10 Apr 2012

Don't forget the newbies!

Let's say you're someone who has been using Linux for a while now. You've become used to installing new distros, you've built firmly established preferences for deb or rpm and KDE or Gnome, and the command line holds no more terror for you. You have become a part of the community, perhaps even a well-known and trusted forum contributor. It has been a long time since you had to resort to a wiki to learn the meaning of a technical term.
I'm a noob.
Image by Andrew*

But that wasn't always true. You were once a newbie, standing wide-eyed at the base of a long, steep learning curve and wondering whether it would really be worth the enormous effort it would take to climb it. On the way, it wasn't always clear you'd ever get to where you wanted, but you kept at it and succeeded. Good for you! Now it's time to give others a hand up.

The Linux community is famously helpful, of that there is no doubt. Post any reasonable question on any good-sized forum and you'll have an answer in an amazingly short time. But what happens if you post a poorly-expressed, vague question? That's when the bullies strike, descending on you like angry raccoons, nipping at you with curses like RTFM.

What if you're a newbie? Where do you look for the FM you are meant to have read? And how are you going to frame a well-expressed question when you are still learning the most elementary parts of the Linux vocabulary? In that angry moment a potential Linux user can be turned away permanently, and Microsoft will get to retain another victim.

I spent a good bit of my life as a professor, teaching students at all levels from freshmen to PhD candidates. I saw how easy it was for a student to be turned away from a subject by intellectual bullying, most often by a new Teaching Assistant so proud of his new-found knowledge that he had to flaunt it to impress the student. I hate to see that happening on Linux forums.

I grant you, it takes a good deal of patience to help out someone who is really, really new and ill-prepared, with little experience at computing beyond the passive obedience that is required to use Windows successfully. I was that someone myself, three years ago, intrigued by everything I had read about Linux and eager to take on the task of learning, but still mired in the Learned Helplessness that prolonged use of Windows creates.

Fortunately for me, between the many patient folks who answered my vague questions and the great Linux books by people like Carla Schroder, Keir Thomas, Brian Proffitt, and Mark Sobell, my climb up the learning curve began joyfully and still goes on. I'm nowhere near the top, but I'm far enough along to give a helping hand to those just starting up the slope.

I encourage you to do the same. Be kind when you answer, be patient when a newbie can't seem to understand, take the time to remember what you felt like when someone expressed an answer so clearly your understanding burst forth like a Compiz exploding window. There's only one feeling better than that: knowing you caused it!

This is a guest post by Emery Fletcher.


  1. I'm no longer a total newbie, but I appreciate posts like this...Sometimes a person new to Linux has no idea where to begin.

    1. Yes, we were all newbies at some point. The difference though is that some people were newbies were Linux looked like DOS (CLI-interface only), but others came directly to graphical environment. They have different approaches, and both have right to use the system. 8-)

  2. Nothing wrong with being a newbie and saying that when you have a question. Those people get reasonable answers at the forum where I participate (LinuxQuestions.org), if needed with a link to the famous "How To Ask Questions The Smart Way" or "Linux is NOT Windows".

    But there are also those people that come to ask poorly phrased questions, demanding answers without showing any effort for themselves and being insulting if you tell them that they won't be spoon-fed with the answers.
    Those people deserve nothing but a RTFM or LMGTFY answer and I see nothing wrong with that.

    Simple as that: Show us that you are willing to learn and we will teach.

    1. Disagree. Spoonfeeding is fine. Just spoonfeed the means to help them help themselves alongside the answer. If you dont want to spoonfeed, dont offer assistance. Many of us will, happily. I dont mind repeating myself over and over and trying to find the easiest to understand answers.

      Support is about making everyone's computers work the way they want them to, whether they know how or not. Its not about training them to be the next support crew.

    2. No they don't. No one deserves that, because when you do that you demonstrate that it is right to be fearful of asking questions.

      You have to be better than the demanding user, least you turn away the timid user who has valid though poorly phrased questions. If you can't do that, then best you not answer at all.

  3. Hey guys. I´m a newbie. Thanks for the positive attitude:) I´ve just joined a locale Linux club. Hope to learn faster this way.

    I´m on Ubuntu-Linux 10.04 -love it.

    1. Welcome to the club!
      Ubuntu 12.04 is just 2 weeks away!

  4. I have been using LINUX for years (10+). One of the things that concerns me is that when you have installed a distribution the next step is to say "what next". For instance if I install Fedora I am left with all the free applications but what if I want Chrome.

    I log on to the internet and I might type into Google "fedora how to install chrome".

    If you try that you will notice that the first 2 or 3 links all show you a way to install chrome using the command line.

    That bothers me because some people will not understand what they are copying and pasting into their command line and will just do it because they are told to. This could lead to all sorts of security issues.

    Now obviously if you use Firefox and go to www.google.com there is a big rectangular button that says "Install Chrome".

    The easiest way to install chrome is not to go to the command line at all but to go to Google's own website and click the download button.

    The same can be said of Flash and Java.

    1. I don't think that this is a solution. Because buttons "install me" can have same security issues, when pressed on wrong sites.

      This means that user education is more important then, rather than simplification of installation process.

    2. Agreed.

      This is not a new issue and one Microsoft have obviously struggled with for years.

      By making software easy to develop and easy to distribute it has made Windows a target for bad as well as good and generally people get viruses by going off the trusted paths of installing software that they know is safe.

      The idea of the rpm and deb repositories is a good one because in theory only trusted software should be listed in those repositories.

      If there is a forum post however which states via the command line to point to a different set of repositories it can lead to the same minefield as going to any old website and hitting the download button.

      As you say education is key and of course a little bit of common sense.

    3. On Fedora & RedHat this is a good starting point: http://rpmfusion.org/Configuration
      Here you can get access to both Installing Free and Nonfree Repositories.

    4. quote:: but what if I want Chrome. ::quote

      Why not install Chromium, it's Chrome without the Google spyware, and it's in the repositories.

    5. It would take more than changing from Chrome to Chromium to stop Google spying on me. I use GMail, Google Docs, Blogger, have an android phone, use youtube, google maps etc. I am their bitch. My only consolation is.... At least it isn't Apple. :)

  5. This one of the Best linux post in the last 3 years that I am swimming in the linux ocean , you rock . Keep up the good work

    1. Thanks! All the respect to Emery who wrote the post.

  6. Just wanting to say thinks for supporting us newbies. I am a newbie to linux. I have managed to build a Centos LAMP system for a Mediawiki and Cacti system. This took me about 6 months to complete with frustration. I would get frustrated and step a way a few days to cool off and post again on some so-call linux site (can't remember the site) for help.

    I do agree with Manic Miner on the, "install distro and what next comment. That is where I am at at times.

    I am trying to get a grasp but I do get discouraged quite a bit.

    My next project is setting up a Samba. I hope it is going to be simple.

    1. You're a strong person. If you managed to install LAMP, you should be able to do Samba too. I hope. At least, I wish you the luck!