requirements of a company than a generalist user group, and so management has often found it worthwhile to support Corporate groups either morally or financially, or both. The important point is that these groups are often substitutes for local user groups. (p. 36)
Much as an entrepreneurs firm must eventually make the transition to established management techniques, corporate training programs, and formal decision making, so too User Groups have needed to adapt to the maturing of the Mac market. In the early days, User Groups encountered meteoric growth, and it was more important to keep up with the latest MacStuff than to produce an accurate accounting of how revenues were generated, and how funds were spent. In contrast, today's User Groups are increasingly finding detailed accounting systems critical for survival. With member-ships remaining constant or growing only slightly, the focus has shifted from the revenue side of the equation to the cost side, and belt tightening and vigflmt cash management is often required.
Clear lines of authority are critical for groups going through this transition period. Too often a power struggle develops between group founders and new members over how the transition is to be managed, and without a well defined way of resolving these disputes, the group energy is dissipated in an eddy of endlessly revolving disputes. New members may feel that their input is not taken adequately into account by the founders, who retain power without (or in spite of) elections to validate their mandate. Like it or not, formal rules of authority and decision making have their place, and can go a long way towards making the rules understood. The basic principle of democracy is that the power to govern can only be legitimate if it is conferred by majority vote of the governed. This principle has such potent psychological force that I believe that no User Group can escape a cornucopia of ills without fair, open elections, and a written constitution, and/or bylaws.
A User Group, like any corporation, needs a clear statement of purpose. This statement needs to explain the group's relationship to other institutions, as well as to the Macintosh "community." Within universities or corporations, this sense of purpose can sometimes be difficult to iron out. Is a University group primarily an extra-curricular activity for students, or is it a support network for Mac users throughout the community, or perhaps the country?
As for a corporate user group, is the group an official group with formal support responsibilities, or is it an unofficial group without a strong claim on corporate funds?
In the case of user groups which are not incorporated as non-profit institutions, or are linked to profit making entities, these links need to be honestly and openly addressed so that members will not be endlessly speculating on whether group activities are improperly benefiting powerful group members.
As BMUGers well know, the purpose of a User Group is to give away information. The question is, how? In today's world, information is providers can be divided into pub-lishers or broadcasters. While User Groups have tended more to resemble book or software publishers than TV stations, the broadcasting aspect of MUGs appears to be gaining in importance.
At Stanford University, an institution whose faculty are well acquainted with the pub-lishing process, courses are carried to a wide audience throughout Northern California by a cable television network called SUNet. This component of the University's function has expanded at such a great pace that by the year 2000 the majority of Stanford's students may be registered "over the airwaves." The Electronic University is an attempt to distribute educational materials through the use of modems and telecommunications. (p. 37)
The concept of the User Group as Broadcaster should therefore not seem so foreign. Within the past year, links have been established between packet radio, USENET, BITNET, FidoNet, ARPANET, and many commercial on-line services, creating a mega-network with fingers reaching into every corner of the globe. BMUG is at the forefront of this, being the first major Mac user group to join the EchoMac network. Within the next year, BMUG may be connected to USENET as well, and perhaps in the years to follow, even to packet radio. How does Radio Free BMUG sound?
In fact, the roles of publisher and broadcaster are really not as competitive as might be first thought. After all, many works find realization in both print and TV; similarly, shareware can be both published (the BMUG disk library or PD-ROM, or broadcast (the BMUG BBS). The advantage of broadcasting is that the marginal costs of production are greatly lessened, and if access to the medium can be successfully allocated, the profits tend to be greater, an interesting thought for user groups struggling with a budget.
The key word here is "if." User Group BBS's have long struggled with the 90-10 rule, which is that 10% of the users take up 90% of the login time. For user groups that charge everyone the same membership fee this presents a problem because providing adequate capacity on the BBS usually cannot be accomplished without large expen-ditures. Raising membership dues to pay for this usually finds little support among the 90% of user group members that use the BBS moderately if at all. Meanwhile, the User Group often loses money on each of the 10% who are heavy BBS users. A simple solution is elusive, but alternatives that suggest themselves are levying a small hourly fee for BBS usage (on the order of $0.30/hour) to be paid out of an initial allocation of say, $6.00; or a separate yearly fee for BBS access. No User Group I know of has found a satisfactory solution to this problem, and as a result, BBSs are probably User Groups' biggest money losers.
The resulting arguments between the sysops and the user group business manager often sound a lot like a debate between Keynesians and Supply side economists. The SysOps (the supply siders) argue that the BBS will not bring in members, while the business manager finds it unlikely that the revenues will balance the costs, barring a solution to the allocation problem. Just like Supply Side Economists, the SysOps often get their way by enlisting the Group in an illusion that threatens its financial well being: the BBS as a goldmine. Sorry, budding sysops: there is no Santa Claus and BBss do not make money.
In the beginning, it seemed as if User Groups could sell whatever shareware they could slap together, at whatever prices came to mind. Those days of 400K disks selling for $6 now seem about as ancient as a 5 cent loaf of bread. Of course 800K (and soon, 1.6 Meg) disks now go for $2-3, and with the lower prices, a large source of Group revenue has disappeared. However, the expense and time demands of scouring through recent uploads to commercial or academic libraries seems greater than ever, particularly with the advent of Mac Viruses. To prevent members from being ravished by these pests, it may be necessary to check out each application in painstaking detail with tools such as ResEdit, or FEdit. Many groups simply don't have the resources or energy for this.
The final straw for many user groups will be the advent of CD-ROM. When it is possible to buy an outstanding, thoroughly checked library of shareware and freeware for $100, why spend man-years devising your own library when the returns are so meager? My guess is that the majority of user groups will be out of the shareware business within a few years. (p. 38)
The net result of this is that many User Groups are finding their revenue base eroding while costs are climbing and membership is stagnant. While few records are kept on groups dropping from sight, my guess is that more and more User Groups are entering a crisis stage, and that quite a few will be turning off their Macs in the coming years. Like in most mature industries, we will begin to see consolidations, with strong regional and national groups benefiting from the petering out of smaller groups. The irony of it is that just as Apple has begun to recognize the role that User Groups have to play, more and more groups are likely to shut their doors.
The bright side of this is that the quality of User Group services is unlikely to be ad-versely affected. In User Groups, like most things, there are economies of scale, and Groups that adopt the Broadcast model are well equipped to serving membership dispersed all over the world.
Mac User groups are perhaps not as exciting as they were when everything was new, and many of the needs they once met have since been filled. Still, the need for Macintosh information has never been greater, and the possibilities more limitless. Large groups with national memberships, such as BMUG, appear best prepared to take advantage of these opportunities.