Originally Published: Monday, 1 May 2000 Author: Tom Dominico, Jr.
Published to: featured_articles/Featured Articles Page: 1/1 - [Std View]

Culture Clash

As Linux slowly moves into the mainstream, several distinct classes of Linux users are emerging. At the top of the spectrum, we have the "die hard" users, those who have been using some Unix variant for years. At the low end, we have those who have picked up a copy of Linux at the local CompUSA, and probably plan on dual-booting between it and Windows.

As Linux slowly moves into the mainstream, several distinct classes of Linux users are emerging. At the top of the spectrum, we have the "die hard" users, those who have been using some Unix variant for years. At the low end, we have those who have picked up a copy of Linux at the local CompUSA, and probably plan on dual-booting between it and Windows. There is a vast gap between these two ends of the spectrum, and when they meet, there's sure to be a "culture clash."

I think that the community is of two minds when it comes to the future of Linux. Some of the "die hard" users would prefer that it remain a hacker's OS, to be used only by those with the time and inclination to poke about in the guts of their system. On the other side of the fence, many people are hoping that Linux will soon become a viable desktop alternative for "Joe User." This is what companies such as Corel are betting on, with offerings specifically tailored for new users.

Personally, I hope they're right. I believe everyone deserves a free, stable OS, not just hard-core hackers. However, the truth is that Linux is not yet to the point where all necessary configuration can be done via point-and-click. Sooner or later, a new user is going to have to edit some configuration files, and that means venturing into the world of HOWTOs, man pages, and so on. These sort of documents are geared towards more skilled users. New users may venture onto IRC in search of assistance, only to be pointed to a HOWTO or man page. Why? Because that's part of the existing Linux culture.

In an ideal world, all new users would be resourceful and willing to go through lots of documentation in order to find answers to their questions. However, we must remember where these people are coming from. They've become dependent on the operating system to hold their hand. They probably haven't cracked open some documentation since the "good old days" of DOS. When they go on IRC in search of help, they are probably confused (and perhaps resentful) of the fact that no one seems willing to help, but rather points them to what they consider to be confusing documentation. Again, I agree that the best thing would be for them to learn to use the existing documentation, but I don't think this is entirely realistic. If we are serious about taking over the desktop, we must be willing to make a few concessions.

The best solution would be to create more user-friendly documentation. I commend sites like LinuxNewbie.org for their efforts in this area. When new users are looking for help, they should be pointed in this direction. As time passes, they will become more knowledgeable, and the man pages/HOWTOs will become a more valuable resource. Pointing a newbie to a particularly technical HOWTO accomplishes nothing except scaring them away from Linux. If we truly intend to embrace and accept the average user, this is the road we will need to take. So next time you're helping out in #linuxhelp or another similar channel, keep these thoughts in mind. Realize that they are trying to enter a culture that is totally foreign to them, and respect their desire to learn by pointing them to the appropriate sources. Telling them to "RTFM" does nothing but keep Linux out of the hands of the masses, and I for one don't want to see that happen. Linux should be accessible to everyone, not just an elite few.

Tom Dominico (tomd@linux.com) is a programmer, database administrator, and Linux convert. Cursed with insomnia, he spends his sleepless nights chatting on IRC, tweaking his Linux box, and reading everything he can get his hands on.