For the all communities that I take a lead role in, I use a fairly similar approach. Following recent discussions, I felt it might be worthwhile to cobble together my notes, discussions and emails in an attempt to distill something which might define my style or approach to this sort of thing.
Most of this article will be from the perspective of running my local Linux User Group, but it is my hope that it will be applicable to any kind of community or user group.
In September 2006, I organised my first Free/Open Source Software (F/OSS) oriented event. Together with other local F/OSS users, I put together a day long "expo" type event to celebrate Software Freedom Day, featuring Free Software for a range of different use cases. The event was such a success that in response to survey feedback, we ran a second interim event the following February, which we called Free Software For All.
Nearly six years ago, in May 2008, I began coordinating regular Linux User Group (LUG) meetings in Launceston, Tasmania. This was been something that I'd been considering for some time, but I'd been holding off, wary that the "LUG" title would create expectations which might steer some away. I was keen to be involved in some kind of F/OSS user group, but I didn't want it to be Linux specific - I may use and have an affinity for GNU/Linux myself, but there's inherently more value in bringing together people on all platforms than dividing people based on their choice of platform.
Bringing people together regardless of platform increases the visibility of the portability of Free Software, discourages platform discrimination, allows for bigger and more diverse communities, provides opportunities to address misconceptions and stereotypes about users, and reinforces that behind every keyboard, touchscreen and voice recognition app (sadly, Linux isn't easy from this perspective) is a human being - something that rampant platform elitism highlights the need for. Beyond that, it also provides existing F/OSS users with a safe environment and support community should they want to explore a new platform.
The eventual catalyst for my stepping up to get local LUG meetings happening was in becoming more aware of TasLUG's history by being involved in the TasLUG bid to host linux.conf.au 2009 (which also provided impetus to try to grow and support the local F/OSS community). It turns out that in its many incarnations/revivals over the past two decades, the Tasmanian Linux User Group hadn't been exclusively Linux oriented, and preserving that heritage felt worthwhile.
The LCA 2009 conference consumed most of the enthusiasm that had existed prior to my getting involved and before long, and shortly afterward, the other hotspots of activity died out as people took well earned breaks and/or moved on. In the intervening years, I've offered what encouragement and support I can to others trying to get things happening (with mixed levels of success) in the form of promotion, advice, resources from our local meetings, the offer to be a guest presenter and even running the odd event in another region in the hopes of bringing people together to spark some ongoing activity.
In 2012, thanks to Tasmanian attendees at a linux.conf.au conference on the other side of the country coming together, regular Hobart meetings sprang up and have been running comfortably since then. To help bridge the geographical divide, I've been coordinating annual "statewide gatherings", providing an opportunity for F/OSS users to come together and share their experiences and work in a more social, community oriented context (in contrast to our promotional, for-the-public approach to SFD).
Today I am handing over passwords and account details to a new state wide committee which was created to help support our various centres of activity by encouraging a culture of sharing and handling some of the tasks which would otherwise be doubled up on.
In investigating prior LUG activity in my state, I'd discovered that there had been a long history of groups popping up at different locations around the state, holding regular meetings which rarely lasted more than 6 months before dying out due to repetitiveness or burn out. What was most interesting was that it appeared that few of these groups were active concurrently, and those that were often didn't interact or suffered disharmonious relationships between different regions.
In spite of this shaky progression, there's rarely been a period in the past twenty or so years where there hasn't been some sort of LUG activity. Tasmania has also hosted more concurrent Software Freedom Day events than any other state in Australia (there were five events in 2006, though sadly not all are represented on the SDF events map) and appears to have cumulatively hosted more events than any other state in the past 9 years.
This indicates to me that across the state as a whole, there's definitely enough enthusiasm present, but it's thinly spread enough that keeping regular activities sustainable is a challenge. It seems apparent that the hurdles associated with bringing people together are minor in comparison to keeping that up over any significant period of time.
Having talked about this at LUGs and other similar community groups in Australia and beyond, this sort of pattern isn't constrained to my locality, or even regional locations (though areas with low population density seem to feel the pressure more acutely).
There seem to be three key factors at play which are to a degree inter-related: the ability to attract new people, the ability to consistently source content ("content" may take many forms), and the ability to retain community members over time. When any one of these falters, not only are the others are impacted, but the amount of "wear and tear" that organisers seem to suffer is increased.
A sad recurring theme that I've come across in the demise of community groups like this is that as numbers dwindle and enthusiasm leaches out, the prioritisation of content slips aside and gatherings end up consisting of a small group of committed individuals whose discussion becomes so tailored to their specific domains and technical levels that it is inaccessible to newcomers. I've often heard this represented as, "The same guys meeting in the same pub, ordering the same food and talking about the same things."
What follows is my vision for a sustainable community group (not all of which has been realised). It's wordy, but I've tried to supplement it with some bulleted lists which will hopefully make it more digestible.↑return to top↑
Whilst this isn't a hard and fast rule, I've often found that activities (which may be meetings), particularly regular ones help strengthen communities. It's important to have other infrastructure for communication and interaction, but regular activities become the anchor around which everything else orbits. An activity can help grab the attention of someone who doesn't have time for day-to-day interaction, and can give valuable variety and focused contact with others for those who do.
Because activities bring more people together, they're a great way for those on the periphery to catch up and feel involved. This mix can also inspire other activities, initiatives or projects (like building a new website, putting together a conference bid, creating a plan to promote F/OSS use in schools or providing one on one technical support) which then spin off and take life outside of the regular activity that spawned them.
As mentioned before, having interesting content is important. In this context, content may be anything from presentations to group coding, from topics to discuss to an "install fest", from a game to play to a meditation task - anything that gives a meeting focus beyond a purely social gathering. There's nothing expressly wrong with gatherings which are nothing more than social events, though these do tend to favour existing social connections and can cause a community group to devolve into a "friends club" if not supplemented with an activity which presents a more level social playing field (let's face it, joining a community group is daunting enough as it is).
When we began developing our plans for meetings, we decided to go with a single presentation with a focus on having a solid, well defined 'takeaway' - knowledge or skills that would provide a tangible outcome for the audience, leaving them feeling that they have something new they could go home and try for themselves even if it is beyond their current level of experience. By focusing on a single topic, we forewent the opportunity to attract a broader range of people with multiple presentations in favour of longer format presentations, allowing us to save extra talks for future meetings and making us less likely to run out of content.
The big culture we wanted to instill though, was that everybody has something to offer which, no matter how mundane it might seem, is of value to someone else. By encouraging everybody to participate and fostering a culture of content creation rather than content consumption, we become not only enriched but also empowered. This reduces the reliance on external resources and speakers (which can be particularly difficult for regional LUGs to source) and, if all goes well, provides ongoing future content.
We generally try to mix the difficulty level and subject matter of presentations up as much as we can to avoid multiple topics on similar subjects in a row. This keeps things accessible to people of all proficiencies (or at least avoids having multiple inaccessible presentations in a row).
We also encourage presenters to make screencasts, slideshows and presentation notes available so that resources from previous meetings can have value outside of the meeting they were initially created for. Our hope is that if we encounter any periods where our community members' time and enthusiasm are too constrained to support creating new content, that older talks will be recycled, remixed and reused (which nicely echoes the contributory spirit that drives the Open Source world). Looking at TasLUG's tumultuous past, securing against lulls like this seems vitally important, but it also opens up our content to be of more value to people outside our communities - something we'll come back to later.
When deciding on this sort of approach, we found three aspects that we felt would give us the most valuable content:
One aim we had from the beginning but haven't quite been able to realise is to stream meeting content via the internet so that F/OSS users who aren't able to travel to the meeting can still be a part of the community. Remote attendance is tricky to successfully execute, requiring patience and awareness on the part of the presenter. Repeating questions back to make sure that they've been understood is important, and it's often worthwhile to have a person who dedicated to relaying text based communication and making sure that remote attendees aren't feeling ignored.
TasLUG's Hobart community has previously streamed meetings via Google+ Hangouts, which made for an interesting experience. Unfortunately during the first meetings in which this was trialed, we had a number of random people drop in who weren't interested in listening to a talk on F/OSS and instead tried to engage in discussion about music, sports or TV shows, and one person seemed very intent on showing everybody their bottom. Understandably, the streaming machine's speakers were muted, removing a lot of participation opportunity. Later meetings had improved, though for the ones I've been able to remotely attend, it's still been difficult to communicate when there are issues with the stream (such as low mic volume or an out of focus camera).
By allowing remote attendance (and hopefully remote presentation), we have the opportunity to completely sidestep low population density issues, and potentially provide local talks to interstate and overseas viewers, reinforcing the value of locally create content. Ideally, this would best be done via F/OSS applications, but bandwidth and infrastructure suitable for streaming can be hard to come by. Services like Google+ Hangouts feel like a decent compromise in lieu of an entirely Free stack.
The scheduling of regular activities seems to be a fickle, no-right-answer situation. We opted for early afternoon on Saturdays so that those with day commitments during the week or children to look after wouldn't be expected to have late nights, though we've had mixed feedback from parents on whether weekends are better. This time slot also opens up the meeting to those with significant travel distances. We've had people attend from over 3 hours away, which just wouldn't be possible for an evening and/or weekday gathering.
Thankfully, frequency seems to be less tricky to balance. Monthly seems to be the recurrence of choice for most groups, though supplementary meetings to focus on additional projects or to accommodate speakers (such as say, an inter-state traveller) seem to be worthwhile. Bimonthly (using either interpretation) becomes awkward in that many often have difficulty identifying/remembering whether it's an on-week/month or an off-week/month, so these are worth avoiding. Date based recurrence (for example, the 3rd of every month) offers the difficulty of being asynchronous with the day of the week, which most recurring events seem to be aligned to, creating hard to predict schedule conflicts.
Taking a cue from Software Freedom Day, we placed our TasLUG events on the last Saturday of each month, opting for something at the end of the month to avoid the "Oh! Is it next month already?" exclamation that I've heard many times in other communities which have had gatherings during the first week of each month.
The most important scheduling aspect, however, is consistency. It's a sad reality that people sometimes (or always) miss news posts, alerts, reminders. It is normal for people to skip meetings, to arrive late, or to get mixed up about dates. The best thing organisers can do is to maintain a constant and consistent schedule so that anybody who falls out of sync can easily get back onboard. This means not getting discouraged when a couple of meetings in a row have low attendance, pushing onwards in spite of conflicts with other local events, and most importantly, communicating any schedule changes as early and as often as possible.
With many community groups, it's common to have some social time around a meeting, giving people a chance to mingle, chat, inspire, plan and do all the other things that make communities exciting. Retiring to a restaurant, park, pub or other venue seems to be most common, though it does have the disadvantage, particularly for evening meetings, of being less accessible to anybody who has significant travel or have other commitments. I've also noticed a tendency for difficulties with regards to start time, as it's natural for some social interaction to happen when people are meeting.
For our meetings, we decided to schedule a social lunch beforehand, with the rationale that it would give people time to get settled before the meeting started, help the less organised avoid arriving late (and any associated disruption), and allow those who have to leave early the opportunity to do so without feeling like they're missing out. This does have the disadvantage of having people sleepy on a full stomach, but it feels like a good tradeoff.
Structure wise, we open with introductions, then the talk proper plus Q&A followed by a "round table" sharing of any F/OSS news that attendees have come across in the month between meetings.
I was inspired by OCLUG's quick around-the-room introductions to open meetings. For TasLUG's meetings, we go around the room, starting with the presenter (chair/MC/grand poobah) stating our name and offering some nominated information that's relevant to the current topic (eg: "My name is Cheese, and my favourite F/OSS game is Neverball" at a meeting featuring a talk on F/OSS gaming). This is a fantastic ice breaker, and the personal anecdote provides a great memory aid. Encouraging each person, new and old to vocalise something, even if it's only their name helps things feel participatory, and makes speaking up to ask questions/engage in discussion that little bit easier.
Our presentations themselves are typically 45 to 60 minutes long. For topic, we require that the presentation be F/OSS related, and recommend that it offers a solid 'takeaway'. We welcome talks on F/OSS projects for any platform, so covering MinGW or Seashore aren't out of the question. We also firmly discourage discrimination when a presenter chooses to give a talk from a machine running something other than Linux (I have been known to deliver talks from a Mac every now and again). We haven't yet had to worry about it, but some sort of "things are running on a bit" cue would definitely be worthwhile agreeing on so that presenters can be notified of time without disruption.
We allow presenters to work to whatever level of interactivity they feel is appropriate, though I find that it's most common for questions to be allowed during the presentation. That said, it's helpful to have somebody prepared to remind others that questions should be saved for the end if that's what the presenter prefers (it's nicer to offer that kind of support than potentially let a less experienced presenter feel intimidated). Providing that all questions haven't been answered, we follow the presentation with a short question and answer session.
For my own talks, I like to be as interactive as possible. During my most recent talk, I encouraged the community to suggest Neverball balls for me to make during the meeting, which in turn, I've used as a set of examples for the Neverball development community and other interested people to use as a resource.
Once the presentation related portion of the meeting is over, we move onto F/OSS news, giving everybody in the room the opportunity to share and discuss anything they are aware of that's happened during the preceding month (it's also a good opportunity to mention upcoming events as well). Whilst this tends to be fairly light at our meetings, I always enjoy the diversity of stuff that gets brought up. One person may bring up an upcoming Portable Apps release, whilst another might go into recent Linux Kernel commits.
With news out of the way, we call our meeting closed and start packing up. People are welcome to hang around and continue discussion, though I find that few do - perhaps the social time beforehand sates people, or perhaps the opportunity for a productive afternoon draws people away.
Many LUGs take advantage of donated venues. If this is at all achievable, it's worth chasing, so long as it doesn't compromise the LUG's autonomy. I've visited a number of LUGs which have registered to be recognised associations at universities to gain access to facilities. There's some really nice philosophy at play with the idea of community groups having a symbiotic feedback loop with educational institutions, and ideally, this is the sort of arrangement I'd like to see our meetings end up in. For the moment, we, like many other LUGs are currently making use of a meeting room donated by a pub in exchange for us cumulatively ordering a couple of meals in the downstairs restaurant. This arrangement has worked out OK for us (the restaurant is across the hall from the bar rather than being connected, so a lot more of a pleasant atmosphere than it could be otherwise), though I do feel that it doesn't do our invitingness or accessibility any favours.
To help make us recognisable during the social lunch gathering, we keep a stuffed toy of the linux.conf.au 2009 penguin beak wearing Tasmanian Devil mascot Tuz in the middle of the table. It's eye catching and identifiable, which helps newcomers feel more comfortable asking if they're at the right place. I'd definitely recommend getting a stuffed penguin or similar. We also have had a tri-fold A3 table stand which has TasLUG and some quick details which should be readable whilst walking past.
It's good to make eye contact and smile as people pass. If it's somebody who was looking for the group, then that gives them an opening to say hi without feeling like they're intruding, and if not, then "Geeze, those F/OSS people sure seem happy," isn't a bad sentiment to be propagating.
Regarding equipment, we have access to a modest projector made available by one of our community members (myself) which, with a power board, extension cable and DVI adapter marks the only physical equipment we regularly take to meetings (presenters will usually bring a laptop or desktop depending on their presentation). All this fits in a backpack along with our stuffed Tuz and is easily portable on foot.↑return to top↑
We currently run two TasLUG events, which both feel like they fill important roles: Software Freedom Day in September, and the annual TasLUG Statewide Gathering occurs roughly opposite in April/May.
Software Freedom Day is a grass roots celebration of Free/Open Source Software celebrated in countries across the world, which happens on the third Saturday of September each year. Our style of SFD event has changed over the years. Initially our goals were to showcase of the public the best F/OSS software we could find and demonstrate compelling use cases. We would set up tables with focuses such as business productivity, home productivity, operating systems, entertainment and creativity. On the surface, this sounds good, but it requires a lot of extra setup and planning as people do their annual scramble to remember how to set up a Myth TV box, or to find a working barcode scanner and get a point of sale system up and running.
These projects are exciting and interesting, but encourage us to miss one of the most important assets we have - the awesome stuff that the community is already doing. It's incredibly rare to find somebody these days who doesn't have F/OSS intersecting their personal or professional life in some way. By highlighting the everyday occurrence of Free Software within our lives, we create deeper public awareness of how prolific and beneficial F/OSS is. By showcasing the more unusual F/OSS projects and activities that people within the community are involved with, we also demonstrate the exciting and interesting side of being a part of the global F/OSS community.
That said, there were some aspects which we retained from our older format, namely a bank of walk-up-and-play machines running a range of F/OSS games (networked for multiplayer), and a series of machines running various F/OSS operating systems and desktop environments to help illustrate some of the options which are available (these machines also double as spare computers to sit down at and talk someone through something if needed).
Beyond that, we have also had very positive feedback to having a walk-up-and-play machine with a Wacom tablet running the Gimp and Inkscape, and some machines hooked up to projectors playing the Blender Foundation's Open Movies. These types of "attractions" require less supervision and give those who want to look and maybe talk later something check out (which has had a surprisingly positive impact on the way that people navigate and explore our SFD events).
Everything else is people in the community showing off the F/OSS related stuff that they do, whether that be running LibreOffice on Windows, or custom designed electronic devices running FreeRTOS. It is always immensely rewarding to see the diversity of our community, and I find that invariably, those who choose to sit down at a table with a computer or a laptop (or a piece of custom hardware or some printed artwork created with F/OSS tools) and talk about their experiences find it rewarding.
For a couple of events, we've also invited local F/OSS friendly businesses to have a table and talk about how they use Free Software. This has been mostly positive, though we have only been approaching businesses which are specifically interested in being a part of the local F/OSS community rather than those that would be specifically interested in sponsorship rewards. It feels important to keep Software Freedom Day as a community run and supported event, and once sponsorship obligations start to come into play control can easily be lost.
Initially, we hired local council operated halls which came with optional public liability insurance (this is super important - some places require public liability insurance to cover events like this, and not being aware of the issue could lead to pretty depressing consequences). We've since used venues that we've been donated the use of for SFD events, and have had PLI donated by a local F/OSS using business, which all round feels like a better arrangement.
Probably the biggest concerns with regards to venue are visibility and accessibility. We had spent several years at a very central location, but it was difficult to find/get to and we've recently been experimenting with alternatives.
Other issues to be aware of are vehicle accessibility for bump in/bump out, power outlet accessibility, accoustics (cram 60 chattery people into a wooden floored hall, and noise starts to get unpleasant pretty quickly), networking (if available), whether tables are provided, and lighting (if projectors are going to be used). Getting access to the venue the night before if possible to lay tables, power and networking out is a nice way to take pressure off in the morning.
When setting people up, it helps to be aware of the sorts of things that people will be showing off. Not only does this help with organising sensible setup locations, but extra awareness of what's going on will allow community members to direct the public towards other interesting or related things.
Try to place anything that might require space or generate crowds somewhere where that won't interfere with the flow of people through the event. Try to make sure that sound sensitive stuff is away from noisy stuff. Avoid placing anything with projectors or other light sensitive equipment or mediums in places where they will get direct sunlight as the day progresses. If there isn't enough community stuff to properly fill the venue, try to spread it around evenly to avoid congesting the entryway and having things feel packed away at the back.
Sandwich boards are a good visibility aid, as are balloons and posters. Some A4 posters with large arrows on them are also helpful for venue discoverability as well as directing flow inside. We also have an "information desk" which we try to keep staffed constantly throughout the day to help direct people and explain what's going on for those who don't feel comfortable exploring on their own. We also make leaflets available on what the Free Software movement is, TasLUG and its meetings, the Free Software Foundation and a few other bits and pieces as well. It's important to avoid dating these as they can be reused at other times and at other events.
With the exception of two or three events due to time constraints, we have always invited members of the public to fill out a survey which covers the following:
We print our survey double sided on a single sheet of A4 paper. The bottom portion of the page contains contact details and information on the LUG with a dotted line indicating that that portion can be cut off and kept.
The survey has helped us pace and tune our events and is amongst the most valuable outcomes from our SFD events. Feedback is almost always mostly positive, with a couple of negative items sprinked in (usually a ratio around 40:1). In spite of assurances that the value for us is in being able to do something nice and fun which "gives back" to the community, we do sometimes get people trying to give us money. I've always been very wary of allowing SFD to become a revenue raising exersise, so I do what I can to discourage this. When we do end up with money in our survey response box, I make note of it (I also like to keep receipts so that I can get a year over year picture of changes in expenses and identify where we can cut consumables out of our spendings) and put it aside to pay for food either for the following SFD event, or for a debrief meeting if we have one (over the past couple of events, we've usually done our reflection during the social time prior to the following LUG meeting).
We have a number of items on our SFD wishlist that we've never been able to realise. We've always been interested in trying to offer short structured talks, perhaps highlights from previous LUG meetings, and I've dreamed of streaming a day's worth of Creative Commons licenced music interspersed with short interviews with members of the community about what they're showing off, and with the public about how they feel about what they're seeing. Neither of these examples is a particularly important milestone to achieve, but it does highlight that it's worth prioritising ideas and making sure that the core stuff (in this case, providing the public with a chance to see the exciting things that the local F/OSS community does) gets the right amount of attention.
So far as equipment goes, community members bring their own equipment and do so with the understanding that they're responsible for looking after whatever they bring along. I have a box of "kettle plugs", power boards, extension cords and ethernet cables that I bring along in case anybody runs short. Invariably the number of cords and cables I arrive with is different from the number I leave with, but over the years, it evens out. I have a tub of tablecloths as well which feel like they have been a worthwhile investment. The impact having a tablecloth hiding computers cases and equipment can have is huge - it really adds a sense of cohesiveness and professionalism to the event.
I also bring an A3 paper carton with a slot cut into the lid which we collect our survey responses in. It's covered with bright orange wrapping paper, which makes it nicely eye catching. Inside this box snuggly fits an assortment of helpful items which we've learned over the years to bring with us:
If Software Freedom Day is about giving people outside the F/OSS community a chance to peer within, then our TasLUG Statewide Gathering is about giving the existing community a chance to come together and appreciate each other's work.
One of the key things we noticed early on from Software Freedom Day was that even though we have a good local F/OSS community turnout, including some who infrequently attend our regular meetings there were not a lot of opportunities for our community members to interact and be social. In spite of clear excitement and enthusiasm to see what others have been up to over the year, everybody is invariably tuckered out and ready to go home by the time the event is over, and the ongoing flow of visitors makes it difficult to get away to chat with others.
Holding a more community oriented event also allows us to try to bring people together who would normally be too far away to attend LUG meetings together, and it is my hope that our statewide gatherings help foster a sense of being a part of a broader community.
To date, we have held two of these events, which have in-part been modeled after our approach to Software Freedom Day. We invite people to bring along things that they are doing, but it's much more ad-hoc and casual. At an appointed time, we work our way around the venue as a group, checking out and chatting about the things that people have brought along to share. For the second year, we also invited people to give structured talks/presentations, which feels like a promising way to go.
Towards the end of the day, we've also been allocating time to look at planning and sharing plans for the coming year. At the last event, we discussed the idea of trying to re-run favourite talks from each region's local meetings, organising a dinner the night before for anybody who'd like to stay overnight, and having a BBQ lunch in an adjacent park. All these are great ideas that I hope the new statewide committee makes into a reality.
Prior to organising these events, I had thought long about location. In the end it felt that by picking a central location and making that the regular home of the Statewide Gatherings, we were averaging out travel time. With there already being a tiny bit of a north-south aloofness at a cultural level in the state, the best option seems to be to pick somewhere in the middle that inconveniences everybody equally. Truth be told, I suspect that travel time also helps bring a sense of occasion to the event, and encourages those who attend to make the most of their time.
Others have put forward the idea of having a roaming event or an event which oscillates between north and south. On the surface this sounds positive - giving each location and region a chance to bring their own flair and local culture to the event and encouraging an extra sense of ownership for the hosting community. It seems more likely, however, that with our small number of centres of activity, we are more likely to wind up with people opting to skip these annual events and only attend the ones that are being hosted nearby.
We've previously discussed the idea of getting notable interstate guest speakers to attend our Statewide Gatherings. Whilst this might be a good idea to take advantage of for LUG meetings, and there's no reason to make travelers feel unwelcome at any of our events, I feel that there's something to be gained by framing the content, achievements and activities of the community as being the notable highlights of this particular event. Eventually, I would love to see our Statewide Gathering grow to be something that attracted travelers.↑return to top↑
Typically, LUGs rely heavily on online communication. Traditionally, TasLUG has heavily relied on Internet Relay Chat (IRC), mailing lists, and web forums, although recently social networking services, such as Google+, Twitter and Facebook seem to have been helping interested people find our communities.
Some form of website for conveying general information or philosophies and to communicate announcements seems essential. This serves as a landing point for people to discover the community and learn about its activities.
Taking another cue from OCLUG, I had always envisioned the ideal TasLUG site to be geared towards tracking meetings, presentations and speakers (perhaps modeled via Semantic Mediawiki and rendered via queries in something more directed) in an effort to highlight the content our community has produced and make it accessible as a resource to others. A prominent calendar view and feed would help keep awareness of activities and events up, and a wiki would serve as a good place for storing and developing presentations, resources and documentation.
It's not something we've yet addressed with TasLUG, but the notion of a default licence for published website/wiki content (CC BY or CC BY-SA for example) seems like it might might encourage sharing, re-use and improvement, as well as give clarity of licencing and a prompt for those who aren't comfortable with the default to explicitly declare something different.
I've never personally liked aggregators, but others appreciate the "planet" blog aggregation service we have on the TasLUG site currently (although it could do with some presentation enhancements), and it does seem to be a worthwhile way to further highlight the activity of people within the community.
To keep administrative effort down, working with Facebook, Google+ and Twitter APIs, or a third party service to automatically deploy announcements and post updates seems very worthwhile. Currently we don't have that, and whilst it doesn't represent a huge workload, it's easy to have announcements slip through the cracks, especially when the people managing social media accounts are not the ones posting news or announcements on the website.
For real time chat, IRC is probably the most widely used technology. IRC servers are not difficult to host, but many opt to use Freenode.net's IRC network, which was created to provide Free/Open Source communities and not-for-profit organisations with free chat services. The #taslug IRC channel was already being used by the community before I became involved, and my experiences over the past five years have been positive (I also am involved with several other communities which have IRC channels on Freenode).
For the first four years of my TasLUG involvement, the forums were the main hub of online activity, whilst over the past two years, it's slowed down considerably as mailing list activity has picked up. Unfortunately though, this doesn't seem to be part of a community migration as few members of our broader community use or are active in both mediums. I've witness this sort of fragmentation in other communities as well, which led me to look for alternative configurations.
As communication mediums, forums and mailing lists may seem on the surface to be quite different, but there's some very nice mapping to be made when viewing individual lists as subforums, forum threads as email reply chains, and forum posts as email messages. Most modern forums have support for attachments, subject lines for individual posts, representation for in-line quoted text, and so forth. The only places that don't seem to match up well are in forum moderation type activities, for thread and message management, though it seems that even the Mailman developers identified years ago that these features are desirable.
With difficulty maintaining community cohesion due to disparity already identified as a critical issue, it seems immensely worthwhile to try and address this communication fragmentation. It is clear that having forum posts appear as "normal" communication to mailing list users and vice versa, is going to enrich both mediums by increasing the flow of ideas and discussion to through throughout the community.
In 2009, I set up a bidirectional relay between Mailman and Phorum for the Tamar Bicycle Users Group. Sadly, it was underutilised and eventually retired. Whilst it was stable, it was fiddly to set up and would have had to have been reconfigured after mailman updates. That said, the experience taught me that this sort of setup is possible, and I've since discovered other methods and projects which look like they'll provide more maintainable solutions. Setting something similar up for TasLUG has been on my to do list for several years, but lack of time hasn't made it possible so far.
For code and project hosting, git and Subversion aren't difficult to set up, and whilst project management infrastructure like Trac or GitLab Community Edition may be take more effort, they're certainly doable as well. If hosting is less appealing, services like GitHub, BitBucket or SourceForge offer some level of free code/project hosting.
Currently, all of TasLUG's online infrastructure is donated or provided via free services. Traditionally, the TasLUG website's hosting had been donated by community members who had access to hosting resources, although since linux.conf.au 2009, it has been generously hosted by Nerdvana (for which, on behalf of the community, I would like to highlight that I am super appreciative). For non-incorporated entities (which TasLUG has been for some years), having individuals personally own assets and donate their use to the community makes things a bit easier to manage, and having use donated freely by those who believe in the community rather than dealing with sponsorship obligations also keeps things clear.↑return to top↑
Unfortunately, setting up community infrastructure and running events isn't enough. Beyond finding and maintaining at least a small in-flow of interested people, existing community members still need reminders, alerts and other ways to discover activities.
The central hub for making the community and its activities discoverable should be an official website. This is where anybody specifically looking for information about the community will end up and is a good place for verification and additional details that might not fit elsewhere or could be left out of third party coverage.
Social media seems to assist with reminding existing community members, and giving them the opportunity to share announcements and content with their acquaintances and followers.
Twitter in particular poses a challenge with its character restrictions, especially once a relevant URL to the official website is included. Be sure to convey key information (dates, topics) and rely on linked posts/resources to provide detail. Where there's room, hashtags never hurt - they're easiest to think of as embedded search terms, and increase the chance of people not following the Twitter account discovering the tweet.
Facebook and Google+ provide the ability to create "events" to which people can be invited and indicate whether they are likely to attend. Managing these creates additional overhead and may or may not result in increased attendance. The Hobart meeting organisers currently create Google+ events for their meetings though I am not certain what level of impact it has. If it were possible to create these sorts of representations of activities with some level of automation, then it would definitely be worthwhile, but without that, I would imagine that it would be better to apply the effort involved elsewhere.
It's also worth being aware that many social networking platforms have some level of controversy with regards to ethical practice, privacy or security, and may not be entirely compatible with F/OSS mentalities. Whether these are significant enough concerns to warrant avoiding participating in them is certainly debatable, but regardless, there is value in being aware of relevant issues.
Many local newspapers, radio stations and television stations (here in Australia at least) offer some kind of free "community noticeboard" where details of local community activities and events can be promoted. Taking advantage of these sorts of services is immensely worthwhile as these are usually already deeply rooted within local communities across broad demographics and are an obvious place to look for local activities.
For Software Freedom Day events, our surveys have consistently indicated that radio coverage has had the most impact. We've had a good relationship with local ABC radio, who have given us an interview most years, and used to regularly cover Software Freedom Day during their Saturday morning Computer Talkback segment when it was still running.
For anything larger scale than a regular meeting, it doesn't hurt to make press releases available. This is the sort of thing that media outlets work with, and sit nicely as an attachment to an email introducing the topic at hand. It may take a little bit of practice to find the right kind of balance of detail, quotes and succinctness, but it's not too tricky to get the hang of.
One of the key approaches to making our community and its content visible beyond our LUG that I had envisioned when we first sat down to discuss getting regular meetings happening was to reach out to and engage with other community groups. For the most part, they are all facing the content and population issues we are, and the mutual benefit to be gained by maintaining cross-community relationships seems very worthwhile.
Contacting other community groups who might have some overlap with the topic of a particular talk (for example, a photography society may have interest in a talk on image processing using the Gimp, or a genealogy group may be keen to learn about Gramps) opens up two possible, and by no means mutually exclusive, opportunities. A respectful invitation for members of a community group to attend a LUG meeting may result in increased attendance, while an offer to have a LUG presenter give a talk at another community group gives LUG content greater outside exposure. The opportunities for cross-pollination of ideas and the enrichment of diversity ultimately help both communities.
We've also had several LUG community members be invited to talk about their activities and work at local colleges. Whilst this isn't something we have actively chased as TasLUG directly (one of our community members is a teacher who from time to time brings guests in to talk about real-world use cases, and individual community members have approached other schools themselves), it does seem like a great opportunity to give back to the community and raise some awareness among younger audiences.
It's worth noting that whilst I talk about my attitudes towards and my outlooks on community management, I don't solely run any of the community groups I'm involved with. Regardless of any coordination that I do, a community is by definition a collection of people. It is in the coming together that the magic happens - the role of community management is only to facilitate that. With that in mind, I encourage others to pick up anything they're interested in, and to give input into discussion and decision.
At this point in time, the Double Fine Game Club is the community group that I come closest to leading alone, but I still have the support of one close collaborator (who contributes more than she realises) and half a dozen others who involve themselves in some way (even if that's only making suggestions or giving feedback). At the opposite end of the spectrum is SteamLUG, which has close to a dozen core community admins before counting other members of the community who give input.
The two key roles of any "community manager" (I'm going to be using this term in a very informal sense) is to be what I like to call a motivator - somebody who inspires enthusiasm in others, and to steer a community clear of self destructive behaviour.
I find that "leading by example" feels comfortable. For somebody who is interested in managing a community, exhibiting and championing the qualities and philosophies that a community is formed around should be easy - if it's not, then it's worth taking some time to think about why. Show excitement and appreciation for everything that makes the community what it is, and encourage others to do the same. Building a culture of self-appreciation within the community is the best way to avoid apathy (which can be super dangerous to a community). I also strive to make the communities I'm involved with feel as welcoming and inclusive as possible.
Communities which aren't welcoming don't attract new members. Communities which can't attract new members will eventually die of attrition. It is as important to prioritise the health and wellbeing of the current community as it is that of the future community.
One thing that is apparent to me about TasLUG is that if I hadn't bothered to look back at the community's iterations over time and learn from its history, there would be one less person with that perspective and knowledge to pass it on to others. With the exception of one or two people, there are no people who have been involved with TasLUG before its current incarnation, and none of those people are in my local region. I also wouldn't have become aware of or had inspiration for trying to handle the danger of low population and disparate communities. It's possible that I never would have started organising regular meetings and growing a community here, and that eventually some other less informed community would have arisen, doomed to repeat the pattern of rise and fall which I would say has plagued our history.
Maintaining continuity and awareness of heritage is valuable. Document things and make sure that they will be discoverable by the community in five years, in a decade, in two decades even. If values, ideals and histories are not passed on, they will be lost.
My earliest priority for TasLUG was to replace its levitating Tasmanian Devil mascot with the image of Tuz that I had created for the linux.conf.au 2009 conference. As I learned more about TasLUG, I came to realise that over the course of the sporadic community's history, this mascot was one of the only things that had managed to survive. Interestingly, as people came together to make the Hobart meetings happen, replacing the existing mascot was on their priority list.
I reached out to the original artist, who had long since moved away, and talked with him about his memories of the community and his intentions for the artwork he had created. We discussed the idea of retroactively naming the character he had created Tuz so as to create some continuity between them. If the new statewide committee moves forward with a mascot revamp, then at least now, there is a story that can be told.
Encourage awareness of the community's past, and treat heritage as an asset.
Set standards and quickly respond to inappropriate behavior. Don't tolerate prejudice or bigotry and be wary of familiar banter which could be misinterpreted. It may sound counter-intuitive to address friends who aren't offending each other as bring problematic, but, taking an extreme example, friends who use racial slurs endearingly towards each other will set a tone that is ultimately unhealthy. In the SteamLUG IRC channel, we usually have over 150 concurrent users. It's very rare for more than 20% of that number to be communicating at any given point in time, and with people leaving and joining all the time, it's more than plausible that there who are watching and learning what they can about the community before getting involved.
I like to believe that with perspective, everybody has the ability to respect others, but sometimes toxic individuals need to be excised. I find this really difficult and prefer to work one-on-one with any problematic individuals until I am confident that there are no other options (even then, I seek additional opinions from other community members). It's worthwhile to have methods for dealing with this sort of thing discussed before it's ever a problem so that an outcome isn't crippled by having to decide how to handle the situation at hand whilst it's happening.
For anything that is overtly inappropriate, address the behaviour as being unacceptable in public rather than the individual - the only value in publicly addressing an issue is to set a clear example for others. When it comes to addressing individuals, it's best to do that in a more private context, where communication can be more personable and direct, where other well meaning community members can't confuse or cloud the issues at hand, and where the individual in question can respond without feeling embarrassment (publicly shame behaviours and attitudes, not people) or as though they're being subjected to group bullying.
Respect and maintain the anonymity of people who report problems, but encourage them to work things through with others themselves if they are comfortable and there is an opportunity for positive outcome. In one of the international F/OSS community groups that I'm a part of, there are one or two individuals who unintentionally come across as being rude and abrasive from time to time (for the most part, due to cultural and language differences). One of my earliest interactions with that community was in reaching out directly to one of these people and trying to talk things through. What has resulted has been a friendship that I personally value, and some softening of the tone they use publicly. I've seen this type of outcome echoed in other community groups where I've encouraged people to work through their issues when it's felt right to do so, ultimately resulting in more positive and strengthening results than a managerial type confrontation alone could have.
When conflicts and differences do arise, take time to step back and objectively assess the situation. As mentioned at the very beginning of the article, a "friends club" is a state to avoid, and may even be the opposite of a community.
Encourage participation and unglorify administrative tasks. The moment that something is deemed to only be doable or achievable by a single person is the moment that that person becomes a single point of failure. Avoid the "bus factor" (I often hypothetically ask, "What would happen if I were hit by a bus tomorrow? Would the communities I'm involved with be able to continue without me?") by encouraging communication and documentation. Not only does it help mitigate against disaster, but it also reduces the pressure and strain on the individuals who are helping, who could otherwise end up feeling trapped by their obligations.
It's inevitable that somebody will need to miss a meeting or an event or be unable to do something they've agreed to. Make sure that in these situations, community members feel comfortable coming forward to say they can't do something ahead of time when alternative arrangements can be made.
Communities are reliant on internal volunteer enthusiasm for any productive work. It is important to respect that community members' availability may not allow things to move at an optimal speed. Accept this and don't make people feel bad about it.
When and where resources allow, shuffle and rotate responsibility. This helps avoid "burn out" and makes the kind of communication and documentation mentioned earlier routine.
None of the community groups I am involved with require a membership fee. Fiscal barriers strike me as being unhealthy, and I feel that there is more positive community building to be gained by directed fundraising activities (how about a GNU/Lamington drive!) for specific purposes than there is from requiring regular payments from members. If a participatory and contributory spirit has been instilled in the community, people will donate time and resources without a fee, and this is more valuable than having a balance ever will be. At the end of the day, community members will have a greater sense of investment from personally purchasing and donating the use of some needed resource than they will from regularly "paying their dues" (which I find to be a super offensive term - when a person is a true part of a community, they give what they're able. Implying that they're obligated to give more is disrespectful and demeaning towards their contributions).
By keeping most infrastructure virtual and donated, cost overheads should be minimal. Currently, the only expense that TasLUG has is the renewal fee for the taslug.org.au domain name, which to date I have been personally paying for. I've been more than happy to personally donate the domain (which has cost me around $20 a year), and whilst the new statewide community will be taking responsibility for it moving forward, I'll be equally happy to pitch in in the future.
One final note for international community groups, always, always, always use UTC (the modern successor of GMT) to communicate times. Ignore local "daylight savings time" idiosyncrasies at all costs as they create unnecessary confusion and disruption.
Since it's rare for multiple time zones to observe "daylight savings time" simultaneously, keeping events aligned to local "daylight savings time" offsets creates up to four apparent changes for anybody in a different time zone, since the start and stop times of "daylight savings time" for the individual and the event organiser will not coincide (requiring the individual to be aware of the event organiser's "daylight savings time" state). By aligning to UTC and not adjusting for "daylight savings time", that number is reduced to a maximum of two apparent changes for anybody in a different time zone, their own start and stop times (which they will hopefully be aware of). Whist it's not perfect, two apparent time disruptions per year is objectively more favourable than four.
Using UTC also helps make time conversions easier as it can be assumed that individuals will be more aware of what their own offset from UTC is than they will be of the relative time difference between their location and the location that events are organised from. Both SteamLUG and the Double Fine Game Club supplement announced start times with a countdown timer, which we've gotten really good feedback on.↑return to top↑
Whilst not all of the above will apply to all user groups or communities, I think there are some key recurrent themes that stand out which should be applicable to most.
I believe that these are the building blocks of a happy, lasting community, and so far, it's been working well for the communities that I am involved with the coordination of. I've love to hear thoughts from others, so please feel free to get in touch!↑return to top↑
Thanks for reading!
What you've just read is a combination of a 2008 talk I gave at OCLUG in Ottawa, Canada, a 2010 letter to Linux Format which was published in issue 136 (page 14), and many discussions across the past 8 years.
I would like to make special note of the people who helped the current incarnation of the Launceston F/OSS community take form and grow. In particular, Henry Bush, Leah Duncan, Joshua Hesketh, Frank Richards, Samantha Scott, Waide Soper and Gareth, whose support, contributions and perspectives were and still are (for those who are still around) invaluable.
My northern hemisphere friends Richard Guy Briggs and Simon Quigley, without whom I would have not given the talk OCLUG on rural LUGs that made up the bulk of this article, deserve thanks and to know that though they are far away, my thoughts are often with them.
My cohorts in the south of Tasmania also deserve thanks for helping grow the F/OSS community across the state and getting me to finally move on from a Benevolent Dictator type arrangement for TasLUG.
 I don't really hate LUGs. That's just an amusing title.
If you've got any thoughts on this article, you can email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This article was first published on the 12th of February 2014.