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Personal Computing: Stuck? Consider a Computer User Group

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Linking to someone else’s Web site by placing its content inside a frame at your own Web site can get you in trouble for copyright infringement. Putting another company’s trademark in the “metatag” for your Web site as a way of attracting visitors is a trademark violation.
If you send e-mail at work, your employer can legally intercept and read it. Or if you send out unsolicited bulk e-mail, or “spam,” your Internet service provider has the legal right to cut off your service.
These were among the pieces of advice offered by a lawyer who specializes in information technology law, Mark A. Murtha, at a recent meeting of the Philadelphia Area Computer Society (PACS). PACS is one of hundreds of computer user groups — volunteer nonprofit organizations whose members meet to further their knowledge of computers, help one another with computer problems, and socialize.

User Groups in Today’s World

Computer user groups are as old as computers themselves but, ironically, as computers in recent years have become more popular and easier to use, user groups have hit hard times. Membership in many groups is down considerably from a peak period in the late 1980s, and the number of groups has decreased. Two years ago, the Boston Computer Society, once the world’s largest computer user group, folded.
The Internet is partly responsible for the decline in user groups, since you can now obtain information and advice as easily as firing up your Web browser. So is there still a place for user groups in today’s environment? Absolutely, judging from the number of people who showed up to the PACS meeting and the quality of the individual special-interest group meetings they attended.
Along with learning about Internet law, PACS members were able to view a demonstration of the latest pre-release version of Microsoft Windows 2000, the operating system Microsoft is working on as a replacement for both Windows 98 and Windows NT. They could also listen to a presentation about Linux, the free Unix operating system that many feel will be the strongest competition to Microsoft Windows in the years ahead.
PACS members also watched demonstrations of how to install a newfangled hard drive slide-out tray, visited Web sites where you can do technical stock analysis, viewed the genealogy program Family Tree Index, and saw how to create Web pages using “Web-safe” colors with the Mac version of the program Painter 5. And they discussed handheld computers, computerized photo editing, how to connect an electronic keyboard to a PC, and recommended programs for the ancient Commodore 64.
“Computer user groups help people cut through the clutter,” says Bill Achuff, co-director of the User Group Alliance (http://www.user-groups.com/uga), an informal organization that offers services to individual user groups. “User groups provide trusted, digested information,” echoes Fred Showker, director of the User Group Network (http://www.user-groups.com), another association of user groups.

Common Features of User Groups

Though each user group has its own personality, there some features you’ll find in most. User groups have a history, for example, of members helping one another-it’s not unusual for one member to visit the home or business of another member to help him out of a computer jam at no fee. Many user groups involve themselves in public-service activities as well. PACS in Philadelphia, for instance, is currently helping a school build a computer lab.
PACS, like many user groups, publishes in its newsletter a list of volunteers you can phone or e-mail who have expertise in specific areas. Still the knowledge members of any user group will have about computers varies widely. Some members will be information technology professionals, while others are neophytes still learning how to use a mouse.
Ultimately, computer user groups put a human face on all the bits and bytes. “It’s the humanity that can’t be duplicated in an electronic environment,” says Reed Gustow, president of PACS.

How to Find a User Group

There are a number of ways to find a user group that will meet your needs. First you need to know that some user groups are targeted toward both business and home users, while others are strictly business.
At the Web site of the Association of Personal Computer User Groups (http://www.apcug.org, 914/876-6678), an umbrella organization, you can view a listing of user groups in the US by state, in Canada, and in 18 other countries. You can also phone the organization and punch in your zipcode, area code, or state for an automated voice response.
User Groups on the Web (http://easyrsvp.com/ugotw), a Web site run by an Australian named Ash Nallawalla, lets you search for user groups by specialization, such as Windows, Macintosh, OS/2, Unix/Linux, and mainframe.
Finally, check with local computer stores. Personnel there may be able to put you in touch with the right user group for you.Reid Goldsborough is a syndicated columnist and author of the book, “Straight Talk About the Information Superhighway.” He can be reached at reidgold@netaxs.com or http://members.home.net/reidgold.
This article is from thePMA Newsletterfor March, 1999, and is reprinted with permission of Publishers Marketing Association.

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