Tech musings and other things...

Community or One-Upsmanship?

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Oftentimes I peruse various support forums and IRC channels.  Not for support, and not always to help out, but to just observe the community in action.

I have occasion to see the best of what Linux is all about (as it pertains to community), people literally all over the world at all levels of development asking for and giving help on a wide array of issues with their systems from very basic unix navigation and installation issues to extremely complicated configuration issues that require no less than code modification and custom compilation of new device drivers.

In and among this crucible of collaboration I find an almost pernicious insinuation to the conversation.  Whether it be because of youth, undeveloped social skills,  or some other societal construct, you begin to find those who are there for the sole purpose of detracting from the conversation.  Taking pot-shots and newcomers, ridiculing marginally experienced recent-converts and even getting into heavy argumentation regarding matters of practice in administration and or management of Linux systems.

For whatever reason, these find it a jolly good time to detract from the conversation; to make themselves present for little more than obstruction.  This can (and does) have a chilling effect on the community.

First, the open nature of the community is compromised.  Newcomers experience a chilling effect in not wishing to ask questions and interact for fear of being ridiculed and condescended toward.  Next, it generates a conversation away from these support channels about the character of those in the community, that they are elitist and snobbish in their assistance, and they wish not to help, but to lord over you their level of attainment.  Many times these conversations end with the phrase “I’ll just stick with Windows, I guess.”

Too bad for the community.

Widespread adoption of our beloved OS will not see any significant amount of growth until we move beyond this practice.  In light of this situation, I have some suggestions for community participants to both help them obtain the sense of community they wish and still allowing the newcomer to have a good experience, thus enjoying Linux early on, and then in turn propagating our community to his circle of friends.

First, if you must hang around Linux support forums, be prepared to answer any and all questions no matter how dumb you personally believe them to be. Remember that we all started at ground zero at some point in our lives.  We had those who helped us, and we had to pore through tons of documentation to get up to speed.  Show some understanding and compassion for the newcomer, and help them as much as you can.  If you do this regularly, before you know it, those “newbs” are now helping others only slightly newer than themselves with the very issues they themselves have just dealt with.

This does two things.  First, it brings them much higher in the food chain, making them closer to your level and much easier to relate to.  Next, it places yet another level of support for newcomers where you used to help out.  This is an optimal situation.  It broadens the community, “pays it forward” through newcomers to even newer adherents, and then builds up the ecosystem.

Next, if you don’t have anything to offer, say, or help with, it is perfectly ok to shut up.  If you see a question that you really feel is stupid and you are running over the litany of wonderfully snarky things you can say, maybe it is just best that you not say anything at all.  I firmly believe this benefits everyone.  If you must type something, private message an online friend instead so you can have a private laugh together.

Finally, when you do have things to offer, remember that as users we have preconceived notions about what everyone “should just know”.  The fact of the matter is that everyone does’t “just know” those things, and will never learn them if they’re the butt of finely crafted barbs heading their way.  Be prepared to remediate in a very friendly, non-condescending way and be prepared to even go as far as “Ok, a shell interprets the commands you type on the screen.”  Or even (God forbid) “your keyboard and/or mouse is sometimes referred to as input whereas your screen, network card, or modem is considered output.”

Painful, I know, but the more friendly, welcoming, and helpful you are, you play a part in helping to build up the community in a way that is self-perpetuating.  Help out.  Be friendly.  Be patient.  With a little help and a little patience, you build a group of community members that one day will be doing the very same thing for another generation of users.