mv elitism /dev/null

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.

This content is published under the Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.

  • Peter Osmar

    Amen,As a new computer user,and even newer to linux,I have found this to be very true. I started with Slackware,because it was said to be too difficult for newbes,I had to find out how tough it was.It worked well enough,but the constant command line is a pain,so I started looking for a more user friendly distro.I lurked around a lot of forums.The RTFM comment is too common.I read to learn,but a simple answer to a simple question is rare.I have found one forum,and distro that seems different.”PLUG” PCLinuxOS is as user friendly as it gets”END PLUG” And I still type slow.

  • Nic

    The saddest thing is that even a nicely tempered piece like this will attract the flames, I find more and more that I can’t be bothered to reply to posts/news items as the amount of static I get back isn’t worth it.

  • Jim

    I agree with this piece. Even as a professional programmer, I’ve ran into the elitism wish several open source projects. It really makes it hard to stick with some thing as great as Linux, when you feel like an outsider.

  • http://systhread.net Jay Fink

    Actually, I have an upside to that. Back in 95 is when I first got into using open source at home and it was shortly after that I met my first real net friend. He ran (and still runs) his own irc server.

    To this day we still chat, almost every day, and we have added about 4 regular chatters and there are about 3 others who drop in from time to time.

    We all live in different parts of the world and have over the years worked on projects together, helped eachother in one way or another (I’ve even mailed hardware to friends in countries it is hard to get as a gift).

    We started constantly chatting in 1998, we havent stopped yet. We are a tight circle of friends who *do* get things done.

    So in response to that portion of this post, there is still hope :)

  • Staf

    Most of the time this behaviour doesn’t have anything to do with elitism but just with time contraints.
    The problem is that now more people use open source than back then. If you want to answer all question in a decent way no time is left to do development on the project.
    That is why most often asked question are grouped together and people are asked to read this information before asking questions.
    People who are not prepared to try to learn this way are considered as a too big time hog and ignored and regretfully in the bad cases flamed.
    I personally think that if you are not prepared to read text to learn a program open source is not for you and you should stick to some commercial program (which can also be open source) and their often expensive helpdesks.
    Of course I don’t deny there are people in the OSS world that think elitist but they are a minority. The problem is that they of course can make a very bad first impression. From the other side there are people who are thinking they are the most important open source user and have an absolute right of being helped instanteneously.

  • http://www.joebutton.co.uk Joeboy

    I only got into irc relatively recently and from my experiences there are some astonishingly friendly and helpful people there, people who are willing to hand-hold even the most clueless newbie way beyond any reasonable expectation.
    See #ardour or #scribus on freenode.net for examples.

  • http://www.solsys.org Joerg Mertin

    Actually – I also started by that time. However – the ratio n00b/specialist by that time was still in that way – that there was always a specialist able to helping the poor lost sould of that time.
    And – that poor soul was in that chatroom because he was interested on the topic.

    Nowadays – there is no chance for a knowledged user to try helping the others. Time ? too many n00b’s ? people not willing to read ? People not beeing interested to understand but only to get their issue fixed. and that’s the part where I also stopped helping out others. For that issue – I’d rather get paid – as in support ;)

  • Simon Morgan

    So because somebody who’s put years of time and effort into learning to code, writing programs and letting people use them for free and without restriction doesn’t want to hold somebody’s hand and answer their inane questions (because they can’t be bothered to put in the time and effort themselves), that makes them an elitist?
    If people put as much energy into helping themselves instead of whining everybody would be a lot better off.

  • http://www.escritorioya.com.ar Sergio Belkin

    Could I translate it to spanish? What kind of licence has the article, is very good!

  • Marinmo

    http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/

    It’s in the right pane too. You are free to translate it, as long as you give the original author (devnet) credit, often this is done by mentioning him at the end of your translation along with a link to his site/the entry.

  • Jim

    If every one spent time helping themselves they may as well write the software themselves. If people ask questions it’s not always because they don’t want to take the time to do some thing, it could be that there are real bugs, there is no how-to written or is to find. It easy to just blow it off as they are just being pests and are lazy. Reminds me of how the Cougar developers told me that totals works with their version and they’d be happy to get me a copy. I never got a copy after asking for it. So I still don’t have a report writer to use under Linux.

  • index.php devnet

    No…I don’t think that you should discredit these people who put years of experience and time into learning things. But I DO think we should address different learners with ways in which they can learn. Not everyone can sit down and read a set of boring instructions or man pages and be able to pull from it a dynamic solution to their problems.
    We need to tailor our responses and training/tutorials to suit other learner types and then there should be less silly questions from new users…and eventually, less n00bs asking.

  • index.php devnet

    Yes. See Marinmo’s comments.

  • http://dovyw.myblogsite.com/blog/FreeOpenSourceSoftware Dave

    Elitism is a problem, yes. But I do think also that [better] documentation is needed. Because some users really do want to help them self. It has to be detailed, but in simple language. It has to be well-organized, and it has to be searchable.

    Also, to ease the load of already-asked questions, I think the forum software, when a user tries to post, should say “Before posting, please check these Similar Threads for quick answers to questions that have already been answered.”

  • kuza

    First of, I don’t really agree, I think there are many ‘intermediate’ users who do a great job helping newbies out. Obviously, there are also ‘gurus’ who try to help. But there are many more newbies than there used to be, and many do not really have the right attitude. As was mentioned, they want their problem fixed, not really trying to understand the problem or the solution. This obviously does not go down well with people who have spent more time around linux and open source.

  • http://linux-blog.org devnet

    Odd…
    I didn’t know ESP was documented to exist. How is it again that you know that all newbies just want their problems fixed?
    All kidding aside, I do see your point. However, my article is not about this…it is about the need to understand that new users are out there and are different learners than we are accustomed to. That being said, we need to re-assess ourselves and not be hasty to judge.
    Having spent plenty of time with Linux and open source myself, I can honestly say that I’ve been an elitest on occasion. Lately however, while converting my wife to Linux with the experiment in this blog (see ‘Reviews’ category) I’ve come to the conclusion that new users JUST DON’T KNOW HOW TO ASK. They learn differently also. My wife is no idiot and she sure isn’t lazy…but she wants things to work just like a newbie would. However, she doesn’t want to go into a man page to learn how to do it. How do we solve that problem? It isn’t going away, that is for sure. And it is precisely this problem that my article addresses. Thanks for reading!

  • http://dag.wieers.com Dag Wieers

    Elitism was part of Efnet in 1993 too. Maybe not the channels where you were on, but most of the big channels were ‘owned’ by elitary operators and channel takeovers and abuse of power was back then more popular than it is now.
    There was also a technical elite that would make you feel that they knew more and were better than you. Maybe it was nostalgia that made you forget ? :-)

  • oldbie

    While I recognise many of your points, I do also think that elitism has always been there and will always be there.

    The really big change in the free software world is that there used to be no positions of prestige (or far less prestige), because free software was a rebellious fringe movement. It was full of reaction against establishment and its veneered and revered positions.

    Today, free software is worth $1 billion to IBM alone and there are prestigious positions all over the territory. Formerly, prestige was pragmatic and derived from direct action. Now, a lot of action is pragmatic, aiming at prestige. Fortunately, a lot is still not most and I am very confident that it will never dominate, by very nature of free software: annoying developers get forked off the road.

    This has happened before, all the time. Even RMS got to eat his fair share of his own dogfood when the GNU emacs vs. xemacs history happened. Sometimes I wonder if ESR’s cathedral and bazaar paper is really not about M$, but about GNU, ya know.

    I don’t agree with you where you ignore the fact that users have also changed over the years (and that won’t stop either). When I first installed xfree86 on Debian 1.1, I read^Wspelled out _all_ the docs. It wasn’t really necessary even back then, but I cared to do so anyway, as most other folks did. Many still do, maybe even more in absolute numbers, just less relatively.

    That also means relatively more questions that are already answered by some fine manual. That’s just the way things go. The only solution is to make these questions go away at the source, by making one size fits all type distributions. Ubuntu is becoming a great example of this.

    Don’t worry, it’s still Linux, anyone can fork her own “one size” and then any other one can take that and start sowing up extra arms and legs as pleases and fits. Like Ubuntu is still Debian underneath, if you know how to vi sources.list, you can even completely convert your Ubuntu system to Debian while running!

    On Ubuntu forums, very few people get flamed for not reading the fvwm manpage, because the question isn’t there, because fvwm isn’t the default. Instead, people ask why they don’t automatically get an icon on their desktop when they plug in some fancy new usb device. That question would have been almost unimaginable back in 96 when I was boggling over .fvwmrc in vi.

    BTW, you do not want to “mv elitism /dev/null”, because then you’d have to “MAKEDEV /dev/null”. RTFM. And use cat, except when it’s useless use of cat (google: useless use cat).

  • br3n

    nice article dev.
    i was very lucky to have some excellent and patient people when i first became interested in linux.i was steered in good ways to understand the importance of using google but there were things that i as a nontech type just didnt understand.
    when people would say terminal,console i didnt know what they meant and searching for the terms didnt explain it either.it took months before i leaned they were really the same thing.
    for me it was the tv icon.
    sigh.
    as one who used to do a lot of helping on irc channel for mandrake i also learned that some new users can come in with the attitude that they are supposed to get instant answers not understanding that the channel was filled with volunteers that are unpaid.patience is very much a requirement to learning linux.reading is also necessary.and you are right some just want it to work and not how it works.
    i am lucky that i want to understand at least part of what is happening.
    br3n

  • Ookaze

    “That being said, we need to re-assess ourselves and not be hasty to judge.”
    I don’t understand, because YOU are the one judging people here, and people who took time helping others.

    I converted my wife to Linux too, and I’m sorry to say that the problem is not only that users don’t know how to ask.
    They DO NOT want to learn, unless they have an interest (like Free Software developers), an itch to scratch.
    My wife is no idiot, and she isn’t lazy either … except when she has to learn.
    What you say (“she wants things to work just like a newbie would”) is exactly the problem : people come to IRC channels, and ask aggressively (when they ask, some require) that you make their problem go away, adding a nasty “in Windows/Office/XXX it works like that” (even if it is not true).
    Your man page example is a straw man. I see only developers redirected to man pages, not ordinary users. Given OOo 1.1, and the very good french doc (a pdf version of a book actually), with 2 very well explained pages of mapping MS Office < -> OOo 1.1, my wife came to me, saying she could not do X. I don’t know anything about Office apps, but I came, I searched 5 seconds (really) in the menus, and there I found what she could not do. Then I looked at the 2 pages table, and there it was, clearly. When I asked my wife why she could not find the option and told me OOo could not do it, she told me she did not even try, she did not want to learn !!! Fortunately she is my wife, but imagine the same behaviour on an IRC channel, when a total stranger disturbs you for a thing he could have found himself in 5 seconds if he took the time to try. Strangely enough, my wife do things much more complicated with her desktop, she even asked me docs to use The Gimp to modify her photos !!!
    Most of the time, the people you call elitists are in fact helpful people dealing with bad users like the one I described.
    Now, I’m sorry to say that, but the abuse a paid worker can accept, I’m not sure a guy willfully giving his time can (especially when it is more than a couple times a day) : we in the community are not altruist saints.

  • Ookaze

    http://linuxtoday.com/news_story.php3?ltsn=2005-06-02-003-26-OP-CY-HL-0002

    This is a very good answer to blogs like yours. The points are very well made too.
    You try to diabolise FLOSS in talking like what you say is a general and expanding phenomenom : it is not.

    And I find what you say offensive, given all the people that give their time, even to make install fests for newbies. Of course there are assh*les, I’ve stumbled on 2 in 7 years of using Linux.
    I surely would not depict them as a general phenomenom. Your blog is a disservice to the community.

    I could agree with you, as I’m french, and like in the URL I gave, if you are not elitist, now tell me where I can find a french version (and japanese while you are at it) of your blog.

    To finish, I’d say that though I saw only 2 assh*les in 7 years, I’ve seen a LOT more whiners like you, so much in fact that I can’t keep a count of them. True helpful people in the community do not whine, they search and find solutions to problems.

  • http://sourceforge.net//projects/xrms/ Brian Peterson

    Nice Article. I understand the sentiment.
    I feel that it is very important to strike a balance. I run a very large open source project aimed at enterprise corporate users (XRMS CRM). Our target audience is companies with 20-500 CRM users. Generally, our target audience has knowledgable IT staff who are willing to do some work to solve their own problems or add their own features using the extensive plugin and middleware capabilities that we’ve provided.
    What we often see, however, are small-company non-technical users who want to take advantage of free (as in beer) enterprise-class software for their one or two person company. These users are very unsophisticated, and often very demanding and impatient. If our project is useful to them, fine, but neither I nor the development team are likely to go out of our way to help beligerant or overly demanding users.
    I think that this kind of reaction among the development community is pretty common. Eric Raymond wrote an article way back in 2001 called “How to Ask Smart Questions” available here: http://www.catb.org/~esr/faqs/smart-questions.html
    My ‘elitism’ gets kicked in when little companies that will probably never contribute code, testing, resources, documentation, or money to the project get demanding of my time or the development team’s time. I try to help as much as I can, but eventually “Why don’t you pay a member of the development team to fix your problem for you?” is the best answer I can give.
    Regards,
    – Brian

  • devnet

    I agree Dave…documentation is somewhere we really need to improve on.
    I help document for PCLinuxOS on their wiki site and we’re trying to do a few things differently. We’re using the program ‘wink’ to ‘show’ users the correct way of doing things. Wink is very close to macromedia captivate…so things are looking really nice thus far. We only have one flash movie so far…but we only launched last week.
    I usually support the distro I run on my main computer. So far, PCLinuxOS made it past my wife and that’s good enough for me. :)

  • http://linux-blog.org devnet

    http://linuxtoday.com/news_story.php3?ltsn=2005-06-02-003-26-OP-CY-HL-0002

    Is actually a line by line attempt to bring philosophical debate into something it shouldn’t be brought into. It also is rude and crass…the exact attitude that shouldn’t be a part of anyone’s life. I assume that a bitter person wrote that in an attempt to look really smart to his/her peers. Once again, right along the channels of looking l33t to your buddies…

    Also, the fact that you call me a ‘whiner’ is evidence that you have no idea what this blog does for new users, nor what this blog does for communities of Linux users out there. In no way am I ‘whining’ about things. If you read the article, you’ll see that it is my opinion that users have changed and that they learn differently now than they did 10-15 yrs ago. Anyone not agreeing with that is obviously not aware of the community.

    I go on to say that perhaps we shouldn’t be quick to classify people as clueless n00bs anymore. It’s an honest mistake that many people make…including myself.

    Did you even read the article? Or did you stop halfway through when you ran across something that you didn’t like? It seems to me like you aren’t even comprehending what the article was written about. Perhaps it is a language barrier?
    I’m at a loss to know what you are even talking about when you point a ‘whiner’ finger at me.

  • http://linux-blog.org devnet

    Sure…I remember.

    My example was to show the comraderie that developed between people there…advanced coders/hackers and my own silly new user self.
    Sure there are always elitists…but it seems that today’s society has more numbers of elitists…and more numbers of very aggressive ones…than ever before. Sad really.

  • http://linux-blog.org devnet

    “I don’t agree with you where you ignore the fact that users have also changed over the years ”
    I don’t remember that being part of the article. You sure you’re reading it correctly? One of the main points of the article IS the fact that users change.
    Oh, and thanks for the syntax tip but I wasn’t going for being 100% correct…it’s a blog thing so that the html is sound. Special characters don’t swim well with the blogging software. As long as people understand the jist of it I’m ok with it.

  • http://linux-blog.org devnet

    “Your man page example is a straw man.”
    Says you. I don’t think there is a problem with it. Most docs are quite a bit like man pages. If you don’t think I’m right, why not head over to tldp.org? Most of their docs are great but really dry and completely pictureless more often than not. That’s my point…we can do better than this.

    “Most of the time, the people you call elitists are in fact helpful people dealing with bad users like the one I described.”
    No…this is wrong. I’m calling elitists elitists. I’m calling the people that HORDE their knowledge and don’t share BECAUSE THEY WANT NEW USERS TO SUFFER LIKE THEY DID. Period.

  • helios

    Hey devnet,

    re: comment #15…

    Now be honest…THIS is the guy you wrote the article about initially isn’t it.

    painfully obvious…good work as always

  • http://blogs.cyberciti.biz/ Vivek

    Sure nothing can replace good tutor

  • http://linux-blog.org/index.php?/archives/209-YALB-A-Look-Back-after-Three-Years.html Yet Another Linux Blog

    Quietly and without fanfare, Yet Another Linux Blog has reached the ripe old age of 3 years. I started it small and
    hosted at home during May of 2004. Back then it was hosted on a domain called fatalfame.org (since expired). In
    December 2004, I switc

  • http://linux-blog.org/index.php?/archives/209-YALB-A-Look-Back-after-Three-Years.html Yet Another Linux Blog

    Quietly and without fanfare, Yet Another Linux Blog has reached the ripe old age of 3 years. I started it small and
    hosted at home during May of 2004. Back then it was hosted on a domain called fatalfame.org (since expired). In
    December 2004, I switc