At the MVP Summit last week, I was talking with fellow Dallas-area tweep Sean McCown about our local SQL Server user group membership. I think our group is unique because of its sheer size; we typically have between 70 and 90 people at our monthly meetings, with a mailing list that goes out to between 600 and 800 people. So the question came up, whom should we consider as members? Should members include anyone on our list, or only the regular attendees?
Technical communities, by nature, have fuzzy edges. People migrate in and out of them all the time, with a very small core constituency and much larger group of folks with varying degrees of participation at any given time. There’s nothing wrong with that; people participate as they have time, opportunity, and desire to do so, and those things can vary greatly in a person’s life. The transient nature of these groups tends to be even more profound with larger groups, since it’s easier for individuals to slip in and out with relative anonymity. To further complicate things, the intertoobz make it very easy for individuals to participate online with user communities worldwide. I’m a perfect example of this; I am a “member” of two dozen or so local SQL Server user groups from coast to coast, and I participate in their mailing lists even though I’ve never physically attended their meetings. So as you can tell, the question of who is and is not a member of a given user group can be difficult to answer.
Why Does It Matter?
For some groups, it doesn’t. In smaller, less-formal user groups, there is very little overhead, and the question of group membership is rather trivial. But in larger or more active groups, the issue of whom to include as an official group member can be more than just an academic metric. Larger groups frequently have officers or board members to elect, money to collect and manage, events to run, rules to enforce, and perhaps even legal matters to handle. To oversee all of that, there must be a clear way to identify which members of the community have a vote or are eligible for certain positions or responsibilities.
How Is It Done?
I’m sure it’s a little different for each group, but for the Dallas SQL Server user group we take a very open approach. We consider anyone who is part of our mailing list to be a group member, with full voting rights. We don’t have issues that require voting very often (normally just the yearly board elections) and have found this approach to be the most effective for us. Further, we don’t arbitrarily restrict who may run for our local board, as the size of our group tends to make this a self-governing process – it’s highly unlikely that someone could walk in and get elected to the board without first having demonstrated some leadership of and loyalty to the group.
How Do YOU Do It?
So now that I’ve shared how we handle our SQL Server user group membership, I’d like to hear from other user group leaders to find out what others are doing. Do you simply use your open mailing list, or do you have a more formal identification process? Do you charge an arbitrary membership fee to see apart the members from everybody else? Any pitfalls or successes you’d care to share in the approach you use? Feel free to ping me offline if you’d rather share these details privately.