Evolving a User Group

Evolving a User Group

One of the coolest things I did in 2005 was starting a user group. It’s been about 11 months since we started it up, and yesterday’s meeting was absolutely fantastic: a marathon 5 hour session! It was one of our best meetings, and it was compelling enough that a bystander asked if he could participate…a group first! We had an eclectic mix of people: a patent lawyer, a veteran video guy / media artist, a photographer, a tech student, a IT guy, a professor, and a business guy among others.

I’m continually amazed at how well these unplanned, informal, completely ad-hoc meetings run themselves. But maybe I shouldn’t be, because we’ve inadvertently created a self-selecting culture of dialogue that transcends our original focus on New Media.

The Original Charter

Some background: As a freelancer I was feeling a bit isolated from other creatives, so I started looking for interesting user groups to join. However, I found I wasn’t too keen on the typical user group experience. The few meetings I’d been to had gone something like this: watch a presentation, fire off some questions, then close in to start spraying each other with business cards. It all seemed so random!

Back in the early 1990s, I was an Apple II Graphic Forum Chat Host on what became America Online. Here, I learned that the best chats were ones that were well hosted and a little goofy. A good host goes out of his/her way to introduce people to each other, provide context for the party, and ensure that everyone is feeling comfortable with as few side-conversations as possible. A good host orients newcomers and maintains the flow of information at a comfortable level, but largely keeps out of the way when things are going fine by themselves. Why couldn’t a user group operate like this as well?

Before starting the group, I wanted to make sure that we attracted the kind of people who liked dialogue, were actually practioners in their field, and were excited by the prospect of sharing their work. I particularly wanted to avoid business networking as the primary draw. Here’s the guidelines we came up with; they were originally designed to attract New Media artist and designers:

  • We are all experienced practioners of our craft
  • We all have stories and experiences to share
  • We make a commitment to meeting in person
  • We’re not primarily a business networking / job hunting group
  • We engage in open-minded dialogue, and we aren’t shy about it

Since we started meeting in February 2005, I’ve noticed other themes emerging from the group:

  • We are conscientious about making new members feel welcome, rather than let them flounder in a sea of unfamiliar faces.
  • We genuinely enjoy sharing, communicating, and learning from each other.
  • We all value empowerment and learning.
  • We really are interested in how we’re all individually making our way through the world.

I’m not sure how these emergent themes came to be…was it random luck with the people we first attracted? I suspect a the major factor was the value placed on group dialogue from the very beginning. The word “dialogue” itself was chosen over “conversation” or “chat” because I wanted it to have more of a sense of commitment. In retrospect, I wonder if this is why our first round of people all had film or theater backgrounds :-) By contrast, many user groups dangle the “informational carrot” in form of a structured speaker/presentation, leaving the networking part happen by itself. The snack table becomes the social draw during this phase, when really it should be an activity area to encourage fruitful experimentation and conversation.

Beyond New Media

Toward the end of 2005, our meetings shrank to a small core group of 2-3 people. Everyone was busy closing out the year with presents, and our meetings became less about New Media and more about anything that was interesting. Art, History, Technology, Politics, Religion, Education… all were fair game, but all were also discussed within the context of our own personal histories and experiences.

Since we weren’t really sticking to New Media and Interactive Design any longer, we experimentally started inviting people from outside the art/design fields to check out the meetings. Self-selection is once again seeing action: the people who have come to the meetings have been people excited about ideas, possibilities, personal histories and sharing practical experience. It’s all quite remarkable.

Make Your Own Group!

If this all sounds great and you want such a group in your neck of the woods, here’s a list of things that I think are important:

  • You need a host. The job of the host is to provide continuity for everyone attending the meeting. The host makes everyone feel welcome, and ensures that conversation remains interesting and continuous for as many people as possible. The host sets the tone for the meeting and for the conversation, then gets out of the way. When I first started, I was a little surprised at how quickly people looked to me for guidance…duh, I had sent out the original email :-) It sometimes falls on me to make executive decisions about meeting times, agendas, etc, but other than that there isn’t a lot required.

  • You need a clear statement of purpose, covering the topic and the method by which you’ll interact. For us, we started out by emphasizing face-to-face informal meetings, dialogue, and forbidding overt business networking. It is OK, though, to discuss our own business experiences in context of personal history. Business tends to happen afterwards as a natural progression.

  • You need to put the word out that you’re starting a discussion group, including your statement. I posted a single message on a couple of mailing lists I belong to. I’m planning on trying places like Craig’s List, bookstore cafe bulletin boards, local colleges and universities, libraries, and the local weekly newspaper. So far, though, we seem to be growing by word of mouth, which is just fine.

  • You need seed people: It just takes two more dedicated people: you need least one other person who really enjoys dialoguing on a personal, authentic level. Remember that dialogue is a two-way process: speaking and listening. For active participants, this gives people someone to talk to. For active listeners, this provides food for thought.

  • Your group’s long-term objective is to create more hosts. Everyone in the group ideally becomes a host, sharing the common desire to make newcomers feel comfortable and to help steer the conversation along interesting paths that engage the maximum number of people. Everyone seems to find their place eventually, happy to contribute.

  • You’ll have to provide tangible proof of group activity, and it should be easily accessible. For the first six months after we started meeting informally, I wrote up detailed meeting notes of every encounter and posted them to our mailing list. This is so people can see what’s been going on, and most importantly see what they’re missing by not attending. I also post the meeting notes to our website, so people can see how many meetings we’ve had over the year as an active group.

  • You’ll need a place to have meetings, and they must be fairly frequent. When we first started out, I figured we would meet every 4-6 weeks. On a whim, I decided to be available every week to meet anyone, anywhere. The reason for this was to provide more opportunities for interaction, which I thought would be critical to getting the group to gel. Also, I wanted to make the barrier to meeting as low as possible, especiallly for newcomers. Once people get a sense of what our meetings are like, they’ll know whether it’s something of value to them. Our schedule is now every 1 to 2 weeks, and the cool thing is they require little preparation advance preparation. We meet whenever 2 or 3 people can get together, and choose the closest location to everyone.

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p>I consider hosting to be the most important role in a group. It’s about nurturing, selecting, defense, and development of all group assets for the benefit of all participants. It’s a position of soft leadership. And remember, you will reap what you sow…that applies on so many levels.

Looking Forward

I’m looking forward this year to seeing more creative generalists from all walks of life. Musicians, librarians, educators, painters, artisan craftsmen, gourmet cooks… anyone who is passionate about what they create or what they do can join, so long as they can respect our rules of conduct.

At some point, I think we’ll probably experience some growing pains, but I’m not that worried. Our core experience, the meeting, probably will scale to about 9 people at once before we start to get competing simultaneous discussions. We should be so lucky to have this problem :-)