How to Start a Linux User Group
The Linux User Group (also known as a LUG) has been one of the cornerstones of Linux advocacy ever since its first inception. Bringing together local Linux lovers, it is the grassroots of Linux - where neighbours and other townfolks can sit around a table and discuss the best way to compile the kernel for their machines, or how to get their Slackware network devices going again. It is also a high bandwidth way to share knowledge - if you've ever heard of the sneaker-net, you'll appreciate the advantages of being in a room full of real people who share your interest in open-source software.
Chances are good that you are already in an area that has a local LUG, and a simple search online should be able to confirm it. However, if you happen to be in an area where none currently exists, the process of actually setting up a group is very easy.
Setting up a group
Your group will be ready to go once you've got a basic framework in place:
- A Web site - This part is easier to do than ever before. Linux.com allows you to set up a group page in a simple, straight-forward fashion. It's a lot like a social network, so other members can easily join and keep informed of events.
- A mailing list - This is the pulse of your group, where interested people can ask questions and swap info. With a simple mailing list, you can coordinate your efforts with other group members, discuss future meeting ideas, and keep the blood flowing in the group.
- A meeting spot - Find a spot (preferably a public one) that is quiet enough to allow speakers and presentations, but large enough to hold however large your group is. Location is key! Some good spots that are often free (or very cheap) are schools and university campuses. You'll want an Internet connection and power sockets, so keep that in mind when looking for a place.
The first two items shouldn't take longer than a couple of hours to set up, and will only need minimal maintenance after that. The meeting spot will take a little longer, but, with the collective effort of your group (communicating through the mailing list) it shouldn't be too difficult.
Now it's just a matter of getting a few people interested. It's alright if the first members are your friends - that's how the ball gets rolling! The LUG will take on a life of its own, once you have outsiders coming in, so find ways of getting the word out around town. Postering universities and cafes (be sure to ask permission) is a great way to get other like-minded folks to check out your Web site and meetings.
Having fun and keeping the LUG interesting
Keeping things interesting isn't something that is easily done spontaneously, so you'll want to keep note of ideas for presentations and events for future use. It's essential to keep the creative pump primed, otherwise it will be hard keeping members coming to meetings.
Fortunately, your members will be a great resource in letting you know what they're interested in - after all, they want to have fun, too! When someone is bursting with passion over the new distro he or she just installed, that enthusiasm can be infectious. Encourage this passion, because these people will help keep the group moving along.
Occasionally, there's the meeting where a talk or the scheduling has fallen through. This is a great time to be generating ideas and keeping those creative juices flowing. Keeping the meet-ups consistently fun and engaging will keep everyone showing up time and time again.
Reaching out to the community
The greatest benefits of a LUG is what it can do for the local community. It can be donating Linux-loaded machines to non-profit groups, install-fests to help people start using Linux, or connecting people from different technology groups who wouldn't normally interact.
One of the beauties of Linux and F/OSS software is that there are many ways that people from different technology backgrounds and groups can contribute. Java programmers, hardware hackers, and theoretical scientists can all sit at the same table and meet common ground at a LUG, when given a good topic to think over. Therefore, keep connected with all the local groups which could potentially have a few Linux users (or future Linux users).
The long road ahead
A lot of groups get side-tracked by things like dues, group bylaws, and other organizational structures that are necessary to keep the group viable year-to-year. Transparency is key, but don't let the meetings get bogged down in administrative matters - keep it short, keep it simple, and keep it civil. If an issue can be relegated to the mailing list, that's the best spot for it. That way everyone has a chance to speak up, and it's all available on the public record.
Starting a LUG is a rewarding experience, and can be a great experience for everyone involved. With so many successful groups running now, it has never been easier to start your own, so start organizing one today!
 Rick Moen comments: My rule of thumb in the LUG HOWTO, and other writings on the subject, is that a successful LUG seems to need a core of at least four active members -- who need not be particularly knowledgeable. As you say, not a lot else is strictly necesssary.
Dafydd Crosby has been hooked on computers since the first moment his dad let him touch the TI-99/4A. He's contributed to various different open-source projects, and is currently working out of Canada.