Remember a day, a day before today, a time when user groups roamed the land, basking in the warm valleys and gazing into what could have been a bright future? In the various regional editions of Micro Publishing News magazine back in the mid to late 1990s, we used to be able to fill entire tabloid-size pages with news of user group meetings and events.

Over the years, membership in many user groups has waned, often to the point of non-existence, and many have vanished. In some cases, this was understandable; but in others, it’s hard not to get the sense that something very real has been lost.

I never really thought about this much until lunch today at the Graphic Users Association (GUA) conference here in Vancouver. For those keeping score, this used to be the Creo Users Group, and was renamed after Creo was acquired by Kodak. Attendance here is—I would guess—about 200. The most common theme of why people attend user group conferences? “The product managers are here and I can corner them,” is the most frequent response—often expressed that way verbatim. Printers who have problems or questions about their products can easily get help, not only from the people who made the products in the first place, but also from other users. In one session, a presenter was unable to answer a fairly wonky question, but other audience members chimed in with answers. At lunch, users of Kodak products conferred, comparing and contrasting their experiences. They all decided that life would be easier without print buyers. (Yes, well, be careful what you wish for...) Business cards were frequently exchanged. Friendships were likely forged and, who knows, maybe even a love connection or two. Well, okay, maybe not....

Because I am a trouble-maker and a rabble rouser, I occasionally roused the rabble by asking about the extent to which attendees take the interactive user group experience online—that is, to social media. Do they find online resources useful? And, truth be told, few seemed all that sanguine about it. Granted, this is a fairly self-selected sample; if you take the time and expense to travel some distance to a user group conference, chances are you find more value in it than staying at the office and tweeting or LinkedInning.

It’s tempting to think, “Oh, those Luddites. They’ll avoid anything online.” But, you know, that’s not it at all. The general feeling is that, when it comes to getting answers to highly technical questions, it’s just easier and more effective in person. That is, often it takes some degree of effort to even figure out what the asker is asking, and that kind of investigative probing is a lot more difficult in the context of a 140-character tweet or even a LinkedIn Answers question. This also especially the case when so many of our industry terms can have different meanings. Anyone who has used an online tech support site that similarly forces you to explain a problem in a very limited number of characters has also felt this frustration.

This is not to say that “Twitter is bad!” (I have enough followees that are increasingly convincing me of that) or that “You should go to every user group event you can!” Rather it’s just that each medium has its place in the overall mix, and that every medium has its advantages and disadvantages, and that this is why we ignore any one of the slices of the media pie at our peril. And user groups are yet another one of those slices, and often a very tasty one at that.