[LONG] FreeBSD UK User Group - The state of the nation?

Neil Ford neil at ourshack.com
Sun Jul 16 23:19:20 BST 2000

Well it seems that recent events have ruffled a few feathers and raised some
interesting questions.

As one of the "Beer & Curry" crowd, though not an organiser of the recent
Oxford conference, I'd like to address some of these issues.

My apologies if this turns into a long and rambling email, but there is quite a
bit to cover and it's probably best addressed in one email.

I'll also apologise in advance if I inadvertantly misquote anyone, pulling
stuff in from multiple emails can sometimes get confusing. If anyone thinks
I've made a mistake, shout and I'll amend accordingly.

Pramble aside, on with the subjects in hand.

The UK FreeBSD Users Group - The State of the Nation and it's future.

1) Perceptions of the group
Helen McCall wrote;
> The freebsd-users list does not help in this, with its "Beer and Curry"
> clique appearing to totally dominate any discussion. Some time ago I
> worked out that it was best to consign any mail containing the words
> "beer" and "curry" straight to /dev/null.
> I find the general ethos in the freebsd world so embarassing that I do not
> like mentioning the name "Freebsd" to my commercial clients, preferring to
> refer to it as "Berkley UNIX" instead. The ethos as seen by myself and
> other women is that of teenage boys with all the naivity of youth, getting
> drunk on lager, filling up with curry, and then as all women know probably
> being sick on the pavement. The name "FreeBSD" tends to conjure up the
> image of little pools of vomit in the street!
> The "Beer and Curry Clique" is alienating a major sector of the Unix/Linux
> world;

Helen, I take it you've never been to a Linux user group meeting? If you had
then you would know that the average age of the attendees is considerably
lower than that of the FreeBSD events I've been to. As far as I'm aware no-one
at any of the events organised has got drunk or been sick on the pavement. I
can't claim that it happened at the London Linux User Group party after Linux
Expo either, but given the high percentage of young males in attendance, I
wouldn't be surprised to learn that it did. Unfortunately I left early, I'm
getting too old for late night partying.

As to why the previous social events have seemed to revolve around meeting in
public houses and going for currys, well that's fairly easy to explain... it's
not some teenage male bravado but rather factors of ubiquity and cheapness. It
would be great to hold a FreeBSD gathering in a coffee shop or pizza parlour as
is the vogue in the US, but unfortunately such places aren't on every street
corner, however pubs are. They make convenient meeting places, are usually easy
to locate with even the sketchiest of directions and with the possible
exception of insisting you buy at least one drink usually don't charge you to
be there. As places to gather before heading off to a restaurent, they are

The prevelance for 'going for a curry' is in the most part not culinary (a few
exceptions aside :-) ), but rather again a matter of convenience. When you have
20+ people (I won't say blokes as at least at both Oxford meals the group has
been mixed) looking to go eat, very few restaurents are geared up to handle
that kind of number. Your choices are really chinese, curry or possibly pizza,
with curry houses having the slightly better success rate, especially at short
notice. Maybe next time we should try and do something different but you try
achieving a concensous with 40 people all wanting food. It's no easy task.

There is of course the additional factor of cost, something that has already
been raised with relation to attending the more organised events.  It would
be great to have organised meals at the hotel but as the Oxford event showed,
the cost of doing so can be quite expensive and a bar to some people attending.
Far better to choose an option that more people are likely to afford, but doing
so does limit your options, going to McDonalds doesn't quite create the
required ambiance and would only facilitate a rapid return to the pub.

My biggest concern over your comments is your assertion that we are alienating
a major sector of the Unix/Linux world. I have to admit to finding that hard to
come to terms with. If we were to invite a Linux user group to one of our
events I think they would be most shocked if we *weren't* going for a curry.
Not that that means we should. Even the London Unix User Group congregates in a
public house before moving on for food, though they have found quite a nice
little pasta place, even if service is a little slow. Our gatherings are really
no different than any other unix user group the world over with the possible
exception that the average age of the attendees is higher.

I welcome your comments.

Simon Clayton wrote;
> I agree totally - when I first joined this list I got two impressions
>         1.  Nothing much happens on it
>         2.  The Newcastle meet was a bunch of mates going for a piss up!
> I'm sure some people will disagree but that is what I thought.  When
> the talk started of the Oxford meet I started to get more interested
> as it sounded a whole level more professional.
Interestingly some numbers came to light at the weekend. The UK user group has
nearly 450 members, the mailing list has 120 subscribers and if you were to
look through the archives you would think that we only consisted of probably
two dozen people.

So the interesting questions are;
 Why do nearly less than 25% of the members subscribe to the list?
 What can we do to get more people involved? (more on that one later)
 What impression does the small number of posters give?

I don't claim to have the answers to these, but I would be interested in
people's opinions. If the list, and the events currently organised there on,
are the focal point of the group, what are the other 75% getting out of the
group and what is their perception of it's worth?

2) Increasing activity and fragmenting the list
Mark Ovens wrote;
> One thing *I* would suggest is that we use this list more; post
> questions here instead of (or as well as) -questions. That would help
> to inject more life into the UG. Much of the time this list is almost
> dead, so newcomers are likely to form the opinion that nothing ever
> happens round here.
> Also, Lee announced the creation of a new list a couple of months ago
> (dogma-chat, or ukug-chat, or something) to which I subscribed
> immediately, set up a mailbox for it, and set up a procmail filter;
> the mailbox is still zero bytes.

Simon Clyton wrote;
> I also think that -questions is far too busy for an average IT
> professional, there are a LOT of mails on that list and I actually
> stayed subscribed for a couple of months but then got bored with
> the questions which had no relevance to me.  This is an eternal
> problem, when I used to read the Novell Instructors forum you got a
> lot of people asking stupid questions which again meant that I stopped
> reading the list.
> My point is that firstly the UKUG list is valid and valuable but IMHO
> if it gets too busy people will unsubscribe - therefore, we also need
> to have a UKUG-questions list where we can start a more active UK
> community.

These two messages help to indicate the dichotomy the user group and list face.
On the one hand we want more people involved, we want to generate more interest
and we want to promote FreeBSD but on the other hand if we do too good a job we
risk the list getting too busy and people unsubscribing. The trick is reaching
a happy medium and still managing to move forward.

Up until now setting up a seperate questions list has tried to be avoided as
we do run the risk of people missing out on important announcements. Some
people don't like to be subscribed to too many list so would have to make a
choice which list to follow. Had we been in that situation prior to the
conference, which list should the announcement have been posted to? User?
Questions? Both? If it had been posted to both for example, no matter how much
you tried to concentrate discussion to one list it would have broken out on 
both making following the discussion very difficult and people only subscribed
to one list possible missing some important points.

Maybe a better solution is to introduce some form of subject tagging? Maybe
putting things like [QUESTION], [CHAT], [MEET], [EVENT], [SUSSEX], etc. would
allow people to ignore (or filter) messages they weren't interested in. It
wouldn't be perfect as one persons question would probably be someone elses
chat but as a starting point to increasing usage of the list whilst avoiding
driving people away, it may help. As with everything else in this group,
discussion is key to getting things adopted.

3) Regional activity / co-ordinators
Tony Watson (i think) wrote;
> The point is quite simple , this list has been set up on a shoe string budget,
> it is hosted @ manchester , its aim was to help. It has grown alot over the
> last few years and the topics covered  have widened. The logical next step is
> to have or ask for regional co-ordinators who will help with input , meetings
> and promotional events.

I would argue that regional co-ordinators is the next logical step, though they
are one possibility. The fact that the subject has been raised more than once
recently would seem to indicate there is some support for it.

But how do we achieve this? The user group has no formal structure and I'm not
sure we need one. That means regional co-ordinators, rather than being
appointed, are going to have to be volunteers. With that comes a number of

How do you split the country up? The Linux User Groups have that problem. Where
I am in West Sussex there are two, one for Sussex itself and one for Brighton.
However, based on their respective mailing list traffic, neither is 
particularly active. We run the real risk of the same happening to us. Of
course, that is dependant on us finding people who want to do this. We all have
lives to live, livings to earn and other interests besides FreeBSD (for the
record, mines flying sport kites) and only a finite amount of free time. For
regional groups to work, momentum needs to be maintained and that means putting
in the time to make it happen.

But enough of the negative, what's need is some positive action. So I hereby
put myself forward as someone willing to do some regional co-ordiantion for the
south of England. Personally I see that encompassing Kent, Sussex, Surrey and
Hampshire but I am open to being told it's everything south of Carlisle :-)
I'll post a seperate message to organise the first meet.

So having done my bit, anyone else fool enough to step forward? Offers on an
email please.

4) The way foward
This is by far the easiest section... the way forward will be directed by the
members, as a whole. People may organise things but if no-one wants to attend, 
then they will fizzle and not happen. We can all have great plans but without
support they are nothing. But conversely the user group can never be all things
to all people so there will be occasions when not everyone can or wants to be
involved. Just because that happens doesn't mean it's a bad thing or that
people shouldn't organise them. If we did that we wouldn't move forward at all
and that definitely isn't a good thing either.

There is probably plenty more that could be said on this subject and I'm sure
there is loads I meant to say / forgot / left out, but this email has gone on
long enough. I welcome everyone's comments, both privately and on the list and
hope that if nothing else it acts as a catalyst to getting us all talking more
and moving FreeBSD's prospects in the UK forward.

Let the flames begin :-)

Neil Ford
neil at ourshack.com / neil at binky.demon.co.uk

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