Can The Internet Teach You How To Double Click?

Too many of them desired to be leaders and too few were willing to serve in the ranks.

Chester Himes, Plan B

I am no longer a member of my local Macintosh User Group (MUG), but the club still avails itself of my services.

If you turn to the inside front cover of the MUGis newsletter, you will find a list of contact names and phone numbers for answering your questions about things Macintosh. My name and number is listed for questions about the iMac (right below that is a listing for the Power Mac 7200; thereis no oneis name there, but since my name is close by, people assume thatis my "area" also). As a result, I still receive phone calls -- months after having withdrawn from the club -- from Mac users looking for assistance with problems ranging from system crashes to basic application usage. As you can imagine, these are all calls from new Mac users.

Now, I donit mind the phone calls. I look at it as my contribution to the Mac community.

My mind, though, isnit on whether or not I should be charging for the free phone technical support I provide. Instead, I wonder what would happen if people like me werenit around to hold the hands of the people who are new to the concepts of "double click," "folder" and "desktop." I wonder if the MUG is the dinosaur, staring upward, observing a dark, star-strewn sky in which a planet-sized meteor comes crashing down to primordial Earth. That meteor is the Internet.

Or some would think. For some time now, people have held up the Internet as the panacea to educating the masses. Many have dreamed a world populated by people sitting in front of their computer displays, surfing on-line computer-based training modules, drinking at this cyber well of knowledge.

In the wake of this explosion of knowledge, we would find the demise of the MUG. Or some had thought.

With the advent of the Internet, there has probably been some kind of decline in user group attendance and membership. I canit remember the last time Iive attended a local meeting.

For Mac users, the user group was the place to be for the latest info on Apple and Apple products. I remember attending user group meetings to learn the latest info on the Mac OS or to touch and feel the latest Macs. You chatted up fellow Mac users who served as ready answers for whatever ailed your Mac. The Internet was able to surrogate these sources of info in many ways. With instant access to QuickTime product movies and news web sites, the user groups quickly took a back seat to my attention. Today, my Mac knowledge can be attributed to places like the MacFixit forums and forums like the ones here at The Mac Observer.

For a while, I verged on being a chief proponent for the death of the user group. After all, who needed them now? We have the Web. Anything worth knowing, I would have argued, could be known via a modem.

My epiphanic realization of the error of my ways occurred over time while helping fellow Mac users navigate through the simplest of tasks.

Picture yourself sitting at home, your telephone in hand, as you talk to a distraught user on the other end of the phone call. He keeps getting an error message, stating that "The application iFinderi has unexpectedly quit." And his cursor has frozen. He says that this has happened several times and canit figure out what it is.

Of course, you know that this could be one of several things: Finder Preferences are corrupted; heis installed something that doesnit agree with Mac OS.

Regardless of the problem and solution, you have a daunting task ahead of you. You have to walk and talk the user through solving the problem. Iive had many of these calls, lasting from 20 minutes to well over an hour. Most of the calls felt as if they were long. You think that going to the System Folder, deleting a preference file and rebooting is a simple task, but you donit know the agony until youive played Tech-Support Man talking someone through each of those steps.

My point isnit to disparage newbie Mac users, but to point out that the human touch is still needed in this age of 1-800 tech support lines and web-based training.

The question is what are the user groups to do in the face of the internetis competition. And this question doesnit just involve the fact that user groups are great ways to teach and train the newer computer users. Another problem that needs to be addressed and faced is the fact that the user group historically was a good place for the rest of us Mac users: people who are more experienced and in search of advanced info about our favorite platform. The user group has its work cut out if it wants to attract those of us who are lower attention spanned and web-savvy .

I donit purport to have answers. I do, however, see that the user group is necessary in this web-enabled age. There are still people who need a place where they can go to learn and hone those basic skills. The Mac User Group is that place. But, in order for the user group to survive, it has to remain competitive with the internet by being also a place that encourages excitement about the platform by providing compelling, in-the-flesh reasons for intermediate and advanced Mac users to attend, to join and to take part in the day-to-day activities of a local user group. Those people currently running MUGs arenit getting any younger. To whom will they hand over the reigns when they are ready to step down? This is a pressing question.

One of the forgotten roles of the user group (unless your user group isnit like mine) is to serve as the grassroots focus of local Mac evangelism. Too many times, I have seen missed opportunities for our local user group to "spread the faith." Too many times, Iive wondered if theyive missed their chance.

But, with the many phone calls that I have with Mac users throughout the Twin Cities, I know that isnit entirely true. I hope that the local user groups realize this. The next time, they may really and truly miss their chance.

Rodney O. Lainis "phone-side manner" can be best described as "kindly curmudgeon." When he isnit haranguing Mac users into learning the intricacies of the control-click, he is a regular contributor to The Mac Observer with his "iBrotha" column, as well as the occasional editorial. He lives in Minnesota.