Article: The Sad State of the Mac User Group
One of my other “jobs” besides this site is running iMUG, the (International) Internet Mac User Group. I took over the group about 4 years ago, as the old leader simply didn’t have time to keep up with everything. Since then, membership has remained close to the same, despite advertising it a lot more than it was before.
On the other hand, I’m also a member of a local Mac User Group. It’s a small, unofficial one (unlike iMUG), but for serving a college campus with over 20,000 people and other area towns, the local MUG only has 15 people show up to the monthly meetings—and that’s on a good day.
I’m curious what is going on with MUGs. Besides my experiences, there are countless other user groups whose numbers are flat or fading. Why is that?
One thought is that the groups simply aren’t advertising that they exist, so many new Mac users don’t know about them. That could be, but Apple suggests looking for a MUG, and they list all the official ones. The local one I’m part of put up signs almost everywhere and even bribed people to come with free pizza (even if they only had an iPod, but no Mac). It seems many user groups are relatively easy to find and offer goodies for first-timers, so “obscurity” cannot be the cause.
Another deterrent could be that many user groups charge dues. Both of the ones I’ve dealt with are free, provide lots of freebies and deals to users, and have a wealth of knowledge. The ones that charge dues seem to be doing just the same as those that aren’t, so money can’t be a big contributing factor, especially since Apple and other companies provide groups with software, giveaways, and promotional materials for free or heavily reduced prices.
I talked with a member of SMUG, and he cited a change of venue as the cause of a dip of attendance. Although the meetings aren’t much further away then where they previously were, many users felt it was too far away to travel.
Is it considered uncool to be part of a MUG? It might seem geeky, but it’s a lot cheaper than tech support, and a bit more social than message boards or forums. Most of the people I’ve met at these sort of groups knew only the basics when using Mac OS X and the popular software titles. These are not your average computer “nerds” looking to build the world’s most powerful G5 and comparing how great their graphics cards are.
A Slow Death
In the August 1999 issue of Macworld, David Pogue took a look at the same topic in “When the Grass Roots Die”. Even in 1999, many Mac User Groups seemed in trouble. Some of the big ones that existed since people realized 1984 wouldn’t be like 1984 also took financial hits or even went out of business being thousands of dollars in debt. Without them, who could the smaller groups look up to?
Another reason cited by Pogue is that many of the groups changed hands or were simply closed down, much like many e-zines and email newsletters. Another reason was explained by former LAMG president Tom Negrino:
“User groups are a trailing indicator of Apple’s health. As Apple’s ocean rises, it will lift all the boats.”
This was said in 1999 referring to Apple’s troubles in the mid-to-late ’90s. Apple’s times are good now, so why aren’t the MUGs improving?
WAMUG President Matthew Healey cites the change of computer users:
“In the old days, the computer industry was much more hands on and ‘tinker-able’. These days, computers are turning in to sealed boxes that you can turn on and off.”
While this is true, Pogue had said that small- and medium-sized MUGs would fare better than the larger ones. It seems that this train of thought didn’t take into account OS X, the Internet, and especially Google. Healey noted this, too:
“The internet also killed a lot of what Users Groups used to be for. Social interaction, software updates, product reviews, troubleshooting, etc…”
Why wait until next Thursday’s meeting to fix your Mac when you can do a Google search or check out a site like MacInTouch. The Internet has created “instant communities” that you can visit, but don’t actually have to live in.
Internet-based MUGs are relatively new compared to the more conventional ones. Many of these have closed their “doors”, too, just because the leaders are not able to keep members’ interest. Since Internet-based MUGs are glorified forums with a few added MUG benefits (like free Macworld Expo tickets), they don’t offer features like meetings and guest speakers.
NetMUG, one of the more notable online groups shut down (or at least cut back), as it was too much work to keep maintained. iMUG might have suffered the same fate, but it also has not been growing proportionally to the Mac community.
Mostly people are too busy with their blogs, running other web sites, or just dealing with life in the post-dot-com-bust times. There’s too many other resources that offer duplicate information as many MUGs that are too close of a click away.
Yes, Apple is hurting Mac User Groups. Even though they have a nice little web site with a list of groups and give freebies to group leaders and members, there’s one thing they forgot—the retail stores. Most of the Apple Stores have demonstrations for beginners throughout the month, which used to be a MUG-specific role. Although this isn’t as big of a factor, it is another nail in the coffin.
What to do?
Many don’t see a bright future for the Mac User Group (at least as we know it). The fate of the MUGs I attend is uncertain, and Healey feels similarly about MUGs in general:
“I would say that Mac User Groups (as they used to be known) will be gone in 5 years time, or will more resemble a Sunday book club than a computer group…Our members don’t want to interact, they want to be entertained.”
There really isn’t much MUG leaders can do except to ride this out and hope that their MUG stays intact. With troubles like the Internet, time, money, Apple, and member apathy, it still appears to be an uphill climb, even 8 years after Apple’s darkest days. Will the MUG go the way of the Newton? Only its members can decide.