In the beginning of things, open source was about open everything. I remember joining an irc channel # on efnet back in 1993 and chatting with people who could make things happen with computers…really make things happen. Coders, managers, hackers…they were all there and a tight nit core of about 6 of us stayed in touch for about 7 years until we went our separate ways and began to use irc less and less. The thing that I remember the most is the fact that when I joined their little group, I was a complete and total n00b. Not just a n00b to Open Source…but to computers altogether. I had a Texas Instruments computer back in 1985 but only messed with that for about a year. Mice were new to me…I didn’t know ANYTHING at all. In the short time that I began chatting on irc, I was shown how to do things. When I didn’t know how to do something, I could count on one of the guys or girls in the channel helping me to solve my problem within a matter of minutes. These people stepped down off of their level of operation long enough to educate me in the ways of the open source.
I look fondly back at this time and have spoken about it before…not because I don’t think something like this exists now…just that I think it is a rarity. There was a time when this “spirit of open source” was all about educating and furthering the program/app that you were working on. Now it seems that when a new user comes in to any channel on irc or forum, they are told off with a hearty RTFM (Read the ‘Friendly’ Manual).
Where did this Elitism come from? Where and when did Linux and open source become about the mentality “you must be this knowledgeable to ride?” It pains me to see people do this to new users…distancing themselves from potential advocates of open source…zealous ones at that. It’s a real testament to some of these new users STILL wanting to plug open source and Linux, despite being squashed by elitists in forums.
I’m sure that some of you are saying, “this kind of thing doesn’t exist in my application/project/distro’s community. We are all open to all users, be they new or experienced. Sounds nirvana to me. I challenge you to take a closer look at your community and if you find Elitism, squash it. Having personally been involved in quite a good share of communities of major Linux distros (let’s just say, some major Debian and RPM based ones) I can assure you that despite the claims of new user friendly, most had a fair share of elitists swimming in their help channels.
Elitism has no place in open source. Open source is about freedom of everyone to look at the source of a program…EVERYONE. There are no country clubs for open source…you do not need to pay to get in. There are no qualifications for people to use open source. Since there are no criteria…why are people holding new users and others with limited knowledge…to a standard as if there are criteria?
It’s ridiculous for current ‘expert’ users or developers to withhold information or help from new users simply because, “new users need to cut their teeth”. Why? Because not everyone learns the same way. In the past, the only people who used Linux and open source were those that learned by reading and pouring through documents. A more coder mentality existed among those flocking to open source banners then. Fast forward to today’s learner. You’ll see many differences. Among the largest one is the visual learner.
The visual learner learns by examples and seeing things happen with his/her own eyes. There have been vast advancement in this arena on the internet. Today, we have websites with embedded videos, flash tutorials, and audio blogs with step-by-step processes and how-tos. Despite all this technology, people still send new users to the same avenue to learn. RTFM or do a search. What if that isn’t good enough for the person you’re telling it to? What if that person can’t learn things in this capacity? What if they need to see things in action?
In closing, we must rethink our approach to answering questions on forums and in chat clients. I challenge each and every single one of you to think about your responses to new users or those limited in knowledge. Helping these people to attain knowledge in different capacities can make or break their will and create a friend of open source for life…or through not helping, a foe.
As always, Yet Another Linux Blog is open to users of all walks of experience. If you have a question, please ask away in the comments.