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4. What does a LUG do?

The goals of local LUGs are as varied as the locales in which they operate. There is no master plan for LUGs, nor is this document meant to supply one. Remember: Linux is free from bureaucracy and centralized control and so are local LUGs.

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

Each local LUG will combine these and other goals in a unique way in order to satisfy the unique needs of its membership.

4.1 Linux advocacy

The urge to advocate the use of Linux is as natural to computer users as is eating or sleeping. When you find something that works and works well, the natural urge is to tell as many people about it as you can. The role of LUGs in Linux advocacy cannot be overestimated, especially since the wide-scale commercial acceptance of Linux which it so richly deserves has not yet been achieved. 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 tell their friends, colleagues, employees or employers about Linux.

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 both 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 in this regard. Suffice it to say that advocacy is an important aspect of the mission of a local LUG.

There may come a time when Linux advocacy is pretty much beside the point because Linux has more or less won the day, when the phrase ``No one ever got fired for using Linux'' becomes a reality. Until that time, however, the local LUG plays an indispensable role in promoting the use of Linux. It does so because its advocacy is free, well-intentioned, and backed up by organizational commitment. If a person comes to know about Linux through the efforts of a local LUG, then that person, as a new Linux user, is already ahead of the game: she is already aware of the existence of an organization that will help her install, configure, and even maintain Linux on whatever computers she is willing to dedicate to it.

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

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

4.2 Linux education

Not only is it the business of a local LUG to advocate the use of Linux, it may also turn its efforts to training its members, as well as the computing public in its area, to use Linux and associated components. In my own estimation, the goal of user education is the single most important goal a LUG may undertake. Of course, as I have already pointed out, LUGs are perfectly free to organize themselves and their activities around any of these, or other, goals. I believe, however, that LUGs can have the greatest impact on the Linux Movement by educating and training Linux users.

Local LUGs may choose to undertake the goal of education simply because there is no other local entity from which a Linux user may receive technically-oriented education. While it is certainly the case that universities, colleges, and junior colleges are increassingly turning to Linux as a way to educate their students, both efficiently and cheaply, about Unix-like operating systems, some Linux users are either unable or unwilling to register for courses in order to learn Linux. For these users the local LUG is a valuable resource for enhancement or creation of advanced computer skills: Unix-like system administration, system programming, support and creation of Internet and Intranet technologies, etc.

In an ironic twist, many local LUGs are even sharing the burden of worker training with large corporations. Every worker at Acme Corp that expands her computer skills by participating in a local LUG is one less worker Acme Corp has to train or pay to train. Even though using and administering a Linux PC at home isn't the same as administering a corporate data warehouse, call center, or similar high-availability facility, it is light years more complex, more rewarding, and more educational than using and administering a Windows 95 PC at home. As Linux itself advances toward things like journalling filesystems, high-availability, real-time capacity, and other high-end Unix features, the already blurry line between Linux and the ``real'' Unixes will get even more indistinct.

Not only is such education a form of worker training, but it will also serve, as information technology becomes an increasingly vital part of the global economy, as a kind of community service. In most metropolitan areas in the United States, for example, it is possible for a local LUG to take Linux into local schools, small businesses, community and social organizations, and other non-corporate environments. This accomplishes the task of Linux advocacy and also helps train the general public about Linux as a Unix-like operating system. As more and more of these kinds of organizations seek to establish an Internet presence or provide dial-in access to their workers, students, and constituents, the opportunities arise for local LUGs to participate in the life of their community by educating it about a free and freely-available operating system. This kind of community service allows the average Linux user to emulate the kind of generosity that has characterized Linux, and the free software community, from the very beginning. Most Linux users can't program like Linus Torvalds, but we can all all give our time and abilities to other Linux users, the Linux community, and the broader community in which work and live.

Linux is a natural fit for these kinds of organization because deploying it doesn't commit them to expensive license, upgrade, or maintenance fees. Because Linux is also technically elegant and economical, it runs very well on the the kinds of disposable hardware that corporations typically cast off and that non-profit organizations are only too happy to use. As more and more people discover every day, that old 486 collecting dust in the closet can do real work if someone will install Linux on it.

In addition, Linux education has a cumulative effect on the other goals of a local LUG, in particular the goal of Linux support discussed below. Better Linux education means better Linux support. The more people that a LUG can count on to reach its support goals, the easier support becomes and, therefore, the more of it can be done. The more new and inexperienced users a local LUG can support and eventually educate about Linux, the larger and more effective the LUG can become. In other words, if a LUG focuses solely on Linux support to the neglect of Linux education, the natural barriers to organizational growth will be more restrictive. If only two or three percent of the members of a LUG take upon themselves the task of supporting the others, the growth of the LUG will be stifled. One thing you can count on: if new and inexperienced users don't get the help with Linux they need from a local LUG, they won't participate in that LUG for very long. If a larger percentage of members support the others, the LUG will be able to grow much larger. Linux education is the key to this dynamic: education turns new Linux users into experienced ones.

Free education about free Linux also highlights the degree to which Linux is part and parcel of the free software Community. So it seems appropriate that local LUGs focus not solely on Linux education but also education about all of the various software systems and technologies that run under Linux. These include, for instance, the GNU suite of programs and utilities, the Apache Web server, the XFree86 implementation of X Windows, TeX, LaTeX, etc. Fortunately the list of free software that runs under Linux is a long and diverse one.

Finally, Linux is a self-documenting operating environment; in other words, if we don't write the documentation, nobody is going to do it for us. Toward that end, make sure that LUG members are well aware of the Linux Documentation Project, which can be found at mirrors worldwide. Consider providing an LDP mirror for the local Linux community and for LUG members. Also make sure to publicize---through comp.os.linux.announce, the LDP, and other pertinent sources of Linux information---any relevant documentation that is developed by the LUG: technical presentations, tutorials, local FAQs, etc. There is a lot of Linux documentation produced in LUGs that doesn't benefit the worldwide Linux community because no one outside the LUG knows about it. Don't let the LUGs efforts in this regard go to waste: it is highly probable that if someone at one LUG had a question or problem with something, then people at other LUGs around the world will have the same questions and problems.

4.3 Linux support

Of course for the desperate newbie the primary role of a local LUG is Linux support. But it is a mistake to suppose that Linux support only means technical support for new Linux users. It can and should mean much more.

Local LUGs have the opportunity to support:

Users

The most frequent complaint from new Linux users, once they have gotten Linux installed, is the steep learning curve which is not at all unique to Linux but is, rather, a characteristic of all modern Unixes. With the steepness of the learning curve, however, comes the power and flexibility of a complex operating system. A local LUG is often the only resource that a new Linux user has available to help flatten out the learning curve.

But even if a new Linux user doesn't know it yet, she needs more than just technical support: Linux and the free software worlds are both rapidly moving targets. The local LUGs form an invaluable conduit of information about Linux and other free software products. Not only does Linux lack a central bureaucracy, but it also for the most part lacks the kind of journalistic infrastructure from which users of other computer systems benefit. The Linux Movement does have resources like Linux Journal and Linux Gazette, but many new Linux users are unaware of these resources. In addition, as monthly publications they are often already out of date about bugfixes, security problems, patches, new kernels, etc. This is where the local LUG as a source and conduit of timely information is so vital to new and experienced Linux users alike.

For example, until a new Linux user knows that the newest kernels are available from ftp.kernel.org or that the Linux Documentation Project usually has newer versions of Linux HOWTOs than a CD-based Linux distribution, it is up to the local LUG, as the primary support entity, to be a conduit of timely and useful information.

In fact it may be just a bit misleading to focus on the support role that local LUGs provide to new users: intermediate and advanced users also benefit from the proliferation of timely and useful tips, facts, and secrets about Linux. Because of the complexity of Linux, even advanced users often learn new tricks or techniques simply by becoming involved in a local LUG. Sometimes they learn about software packages they didn't know existed, sometimes they just remember that arcane vi command sequence they've not used since college.

Consultants

It is, I think, rather obvious to claim that local LUGs ought to be in the business of supporting new Linux users. After all, if they're not supposed to be doing that, what are they to do? It may not be as obvious that local LUGs can play an important role in supporting local Linux consultants. Whether they do Linux consulting full-time or only part-time, consultants can be an important part of a local LUG. How can the LUG support them?

The answer to that question is just the answer to another question: what is it that Linux consultants want and need? They need someone for whom to consult. A local LUG provides the best way for those who offer Linux consulting to find those who need Linux consulting. The local LUG can informally broker connections between consulting suppliers and consulting consumers simply by getting all, or as many as possible, of the people interested in Linux in a local area together and talking with one another. How LUGs do that will occupy us below. What is important here is to point out that LUGs can and should play this role as well. The Linux Consultants HOWTO is an important document in this regard, but it is surely the case that only a fraction of the full-time and part-time Linux consultants worldwide are registered in the Consultants HOWTO.

The relationship is mutually beneficial. Consultants aid LUGs by providing experienced leadership, both technically and organizationally, while LUGs aid consultants by putting them in contact with the kinds of people who need their services. New and inexperienced users gain benefit from both LUGs and consultants since their routine or simple requests for support are handled by LUGs gratis, and their complex needs and problems---the kind that obviously require the services of a paid consultant---can be handled by the consultants whom the local LUG helps them contact.

The line between support requests that need a consultant and those that do not is sometimes indistinct; but in most cases the difference is clear. While a local 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 behavior--there is no reason for LUGs not to help broker contacts between the users who need consulting services and the professionals who offer them.

Please see Martin Michlmayr's Linux Consultants HOWTO for an international list of Linux consultants.

Businesses, non-profit organizations, and schools

LUGs also have the opportunity to support local businesses and organizations. This support has two aspects. First, LUGs can support businesses and organizations that want to use Linux as a part of their computing and IT efforts. Second, LUGs can support local businesses and organizations that develop for Linux, cater to Linux users, support or install Linux, etc.

The kinds of support that LUGs can provide to local businesses that want to use Linux as a part of their computing operations isn't really all that different from the kinds of support LUGs give to individuals who want to run Linux at home. For example, compiling the Linux kernel doesn't really vary from home to business. Supporting businesses using Linux, however, may mean that a LUG needs to concentrate on commercial software that runs on Linux, rather than concentrating solely on free software. If Linux is going to continue to maintain its momentum as a viable computing alternative, then it's going to take software vendors who are willing to write for and port to Linux as a commercially-viable platform. If local LUGs can play a role in helping business users evaluate commercial Linux solutions, then more software vendors will be encouraged to consider Linux in their development and planning.

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

Maintaining and making this kind of information public not only helps the members of a local LUG, but it also helps Linux-friendly local businesses as well, and it encourages them to continue to be Linux-friendly. It may even, in some cases, help contribute to a competitive atmosphere in which other businesses are encouraged to become Linux-friendly too.

Free software development

Finally, LUGs may also support the Linux Movement by soliciting and organizing 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 philanthropy

A further involvement can be to encourage sponsorship of various Linux-related organizations 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 ``gratefulness'' 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 tools and applications for Linux.

A users group can encourage members to contribute to various ``development projects.'' If it has some form of ``charitable tax exemption'' status, that can encourage members to contribute directly to the group, getting tax deductions as appropriate, with contributions flowing on to other organizations.

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

This section lists possible candidates. None are explicitly being recommended here, but the list can represent useful ``food for thought.'' Many are registered as charities in the United States, thus making U.S. contributions tax deductible.

Here are organizations with activities particularly directed towards development of software that works with Linux:

Contributions to these organizations has the direct effect of supporting the creation of freely redistributable software usable with Linux. Dollar for dollar, such contributions almost certainly have greater effect on the Linux community as a whole than any other specific kind of spending.

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

Linux Movement

I have referred throughout this HOWTO to something I call the Linux Movement. There really is no better way to describe the international Linux phenomenon than to call it a movement: it isn't a bureaucracy, but it is organized; it isn't a corporation, but it is important to businesses all over the world. The best way for a local LUG to support the international Linux movement is to work to insure that the local Linux community is robust, vibrant, and growing. Linux is developed internationally, which is easy enough to see by reading /usr/src/linux/MAINTAINERS. But Linux is also used internationally. And this ever-expanding user base is the key to Linux's continued success. And that is where the local LUG plays an incalculably important role.

The strength of the Linux Movement internationally is the simple fact that Linux offers unprecedented computing power and sophistication for its cost and for its freedom. The keys are value and independence from proprietary control. Every time a new person, group, business, or organization has the opportunity to be exposed to Linux's inherent value the Linux Movement grows in strength and numbers. Local LUGs can make that happen.

4.4 Linux socializing

The last goal of a local LUG that I will mention here is socializing. In some ways this is the most difficult goal to discuss because it is not clear how many or to what degree LUGs engage in it. While it would be strange to have a local LUG that didn't engage in the other goals, there very well may be local LUGs somewhere in the world for which socialization isn't an important consideration.

It seems, however, that whenever two or three Linux users get together fun, highjinks, and, often, beer are sure to 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, twittering with a window manager, or hacking some code. It is the sheer fun of Linux that keeps many LUGs together, and it is this kind of fun that leads many LUGs naturally to socializing.

By ``socializing'' here I mean primarily sharing experiences, forming friendships, and mutually-shared admiration and respect. There is another meaning, however, one that social scientists call socialization. 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, newbies are turned into hackers. In other words, socialization turns you from ``one of them'' to ``one of us''.

For armed forces in the U.S. and in most countries, this process is called boot camp or basic training. This is the process whereby civilians are transformed into soldiers. The Linux movement has analogous requirements. It is important that new Linux users come to learn what it means to be a Linux user, what is expected of them as a member of an international community, the special vocabulary of the Linux movement, its unique requirements and opportunities. This may be as simple as how Linux users in a partcicular locale pronounce ``Linux''. It may be as profound as the ways in which Linux users should advocate, and the ways in which they should, more importantly, refrain from advocating Linux.

Linux socialization, unlike `real world' socialization, can occur on mailing lists and Usenet, although the efficacy of the latter is constantly challenged precisely by poorly socialized users. In my view, socialization and socializing are both done best in the company of real, flesh-and-blood fellow human beings, and not by incorporeal voices on a mailing list or Usenet group.


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