Linux Users vs. Linux Culture

In my line of work I get to test, try and evaluate all kinds of new open source software and the occasional new distribution flavor of the month. Sometimes it's a smooth process but other times I find myself casting a line in the lake of forums hoping to get a bite. In a lot of ways, this is how it was when I was first introduced to Linux in the late 90's. When I look back and compare my experiences then with my experiences now I see the progress we've made in a number of areas but I am left with one conclusion: we're not quite there yet.

We've all experienced the agonies of an app that just won't install or otherwise function as hoped for. When this happens, inevitably we all find ourselves grasping at the same tried and true straws we've know for years now: forum boards and IRC channels.

Using a forum board or IRC channel is a lot like trying to solve your problems by walking down a dorm room hallway. Room by room you poke your head in, say hi to everybody, and ask around quickly to see if anyone has an idea. The responses can vary depending on which door you knock on.

A lot has changed since I first started knocking on doors to solve my problems. First and foremost, there are a LOT more doors. Second, there are a lot more people to ask as open source finds itself becoming more and more mainstream. What doesn't seem to have changed much are the responses.

There will always be the self righteous neighbors. I knocked on one of these doors the other day. The first response was "why don't you just come out and tell us what you broke...". There's the newbie rooms full of happy people that are just as lost as you are and have huddled together in the kiddie pool. There's the oh-so-elite rooms (you know who you are Gentoo users!) who only have one response for any question "RTFM". Remind me to further rant on these types some other time.

Occasionally (and less and less by accident of late) you get lucky and find a room full of sympathetic techies. These rooms are filled with people who can explain your problems simply enough to enable you to actually fix something.

All of this leads to my point: those of us who are passionate about open source projects are by nature, somewhat evangelistic. We want to share them with everyone and convert the masses. Nothing is more frustrating than meeting someone who tried open source at one time and couldn't get the kind of support they needed and in anguish, scrapped the hole thing in lieu of the very matrix we're trying to unplug them from. I had the pleasure of sitting in an IRC room the other day when a complete newbie walked in. One by one, the entire room took turns walking him through a wide array of problems. In the end, he left the room excited. He'll be back soon and his questions will be a little more complex each time (a good indication that he's learning, and solving the easier stuff on his own).

You never know who's gonna pop their head in. It could be a complete newbie, it could be a professional with a tech issue his paycheck depends on (like myself). It could be the next Torvalds, in his ***formative years. Either way, how you respond will either encourage them, and swell our numbers by one, or discourage him, and everyone who will listen to him. Be nice. Be understanding. Most importantly, be patient with them. It takes a village, and you might be raising the next Linux fanatic.

*** Note: the use of the word formidable was removed for the sake of world peace.


Chase Crum is the IT Infrastructure Manager for Voicenation and a self-proclaimed Linux FANATIC.


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Er, having one thread per

Anonymous's picture

Er, having one thread per question is a good thing, isn't it? That way when people search for issues, they find directly what they need; and not a thread with 50 issues stuck together.


Jerry McBride's picture

I'm not a Linux newbie and I do use Gentoo. Gentoo is all I bother to work with and use it everywhere I can push it....

That said, telling anyone to go read the f****** manual isn't always the best possible help you can give. Some of those manuals are about as "unfriendly", "obtuse", "vague" and often written for an experience level above godhood. This has been my only gripe with my whole Linux experience since early 2.0.0 days. I read, I love to read... but printing out man page or a howto from the LDP often results in a document that kust does not satisfies what I'm looking for.

Good day, Gentlemen.

---- Jerry McBride

A little info goes a long way

metalx2000's picture

I try and do a video tutorial on Open-Source software almost every day on my site. I get many questions and I try and answer all of them.

I try to always be nice, but the person asking the question sometimes doesn't give me any info. They say, "I did what you did and it didn't work. What did I do wrong?" They don't tell me what happened, how it wasn't working, or what the error messages, if any, say. Most the time it's user error, because if they did what I did it would work. I try to be nice to and walk them through it, but I get a lot of questions and it aggravates me when people do this. Just a little bit of info would help.

And then there are the people who ask a question like, "Can I make it do this?". Which is a fine question that I may not have thought to ask, but I will, in many cases, type almost word for word what they ask into a Google search and the first 10 pages that come up have the answer. I understand that sometimes you don't know what to search for. You may not know the proper phrases to enter into the search box. But, if I type your exact question into the box and get an answer, it shows me you haven't even took a second to try and find the answer yourself.

Once again, I try and nicely says to these people, "Well, after I did a quick Google search I found the answer to your question to be..."

I hate when people are mean to me in forums and in IRC, so I try real hard to be nice. But the people asking the questions need to understand that they need to put a little effort into learning something and not just try and have people spoon feed them the answer.
Everything you ever need to know about Free Software.

linux and spellcheck

economy's picture

It amazes me that every Linux article I read is rife with grammar errors you'd find on the PSAT.

Chase, if the next Torvalds was on an IRC channel, I'm almost certain he would be in his formative years rather than his formidable years...

And I'm sorry, what was the purpose of this article? That you can find answers on forums sometimes, but sometimes not, but it's better than it used to be?

I'm sick of clicking on Linux articles that have interesting titles and finding in-depth and completely unrelated commentaries that don't raise anything new. Who wants to read another article on how different Windows and Ubuntu are? The same group of people who like this one.

Spell check, grammar and Linux

Chase Crum's picture

I can hardly blame Linux for my ability to chose the right word, or even the spelling of the right word. It's something I'm aware of, and have to work on. It is unfortunate that my use of the wrong word, or perhaps incorrect spelling of the word has upset you to this level.

All of that being said, I think in all fairness you've missed the point, by a mile.
The comment/reply below says it best... we need to address a change in culture if we ever hope to overtake the majority. Having a superior operating system alone won't do it. Once someone has been turned off by a bad experience, it is unlikely that they will be easily influenced to come back. It is extremely unlikely that they will try to convince someone else that they should change. All I am pointing out is that with a little more encouragement and a little less "find your own damn solution" we can create more growth and expansion. As everyone knows, the more prevalent the operating system becomes, the more commercial software and devices will be made available to it, which should offer enough incentive.

On a side note, this article wasn't written because I couldn't find an answer on an IRC channel or forum board. I wrote it because in one day, I saw the two extremes in each of these. I saw users get turned away for "stupid" questions, and I saw users who were encouraged, and left excited. If you feel it's not your responsibility to hand hold, or babysit, please don't. In the same breath I would suggest you avoid the harshness that gives the rest of us a bad name.

In closing, I'm sorry the grammatical errors offended you. More than anything, I'm sorry you're so angry in general. I would suggest if you're not finding the content that meets your needs, please, become part of the solution.


Chase Crum is the IT Infrastructure Manager for Voicenation and a self-proclaimed Linux FANATIC.

I think the point of the article is....

PatrickDickey's picture

That the "Linux culture" is either going to encourage or discourage users. He's pointing out that in some cases, the culture encourages them, in some cases it discourages them (the "RTFM" comment), and in most cases it just leaves them clueless.

And his point is that we (or you) the people who KNOW how to do the things people are asking about (or know how to help them find out how to do them) need to step up and start helping the newbies.

Right now Linux has the stereotype of a "Geek" operating system. If we want to change this, then we have to change the culture. Because it boils down to two options: Either "dumb" the operating system down to the level where the average user doesn't have to think about anything (aka Windows and Mac OS X to an extent) or help the user become more empowered and knowledgeable.

If you "dumb" it down to the level that Windows provides, you will LOSE every time. Because the average user will say "Ok it's just as easy as Windows, but I've already got Windows... So why do I want to switch?" However if you empower the user, they will start to say "Hey, I can't do these things with Windows, and I should be able to. I'm going to move over to the operating system where I CAN do the things I need."

And thus, Linux will win. Mind you, it will probably never become the "Windows" of marketing (meaning the majority of the computers), but it may take a nice chunk out of the real estate (a perfect world would be about 30% Windows, 30% Mac OS, and 30% Linux--with the other 10% being alternatives like FreeBSD and other variants of unix). A more realistic goal would be 60% Windows, 20% Mac OSX, and 20% Linux and other variants. Or even 50% Windows, 20% Mac OS X, 20% Linux, and 10% other variants. Heck even 10% Linux would be a huge improvement over what we're at now (I'm not counting servers or mobile devices here--only desktop and laptops and to an extent netbooks).

But it all starts with those who know. After all, if I'm trying to use something, and I run into a problem, the first place I look is Google. Because "TFM" is usually not going to have my exact issue as I describe it (in searching for an answer) and is probably going to be written in more technical terms than I want to try and understand.

Have a great day:)

And for clarification, I do know how to program in some languages (mostly dead ones), so I'm probably not a newbie. But if I look to Google because it's better than "TFM" then you can probably guarantee that "newbies" will look there too.

Disagree- If

KyleW's picture

If Linux had a serious market share windows would be dead. I don't really see how it could survive. The biggest problem with linux isn't the OS- or the support system. It is that it is too small a community to attract major developement's to it. That was the problem with mac's too back in the day. Mac's could have easily died out but they made it because the increased complexity has led to consolidation in the development world making insanely complex programs and then the relatively small time it takes to port it over made Mac's more viable (combined with solid computers and the graphics and a/v world making the de facto standard the Mac). The other part has been the success of the internet and the browser as a reason to computer which is OS independent. The only thing that truly keeps me from going head first into Linux (which I prefer) is the lack of MS Office. Yes; a MS program. There is simply no comparable software - not even close when you get into Excel. So in the end I can't be as productive on a Linux machine. If Linux had a 30% market share you can bet your butt there would be more than comparable productivity software. Windows days would be numbered because large companies tethered to Office could easily change to Linux, save their Windows OS dollars and cheaply outsource to the distros for support. Then the walls come tumbling down. Unfortunately; this may not ever happen even though I'd bet it eventually does when productivity software moves to the cloud ala Google Chrome's theory. Linux already dominates so many markets; why doesn't it dominate the desktop? It's because it can't get businesses to en masse adopt it as a desktop platform. Why was Microsoft successful? It had IBM to push it's software onto the business desktops so when people bought home comps they bought MS because they knew it and all the software was written for it.

If things like this happen Linux will become easier to use because instead of having all kinds of 3rd party workarounds it will get 1st party support who financially depend on their products working.

The game plan is set: It's not about open source/closed source and I hope people figure that out. It's about good software and bad software. Windows is simply buggy bad software that hasn't gotten any better. Moreover Microsoft isn't evil but they are tricky in how they attempt to keep developers from making software for other platforms; (IE, MS Java, DirectX) etc. As their software suffers which it has; people will look to better alternatives. It is Microsoft's game to lose but if they don't fix their problems before a real rival productivity suite comes along and offers a viable business alternative they will lose market share the same way IE has and die a slow death. IE should have ridiculous market share if only it wasn't awful.


Chase Crum's picture

I couldn't have said it better myself, obviously.

Chase Crum is the IT Infrastructure Manager for Voicenation and a self-proclaimed Linux FANATIC.


Chase Crum's picture

(Somehow I saw the flame war on the horizon...)

There is a DISTINCT difference between pointing someone to the proper manual and pointing them in a general direction of being able to help themselves, and telling someone "RTFM". I think anyone would be able to discern the difference.

There are in fact friendly Gentoo users. This was more tongue in cheek, however, stereotypes, however wrong, are usually derived from first impressions.

Chase Crum is the IT Infrastructure Manager for Voicenation and a self-proclaimed Linux FANATIC.


marens's picture

Listening to the problems of a user and pointing him to the proper part of the well written gentoo documentation that will solve his problem is now called rtfm?


Adam Williamson's picture

Agreed. Like a poster earlier, I'm getting sick of people rewriting the same article that's been posted three times a year, every year, by some freelancer or another, for the last decade.

There's a reason manuals get written: people ask the same questions, over and over again. There's a reason those of us who spend a lot of time doing IRC or forum support both write manuals (and FAQs, and Errata pages, and stickies, and so on), and then direct people to them: re-typing (or even cutting and pasting) the _same damn answer_ for the fifteenth time in a week is incredibly inefficient. Plus, it gets old real fast.

I _could_ laboriously type out the same response fifteen times. That would take up, oh, say, an hour of time in total. Or, I could write the response one time, and point the fifteen people who ask the same question to the same published response. That would take about 5 minutes. So now I've saved 55 minutes I can use to help other people!

If someone _really_ replied to a question with the one-line 'RTFM', well, that sucks. But does this ever really happen? I've been hanging out on all sorts of forums (Mandriva, Fedora, Ubuntu, OS News, Linux Today, Phoronix, NVNews, hell, I'm only just getting started) and asking dumb questions in dozens of IRC channels for eight years, and I have never _once_ been met by a simple and unhelpful 'RTFM' response. Not by anyone, ever. Like the OP, I rather suspect this is entirely a fabrication, and based on responses which point directly to documentation which actually constitutes a helpful answer to the question...which is very different.

Gentoo rules, and...

Tatsh's picture

...just because you can't solve the problem yourself does not make it my problem, EVER. -- Gentoo user XD

aaaand that's why new users

economy's picture

aaaand that's why new users don't start off with Gentoo.

Mr. Bingo's picture

I think you mean his

Anonymous's picture

I think you mean his "formative" years, not formidable.

Offical forums are reliable

Aeiluindae's picture

I've always found good help on the official forums. Most of the time there's someone who knows more than you and had the same issue. Back when I first started out on Ubuntu, I had a terrible time getting my tablet functioning. There were a few very smart people on the ubuntu forums who were able to help me get everything working, either through how-tos or back and forth discussion. I learned most stuff about linux myself, but those helpful people gave me a very good start. When I know enough, I hope I can be helpful. I've largely moved on to Arch (elitest, yes, but awesome) and the forums there are such a different tone, because there are no real newbies, so when something isn't working, you get more of a communal problem-solving effort rather than one person who knows stuff helping everyone else.