An artifact from The Ihnatko Archives. It’s my own artwork: this appeared on the back of a tee shirt. It also represents a pretty bold case study illustrating how great organizations can crumble.
Let’s say that your Mom’s next-door neighbor has a big riding mower, and truth be told, he really enjoys driving it around. So much so that when he’s done cutting his own half-acre, he’s still got a lot of counter-horticultural bloodlust left inside him and he goes ahead and cuts your Mom’s lawn, too.
How do you react to this? Do you:
(a) Thank him kindly for being so nice, and also surprise him with a $50 gift card to the Outback Steakhouse sometime during the summer as a tangible and tasty symbol of your sincere gratitude? Or do you
(b) Stand in his mower’s path just as he’s about to enter your Mom’s property, wave him to turn off the engine, and then make him sign a liability waiver? And then ask him for proof that he’s bonded and insured? And insist that he stop and phone you before entering the sunny side of the yard, so you can drive over and verify that he’s raised the blades to prevent burnouts? And ask him if he really thinks that a tee shirt and shorts conveys the sort of polished appearance that properly represents your Mom and her household?
The first attitude is the reason why the Boston Computer Society was the largest computer user group in the world for the first fifteen years of its existence. The second one is the reason why it died a deathly death just shy of its 20th anniversary.
I was an active volunteer with the BCS’ Macintosh special-interest group for many years and I can honestly say that it was one of the happiest chapters of my life. The BCS•Mac’s Somerville office was like a clubhouse, like Ralph Kramden and Ed Norton’s Raccoon Lodge. You’d drop by just about anytime you wanted, and you’d discover cool people to hang out with, cooler hardware to play with, and some jobs that needed doing.
Example: I came in one afternoon and discovered that Apple had donated a 300 dpi (!!!) scanner. Awesome. I unboxed it, hooked it up to the lab’s Mac II, and spent the whole afternoon playing with the scanning software. I got a whole mess of experience in digitizing photos, the BCS•Mac got their new hardware installed and a whole drawer full of graphics and images scanned…it was one of those mutually-beneficial relationships.
I mean, hell…they even let me be an artist. I have the lumpy physique and the Skinner box-influenced personality that instantly communicate “Of course I can figure out why your your office WiFi base station isn’t showing up anywhere.” But you don’t really look at me and think “Yes, that’s the guy to design our organization’s tee shirts.” And yet, that’s what I did, for nearly every Macworld Expo.
This thing was different from scanning photos or setting up a network. Actual money was involved. But still, it was a completely low-key operation. When an Expo was about a month away, I’d kick a couple of ideas around with the leader of the Mac group, draw up the winning design in MacDraw or Illustrator, take it to Harvard Square to be rendered on a then-exotic 1200 dpi phototypesetter, and then go to Chinatown and drop it off at the silkscreeners’ shop. Two weeks later, boxes of Hanes Beefy-T’s littered the office. Thoughout, there was the same supportive attitude that the BCS brought to every job that needed to be done. If a volunteer was eager to jump onto a handcar and start pumping, then the leadership’s job was to grease up the rails and get out of their way.
As usual, there was never even any need to get the central office involved. The central administrative offices of the Boston Computer Society were located downtown in offices at One Center Plaza but really, the dozens and dozens of BCS Special Interest Groups more or less ran themselves. Center Plaza’s chief duty was to divvy up the annual membership fees and other sources of income into the subgroups’ operational budgets. Occasionally, they could also be counted upon to bail SIG leaders out of jail when they were off representing the BCS at a trade show and they got confused as to what level of alcohol saturation constituted a DUI in that part of the country. Overall, though, it was a hands-off relationship.
But a funny thing happened to the group in the Nineties. If you wanted to be charitable about it, you could say that Center Plaza’s salaried directors saw an opportunity to evolve the BCS from a shoeless nonprofit into a true educational institution and a valuable consumer brand, which would in turn guarantee that the Boston Computer Society could continue its important mission into the year 2000 and beyond. And therefore, for the first time in the group’s history, they insisted on running the operation like a formal, hierarchical, accountable business.
The uncharitable — but probably more accurate — way to describe the overall change would be to note a universal truth: the only thing more annoying than an organization that requires your constant attention and input is one that runs just fine without your interference, thank you very much. Wreaking untold havoc via petty, random, and incessant meddling is much, much more satisfying. At least then you can see that you’re having an impact on the operation, you know?
The Mac Group was the Boston Computer Society’s superstar performer. But technically, the BCS•Mac’s money came from Center Plaza. So if the salaried employees at HQ wanted to give themselves the pleasant, nougaty, leadership-ish sensations of being an absolutely essential part of the BCS•Mac’s success, they found an easy way to go about it: they demanded that all Mac Group expenses greater than, say, nine dollars be submitted to Center Plaza and be subjected to a formal approval process.
Every Macworld Expo, the tee shirts sold out and made money for the group. No worries there. Regardless, our silkscreeners’ invoice had to be approved by Central Plaza before the shirts could be printed. Here, my sorrows began…and my career as a tee shirt designer ended.
I thought a Batman-themed tee shirt would be a damned cool thing for the 1995 summer Expo. The first “Batman” sequel was about to be released and the posters and ads were all over the place. I designed a two-sided tee, with a parody of the Batman logo on the front. And on the back, I created one of my most satisfying pieces of artwork ever: Batman, perched confidently and menacingly over Boston’s landmark CITGO sign in Kenmore Square. Very dramatic up-angle shot, with his cape spilling and flapping over the front of the sign. I’d morphed the CITGO triangle into an approximation of the BCS•Mac’s sigil.
I had a few weeks to put the design together and I finished my Adobe Illustrator artwork well ahead of schedule. “Awesome,” the head of BCS•Mac pronounced. “We can get this to the silkscreeners just as soon as Center Plaza cuts us a check.”
Two weeks later, we still hadn’t heard back from the mothership.
Y’see…there had been Meetings.
“We can’t allow you to produce this shirt,” they finally proclaimed. “Batman is a registered trademark. Do you think you can get a signed clearance from DC Comics?”
I wasn’t entirely certain that I could, no. But I wasn’t the least bit worried that I’d actually need one, either. I knew enough about intellectual property laws to know that so long as you could provide a trademark/copyright holder’s attorney with enough reasons to advise against a lawsuit, you were bulletproof. A low print run, a one-off design, modifications of the source material, and a nod towards Fair Use was all it took. Any sane lawyer would look at this shirt and realize that there was no money in this prosecution…assuming that they could even win.
But this time, it wasn’t the sanity of someone else’s attorneys I needed to worry about.
“Look, it isn’t undeniably Batman,” I said, fairly. “It’s merely a Batman-ish superhero. You could just as easily make a case that it’s Moon Knight, or Spawn…or really, any other cape-and-cowl superhero.”
“We’re not really comfortable with your using the CITGO sign, either,” BCS Central replied.
As the clock ticked down and Macworld Expo loomed closer and closer, Center Plaza fired off micro-edict after micro-edict. From “Batman can’t be the dominant figure” — damn, out went the back-panel art I was so proud of — to “You have to round off the points of his ‘ears’ to make him more distinctly ‘not Batman’,” to “You need to add editorial content to the design, to give it extra legal protection” to…to…
Well, all the way to my vowing “If I live to be a THOUSAND, I will NEVER design another tee shirt for the Boston Computer Society!!!”
I think the thing that finally broke my spirit was their testy demand that the shirt also include the Boston Computer Society’s formal mission statement. My dear reader, if you’ve ever made use of the phrase “Are you f***ing SH***ING me?!?” then well, you have me to thank. I invented it right there on the phone, when no other response seemed suitable.
Over the next two or three years, One Center Plaza alienated so many of its most productive volunteers through endless bureaucracy and mindless micromanagement that all of the people who were actually keeping the subgroups running got fed up and left.
Yup, myself included. The tee shirt thing was just the first push down a long slide. I stopped doing artwork, stopped writing for the monthly magazine, stopped pitching in to help run the monthly meetings. Ultimately, I even stopped hanging around the Mac Group’s office. It wasn’t my clubhouse anymore. Spontaneity and excitement and a sense of purpose had been driven out, replaced by rules, forms, and a deadlined proposal process that provided ample time for lots and lots and lots of valuable discussion and feedback on every idea.
The functions of these active volunteers were usually taken over by people who needed to be paid, and who didn’t work half as hard. Thus, my vow to never design another shirt for the BCS was ultimately in vain. I had barely not designed the next two shirts (I was very pleased to note that they sucked, and went mostly unsold) before the Boston Computer Society died a deathly death.
The rise of the Web certainly contributed to the BCS’ collapse. All of a sudden, computer users could get advice from strangers without having to drive through the snow to a lecture hall at MIT on a specific day of the month. But I’m convinced that a scaled-back group would have endured to this very day. Because a user group doesn’t need to be run like a business. It needs to be run as though the organization sees volunteers as assets, and not liabilities.
Better, they should see them as people.
Postscript: and of course, the BCS does endure, in the form of BMAC. For all intents and purposes, this is the Boston Computer Society Macintosh User Group monthly meeting. Same place, same schedule, many of the same people, even. Except that these meetings are actually happening. Which is the best revenge of all, don’t you think?
Postscript to the Postscript: I was suddenly reminded of the true fetid cherry that topped this whole miserable experience: the silkscreening job was awful. I’d rendered those gradients to print at a specific dot-screen angle to make for smooth transitions without any loss of detail. The yellow logo on the front had been specially trapped with a holdout, to make for a nice, intense color.
I got the first shirt. The back was printed like mud. The front…well, the front was comical. To get a nice, intense yellow without the black fabric bleeding through, my artwork called for the logo to be printed in white with a thin layer of yellow on top of it. That’s a standard trick. Instead, the screener had thrown away the “white” layer and kept adding layer after layer after layer of yellow. This had two effects: (1) Indeed, the black didn’t bleed through a bit, but (2) the logo contained at least an eighth of an inch of built-up color and caused the whole front to pucker and sag.
This was way out of character for our usual silkscreener in Chinatown. If I handed them a design that they knew wasn’t going to print properly, they’d mentor me through the changes that needed to be made. If my design was “close enough,” they’d find a way to make it work. And the shirts were always perfect.
Ah. But the BCS•BAT shirt wasn’t printed by our usual guys. No, see, BCS Central had insisted that the job go out for competitive bids. You know…to make sure it was a fair and open process.
The winner of this Fair and Open Process? Some friend of a BCS boardmember.
So you’ll understand why I wasn’t exactly teary-eyed when the Boston Computer Society finally went out of business. I’d tell the story of how this new regime fired me from the monthly newsletter, but (a) it’s a long tale, and (b) it’s not possible to make the BCS central management look more like a bunch of paltroons than I already have.