The world's largest Macintosh user group, Berkeley-based BMUG, recently set up a second bulletin board system across the country in Boston. Boston, of course, is home to the other big Mac user group, the Macintosh arm of the Boston Computer Society (BCS). BMUG's Boston BBS arose because of internal political problems within BCS that caused the resignation of the volunteer sysops on the BCS Mac BBS. We thought a brief look at this story might shed light on problems that can affect volunteer user groups and suggest ways of avoiding similar problems.
The Boston sysop team left BCS because of frustrations over BCS internal politics and lack of BCS support for online services. The BCS team had cooperated with BMUG on joint promotions that directly benefited the BCS Mac BBS to the tune of several thousand dollars. Nevertheless, the Mac group as a whole was running a serious deficit. The recently-appointed BCS president, Robert Grenoble, wasn't pleased and labeled the sysops' activities an "embarrassment" to the BCS. It's unclear whether he felt the relaxed style of BMUG was unbefitting the BCS image, or whether his objection was to some violation of administrative protocol within the BCS hierarchy.
At any rate, the sysops' resignations set off a chain of events that raised a furor in the Boston online community. The BCS employee sent to take over management of the DOS-based Mac bulletin board soon began deleting messages critical of the BCS, including private email messages. He reduced the access of many remaining Mac activists, then when some of those volunteers resigned in protest, he deleted their resignation messages, which set off yet another round of resignations.
BCS President Grenoble, when questioned by a local newspaper on this issue, was quoted as saying there was no censorship, just deletion of "disruptive" and deliberately inflammatory messages by people using the system for personal, and juvenile, grudges. However, since Grenoble himself doesn't use bulletin boards or email, he probably failed to understand what a passionate response the message deletions would evoke (or how quickly the whole issue would probably have blown over, had the so-called inflammatory messages simply been ignored).
As computers become more a business tool and less a homebrew hobby, many user groups are having a hard time defining roles and rules. Can one group meet the increasingly diverse demands of the corporate user, the home user, the novice user, the power user? How do you attract and keep volunteers, while keeping them under some semblance of organization? How do online services fit into the over-all user group mission? What is this mission anyway? User groups need to come up with good answers to convince people they're worth the price of a membership.
People interested in comparing the online answers from BCS and BMUG can call (via modem):
BCS Mac BBS -- 617/864-0712
BMUG Boston BBS -- 617/721-5840
Planet BMUG BBS (Berkeley) -- 510/849-2684
BCS Mac is a DOS-based TBBS board. The BMUG systems run on FirstClass. Although you can call BMUG in command-line mode with a regular communications program, the FirstClass client software is free from most online services, or from various Internet sites, including sumex-aim.stanford.edu (archived as info-mac/comm/first-class-user-207.hqx).
[As a quick disclaimer, Roz was involved in the unpleasantness on the BCS Mac BBS, and is currently working with the BMUG Boston BBS. -Adam]