Originally Published: Friday, 14 July 2000 Author: Stan Shivell
Published to: featured_articles/Featured Articles Page: 1/1 - [Printable]

Linux Users of the Third Kind

Most new converts enjoy every minute they use Linux. With the recent surge of media coverage, it is apparent that the Linux locomotive won't be running out of steam anytime soon. Regardless of what the media may want everyone to think, even the most naive user knows that nothing comes without problems.

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I've noticed a trend within the Linux community, a trend which is growing at an exponential rate. Open source is catching on, and folks are migrating from other operating systems to Linux.

Most new converts enjoy every minute they use Linux. With the recent surge of media coverage, it is apparent that the Linux locomotive won't be running out of steam anytime soon. Regardless of what the media may want everyone to think, even the most naive user knows that nothing comes without problems.

One problem new users to Linux encounter is that an important part of the Linux "process" is reading. If you've worked the trenches of tech support, you know that users are reluctant to read documentation.

I've concluded that there are three kinds of users: the "Do-it yourself" users, the "I tried can someone help me" users, or the "Help! I don't like the docs" users. I will focus on the third kind of user.

The third kind of user tends to absolutely refuse to read the documentation. It isn't my intention to discourage these users from Linux, but to educate Linux advocates. Hopefully, this may also educate this type of user.

What is wrong with not wanting to read the documentation? This may appear to be a superficial question with a very simple answer: nothing. However, there is more to this than that. This is a problem because if the user doesn't read the docs, the user will go straight to the Linux community for help.

What is the problem with this? If you haven't spent time helping users out, you might not see the problem, but when you get asked "How do I configure my modem" or "How do I configure my sound card" 70 times a day, you start to question your motivations. I can't count the times I have secretly grumbled "RTFM" while helping out a user.

"So, tell the user where to find the docs. What's so hard about that?" you ask.

I have never gotten angry because I've had to point a newbie to documentation. However, it is insulting when I spend my time looking for the correct docs only to hear, "I don't want to read the manual."

This reluctance to read the documents may not be because they don't want to, but from seeing how well cases like these are documented, it only leads me to believe that maybe they did try and were very discouraged.

Depending on what the user reads first, he can either embrace the documentation or shun it. If the user's first issue was something trivial like setting up a sound card or a modem, then the user will probably like reading the documentation. However if the user were trying to do something in which the documentation spews techno-babble in non-sensical paragraphs only the author would understand, it's easy to see why the user would not want to read the documentation. First impressions are important, especially when we are dealing with a point-and-click generation, and reading to solve problems is generally very foreign to this crowd. Any excuse to not have to do it can and will be used, especially when we are dealing with a text-oriented environment such as Linux.

It would first appear that it's the stubborn user who should be blamed for this, However, I think it's possible to blame ourselves. In many instances, Linux is portrayed as the greatest thing since sliced bread. However, it's rare to see anyone mention the amount of work required to get Linux running properly.

Depending on your skill level when you enter into the Linux community, it can be anything from a breeze to a nightmare. From proprietary hardware to at times less than adequate documentation, it is tough. It's especially difficult if you are a computer novice who has been drawn into the community. The inherent problem isn't the newbies, but rather how the Linux community advocates Linux.

Good advocacy starts with the whole truth. Imagine if someone were to offer you a free glazed donut. Mmm... donut. Would you eat it? What if the donut were filled with jelly, but you weren't informed. Would you be angry? In most cases, no. It's an added bonus. But there are people out there who are allergic to jelly donuts (I feel for you).

Those people would probably not be to terribly happy if they were misled into believing they were only getting a glazed donut, when they were actually getting a jelly glazed donut.

This can be analogous to Linux. We need to tell people how great Linux is, as well as the problems it has. If the user knows up front what the problems are then it is more likely that the user won't abuse our community resources.

Abusing the community resources?

The group of people that advocates and uses Linux considers itself a community: the Linux community. The majority of this community consists of volunteers. Unfortunately, we seem to have hit a critical point at which the masses seeking help outnumber those giving help.

There are two types of support volunteers: tech support, and the how-to writers. Tech support is there to help you out with your problems interactively, and the how-to writers write those keen documents that you see on sites like the Linux Documentation Project. Unfortunately, because of a number of contributing factors, including the increase in new users, the reluctance to read the manuals, some Linux gurus being elitist, and the state of documentation, new users will be asking tech support volunteers everything.

This is not healthy, especially when the new users don't want to do read the how-to documents. If you are donating your free time to help people and have to repeatedly go step-by-step through the same issue over and over again you're going to go nuts. If the newbie doesn't want to read the documentation (especially when the documents are adequate, such as the documentation for modem, sound, or IP masq setup which include step-by-step Web tutorials), the newbies is doing nothing but draining from the community.

The Linux community, much like a real community, is a group effort to help people out and better everyone's situations without any ulterior motives. As in a real community, you can go next door and ask your neighbor, "Hey, I just got this giant tree and spent all day digging the hole in my backyard, would you mind too terribly much to help me move the tree into the hole?"

Your neighbor would probably say yes.

But, if you go up to your neighbor and want him to get the tree, dig the hole, and plant it himself, it's a very good bet that he will not be doing it, unless you're going to be paying him. The same can be likened to free support. We are here to help you with your problem, but due to the limitation of resources and our own sanity we can't always fix your problem for you.

This article's intention is to educate Linux advocates and users that as more and more new users enter the world of Linux, we need to teach them how to learn. Linux is not technically difficult. However it is textually difficult, like reading Paradise Lost or Beowulf, both of which are in English, but take a little bit more to understand. This needs to be conveyed to users of all kind, so that our documentation can be written better, our gurus can better help the newbies, and the newbies understand.

Stan Shivell is a 20-year-old University Of Pittsburgh student. You can normally find him running around on the streets of Pittsburgh trying to elude the armada of bats that seemingly follow him everywhere.

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