Mac User Groups In The Age Of The iMac July 18th, 2000
What is a MUG? "MUG" stands for "Mac User Group." They are nonprofit organizations where Mac users come together and talk about, well, all things Mac. MUGs are usually geographically based, and have anywhere between a handful and thousands of members. Members are usually comprised of a wide range of Mac users, from the power user to the "everyman" Mac user. It make for a perfect union: Those with knowledge share that knowledge with those who seek it. The common bond is almost always a love for the Mac.
Consider the history of such groups. MUGs have their roots in earlier Apple User Groups and other hobbyist organizations which sprang up when Apple introduced the Mac in 1984. They hit their peak in the mid-1990s when Apple was flying high on the house of cards that John Sculley built. Apple was enjoying sales that are higher than today's (though their unit sales were far lower than today's), and lots of new people had come to the platform. They had questions and wanted to learn how to use these wonderful machines. The Internet was still in its infancy and the way for these users to come together was not in an AOL chat room, but good old fashioned face-to-face meetings.
MUGs are one of the reasons Apple grew as strong as it did, and an even bigger reason the company kept as much of their customer base as they did during their darkest days. Despite this and the fact that Apple has become stronger than at any other time in its history, MUGs seem to be on the decline. We have seen a couple of the largest and oldest MUGs disband or declare bankruptcy. We have also seen memberships at many other MUGs dropping steadily for the last several years.
Why is this? It seems paradoxical. Apple has more users now, and definitely more consumer users (read "not power user") than ever before. So why is the MUG on the decline? More users would mean more MUGS wouldn't it?
Part of the answer can be traced to the fact that MUGs represented a safe haven in a storm of unpopularity, a sort of bastion against the forces bent on ridiculing Mac users. They were also a place for camaraderie and support that can only be found amongst people who share the Macintosh vision of computing. Today, we Mac users simply do not face as many trials and tribulations as we have in the preceding 16 years. Macs have become popular as never before and in many ways have even transcended that indefinable threshold to become "cool." Many of us have found that we no longer need the kind of emotional support offered by the MUGs. We don't have to mobilize against an enemy like we once had to. This is even more true today since we can now turn to the vast Mac resources on the Web.
Apple also gets much of the blame for the decline of the MUG because of their inexplicable refusal to continue to allow MUGs (and magazines) to provide Mac OS updates on Update CDs. Many MUGs have released collections of OS updates, application updates and patches, shareware, and demos for sale at a very low price. Sold to their members and to anyone else, these CDs have been a huge resource for users and have provided the main revenue stream for many user groups. Deprived of this revenue, many larger MUGs simply don't have the resources to continue operations as they had in the past.
I am the last person in the world who will preach that we need to keep MUGs for tradition's sake. If they can no longer meet the needs of today's users, then they should go the way of the dinosaur. However, I do not think that has to be the case. As my friend David Schultz pointed out to me, in the day and age of the impersonal communication of the Internet, the personal interaction provided by MUGs is an important resource for us all. The ability to meet with other Mac users and share our knowledge and experiences with each other is a potentially powerful force. Besides, it has a way of bringing people together who might otherwise never have met, along with all the pressures and habits of interpersonal communication which by nature we seem to avoid and the net reduces.
That said, let's face it. Who has the time to attend a meeting, let alone organize one! Operating, and even participating, in a MUG can be quite time consuming, and many have part time and full time employees who help do the work. It is this decrease in both volunteer time and operation funds that have helped lead to the decline we are seeing.
So where can we go from here? If MUGs have lost the interest of Mac users, how can they gain it back? That's an issue that I am certainly not going to solve in this column, but I hope to be able to spark some conversation. We need to determine what today's Mac user needs and wants. It sounds simple on the surface, but I think some MUGs are using old ideas in a new world. Thinking Different about their roles could be what is needed to shift these venerable institutions to a viable future.
One tremendous source of Mac interest is the legions of older Americans that are getting online. This is a surprisingly under-served community in my opinion. Our own Nancy Gravley offers a column called "Computing With Bifocals" that is one of the only tip/resource pieces aimed at this demographic. She also recently began a tip column in MacHome HotTips Weekly called "Golden Apple" that serves the same market. Older users, often not as Internet savvy as their juniors, are far more likely to be interested in one-on-one learning and socializing than others. As such, they offer a great opportunity for MUGs to recruit new members. Indeed, as seniors get more comfortable with their computers, they will be among the best evangelizers in their peer group.
On the other end of the age spectrum, young families interested in Desktop Video are another important demographic. Once again these are people who may not be as computer savvy as others, yet they are even more likely to become power users as the video bug consumes them. There is no better platform for DV editing than the Mac, and MUGs are the perfect vehicle to offer help with it. Training, seminars, "How to's" (just think about a training session on "How to make the best baby movie"), film viewings, tips on distribution, tips on video compression, and on an on, these are all things that would lend themselves well to organized groups and group meetings. Hey, why not have a movie night, and a film festival with awards? Bring the kids and popcorn! These events would demonstrate the power and ease of use the Mac offers. In my opinion, this is a big part of the spirit behind MUGs. Focusing some attention on the needs of this demographic offers an opportunity to bring in many new members to both MUGs and the Mac platform in general.
What needs are we addressing with these groups? The seasoned Mac user could be shown his relevance to the Mac Community. For the younger demographic the need focuses on children. Families do everything for the children. If done right, the MUG could prove useful in showing the relevancy of the Mac to growing a close family, a close family with memories burned into iMovie files.
The challenge presented by the Internet is also a source of opportunity to many MUGs. There are already many Mac Web sites online, but how many Mac users know about them? For us who seem to live online it may seem like "everyone" knows about the Mac Web community, but that is simply not the case. Our estimates at The Mac Observer are that there are somewhere between one and two million users that frequent the Mac Web on a regular or semi-regular basis. Yet, there are a lot more people using Macs. Even though most are not going to be interested in the hard-core industry information offered by many publications, most would be interested in being able to tap into the many tips and other help found online. MUGs could work to provide their members with online guides to the online world. These areas could be open only to members in order to add member value. MUG meetings could include segments for discussing the best tips members found, and how they might make full use out of them.
Insanely Great Mac has also started a new service that many MUGs might take advantage of. The site has launched ContentFeed, a service that allows other Mac sites, or MUGs, to place dynamically served Mac news content on their own Web sites. This could be a great service for many MUGs looking to provide value to their membership without adding cost or extra work.
There is some tremendous opportunity to be found on the Web, and it can be turned into a tool for MUGs instead of another nail in their coffins.
These are just a few ideas, and I cannot hope to be comprehensive. However, I hope many of you reading this will get involved with your own local MUG. I also hope that my thoughts will help spark the kind of debate needed in the MUG community to help move ahead. In this vein, I will be speaking at a MUG function at MACWORLD Expo this week, and the future of MUGs will be one of the topics open for discussion. I hope to see you there.
began using Apple computers in 1983 in a high school BASIC programming class. He started using Macs in 1990 when the Kinko's guy taught him how to use Aldus PageMaker, finally buying a Power Computing Power 100 in 1995. Today, Bryan is the Editor of The Mac Observer, and has contributed to the print versions of MacAddict and MacFormat (UK).