Should Google Support Computer User Groups?

Monday, May 29, 2006

Should Google Support Computer User Groups?

When Google recently launched the Google Foundation (, I couldn't help but wonder if there ought to be a role for Google in supporting computer user groups. The personal computer revolution originated with a computer user group, the Homebrew Computer Club, that met in 1975 at Stanford University -- just a few miles from Google's Mountain View world headquarters.

Computer user groups have a mission of giving away technology knowledge and skills for free (or for very low-cost) to the most number of people. This is a noble mission -- and one closely aligned with the mission of public libraries. As it happens, I work full time for a public library and have spent the past 20 years participating in and supporting various computer user groups.

So let me say right off the bat that I'm not entirely convinced that Google ought to be supporting computer user groups. Some user groups out there are insular -- cliquish. Throwing money their way will result in more insularity -- greater cliquishness.

Truth is, a computer user group ought to be run by a full time paid manager who needs to have executive function over all operations of the group. Computers have moved beyond the hobbyist stage. Look around you. Technology infuses our lives in every possible way.

Should the paid manager of a user group be chosen by ballot by a bunch of hobbyists? No way. User groups perform a public function. The paid manager of a user group ought to be chosen by an official entity within a community -- preferably one closely connected with the public library in that community, or the mayor's office. And this manager's contract needs to be revisited every 6 months -- with input from the public -- so that the highest level of accountability can occur.

If I were working at Google, this is how I would structure Google's support of computer user groups.

1. To receive financial support from Google, user groups would need to submit a plan on how they will be serving the community over the next year. This plan would need to specify how many refurbished computers the group plans to redistribute, how many classes and workshops the group plans to hold, how many new members the group plans to bring in and how many original articles, screencasts or software projects the group plans to share with the public at large.

2. Each submitted plan would need to include a candid assessment of how well the user group performed in executing the previous plan they submitted. (Yes, this assessment would not be a part of the first year's submitted plan.)

3. User groups would be required to document demographic information about their membership, with the goal of increasing the diversity of the groups' membership with each passing year.

4. User groups would be expected to establish and grow partnerships with other entities in their community -- schools, churches, libraries, nonprofit organizations, business partners.

5. User groups would be expected to cross-pollinate with other user groups -- and document such cross-pollination. This could occur via exchange of newsletter articles, collaborative projects between groups, organizing of regional user group conferences, etc.

6. User groups would be required to document in digital, public form the positive effects they have in their community. This could be done in audio testimonials, video testimonials, written testimonials, etc.

7. User groups would be required to organize (or participate) in ceremonies that honor the most geekish and public-spirited youth and adults in their community. This can be done in conjunction with local schools and or with the mayor's office. (i.e. Via an annual "Keyboard to the City Award.")

8. User groups would be required to have a nonprofits ambassador to interface and engage with nonprofit organizations in the community. This ambassador needs to be a compensated position.

9. User groups would be required to participate in any committees or conferences involved in the reduction of youth violence/gang activity.

10. User groups would be required to have one or more members of the group involved in exploring the use of computers for therapeutic purposes -- such as stroke rehabilitation therapy, art therapy, music therapy, etc.

11. User groups would be required to have some involvement in supporting the FIRST Robotics competition (and the associated Lego League competition for younger students.) Youth and adult geeks involved in FIRST Robotics or FIRST Lego League would likewise be expected to offer some support to user groups -- if only in helping spread the word about what user groups can offer.

12. User groups would be required to have some involvement with Jeopardy-style games organized at the local level -- increasing the intellectual vibrancy of the community.

13. User groups would be required to actively support and promote the use of free software, documenting the number of classes and workshops given.

14. User groups would be required to explore ways of using distance learning to expand the quantity and quality of learning happening around the world.

15. User groups would be required to teach and preach the values of inventiveness and resourcefulness as represented by MAKE Magazine and the web site (

16. User groups would be required to teach and practice community-media production. (i.e. Blogging, podcasting, videoblogging, etc.)

17. User groups would be required to participate in projects titled, "What Should the Future Look Like," envisioning where society ought to be heading. In trying to design our future, one of the tools user groups can use is Google's free SketchUp software.

18. User groups would be required to involve and reach students who otherwise are not served well by traditional schools. (Students with learning disabilities, ADHD, etc.), exploring ways that technology can better serve those students needs. Results of such discoveries need to be shared publicly via different media forms (text, audio, video, animation, etc.)

Yes, all the above is a tall-order. Here is the mission statement for Google's Foundation, though: "We hope that someday this institution will eclipse Google itself in overall world impact by ambitiously applying innovation and significant resources to the largest of the world's problems."

We can either choose to embark on this, or choose not to. Seems like it might be worth embarking upon it.

Over the years I've seen too many user groups close down. As a society, we have been woefully poor at supporting the very institution that brought us the personal computer revolution. Properly supported, user groups become engines of creativity, invention, and yes, even economic growth.

And if we structure it right, computer user groups become a force for greater inclusion in society. All human beings have a need to belong to a group. Currently, fewer than one percent of the population belongs to a computer user group. That means, fewer than one percent of the population has access to no-cost, deep expertise of other user group members. That has got to change.

Long term society cannot depend on the goodwill of a foundation to support user groups, though. Long term we need to structurally finance the support of user groups. One way to do so would be through a 50 cents per computer tax on all new computers sold. That tax would be hardly noticeable and yet would raise more than $15 million per year in the United States.

That's a starting point. The more you put in, the more you get out.
The time has come for us to start putting in.

So the answer to the above question is, "Yes, Google should start supporting computer user groups." We need that catalyzing force and we need it right about now.

Phil Shapiro

The author works as a public geek for the Takoma Park Maryland Library, in Takoma Park, a suburb of Washington DC. He is the former president of the Virginia Macintosh Users Group and currently serves as a board member of the Capital PC User Group. Along with his work with user groups, he has been involved as a supporter of community technology centers, computer refurbishing projects, computer projects at shelters and the rise of the citizen journalism movement.

This article may be freely reprinted by any computer user group or nonprofit entity. The article has been distributed via the The MUG Center's Newsletter Content List and via the newsletter article exchange of the Association of Personal Computer User Groups.