I recently returned from the North East User Group Leadership Summit. This was a day-long even hosted by Microsoft and O'Reilly aimed at gathering the organizers of user groups in the northeast to discuss the common issues that affect user groups. The event was run in an "unconference" style that allows the attendees to propose the topics that are interesting to them and then discuss them with other interested people. Afterwards, there was a reception.
So much for the facts. Was it worth the time?
In short: absolutely. The range of user groups attending was large - from those with 8 regular monthly attendees to those with hundreds. Those who had successful groups and innovative ideas were happy to share with those who were starting out. Also, the unconference style is perfect for a group of natural self-organizers like user group leaders. I'll be posting some of the lessons I've taken out of the unconference in separate posts. (You can see the summaries that came out of the sessions on their wiki).
However, a large part of the benefit of the conference was the networking that was taking place - and it seemed to me this was especially true for those groups located in the Boston area. As the reception in the evening wore on, one could see clusters of related groups forming. I overheard these groups talking about how to share resources, speakers, and more. Connections in the Boston tech community that didn't exist before have sprung up due to this event - people who are passionate about the Boston tech community now have formed a community.
I'd like to see these same connections form around the country. This type of event benefits particularly from having many local meetings as opposed to one national one, due to the benefits of simply getting tech leaders in the area to meet and exchange information in ways they might not do if when siloed into their particular communities. I think it fills a need that other attempts to get community members to cross technologies boundaries don't.
So I suggest you go and make this happen in your area - I think you'll find that all you need is a space and a small amount of sponsorship. If you're in New York City or the surrounding area, let me know - we are already starting to plan for one here. If you'd like to talk about the details of planning one in your area I'd be happy to talk about that as well.