Reaching Out To Which Community?

I'm going to do something a little unusual today and get myself into a little bit of trouble. *chuckle* *snort* Unusual indeed . . .

This collection of words is a bit of a rant, I'm afraid. It's about what some call preaching to the choir or more specifically, not preaching to the choir. The Ubuntu Linux crowd prides itself on being a glowing example of the Free Software community at work. Actually, the Free Software community as a whole prides itself on being a model of the ultimate distributed work group, having, through its collective talents, created the greatest operating system of all time, including the software that runs on that OS. I'm only exaggerating a little tiny bit. But I digress . . .

A few days back, there was quite a bit of discussion on my online Linux User Group (the WFTL-LUG) regarding the treatment of newbies. The actual discussion actually started out with Christian Einfeldt (one of the members of my LUG) posting a link to a link Tweeted by Glyn Moody from an article by Teresa Jewell titled "Open to Everyone: How Open Source Communities Can Benefit from Diversity Without Disunity." Now that's community at work.

The article compares the Free Software movement to the Feminist movement and argues that we can learn a great deal from the feminist movement, from its fractured beginnings to its successful emergence as a force that could, and did, rewrite laws to benefit all women. There are some interesting observations including rivalries between different camps in the world of FOSS; the obvious historical rift between the FSF and the OSI is of course mentioned. Who do these organizations really represent and to what degree is disunity within these groups (and others) harming the adoption of Free Software. It's an interesting and important read (so go read it), but the line that stands out the most, to me at least is the following:

Within open source, the group most often ignored is the non-technical user.

Over the years I've written for everyone from the highly technical to the casual end user. I value the importance of addressing as many groups and individuals as possible, but in my mind, the most important is the end user. The casual user. The newbie.

I want Linux and FOSS to reach as many people as possible and whether we in this community like it or not, there are a lot more casual users than highly technical ones. The endgame for me is Linux World Domination. Or at least a healthy distribution of major operating systems with Linux as a powerful and mainstream player in the desktop marketplace.

Back on my WFTL-LUG, Jim, a member, posted the following.

I am a member of two LUG mailing lists, of course this one, and the local LUG. I attended a local meeting once and have not gone back. Not because the guys there were bad or anything but because in many respects the LUG really wasn't about Linux and spreading Open Source. It was more of a techno geek boys club. Nothing wrong with that if your a techno geek boy but if your not it isn't much fun.

This is where I got myself in trouble and it started with me nodding enthusiastically to Jim's post. How I got myself into trouble is by naming names. Over in yonder big city down the road (*cough* Toronto ) where I lived for 10 years (okay, I was actually living in Mississauga), I decided that I should probably attend TLUG, the Toronto Linux User Group. Given my involvement in the FOSS world, I thought this was a good idea; support the troops and all that. So I started showing up for meetings, quasi-incognito. After a couple of meetings where alpha-geek wannabees spent most of the meeting time arguing over whether this particular line of code in the kernel would actually improve the performance of another chunk of kernel code, I stood up and very loudly said, "Who gives a sh*t! We're supposed to be learning/talking about 'your favorite application goes here' ."

I then went on a rant about how this kind of "I'm a bigger geek than thou " crap was worthless and did nothing to help new Linux and FOSS users and certainly did nothing to bring new people to the community, that it scared them away and made sure they didn't attend a second meeting. I might have gone a little over the top, but here I was, a pretty technical guy myself, and I was bored out of my skull listening to this discussion regarding a 14 line chunk of code in the Linux kernel scheduler. Soon thereafter, I stopped going to TLUG meetings.

Eventually, somebody thought it would be a good idea to start a NEWTLUG, a version of the main LUG for new users so that their needs could be addressed and, perhaps, the community would grow with the introduction of fresh blood. It was, in fact, a great idea, one that I applauded; consequently, I spoke at NEWTLUG meetings on a handful of occasions. It was at that time very successful but that was a few years ago. Needs change, FOSS and Linux have changed, and hopefully the community changes as well to serve its members. I do know that TLUG morphed into GTALUG after I was gone. Given that I am no longer in the area, I've been seriously out of the loop these last three or four years. My understanding is that NEWTLUG exists as a group to serve the 'North of Toronto' people now, but there's that out of the loop thing again.

Perhaps GTALUG members on the list whom I haven't permanently offended would like to jump in and let us know where things stand. [ insert appropriate smiley here ]

When it comes to Linux and FOSS, I am personally about reaching out to just about everyone because I believe that Linux and FOSS can help just about everyone. I think we can bring new users to FOSS and bring FOSS to new users and still have fun. Or, as Jim rightly pointed out, actually have some fun because the alternative is fun for at most, one or two people. And one or two people isn't a community. I'm not saying the minutiae of scheduler coding isn't interesting for some, but I'd wager Linus' annual salary that it certainly wasn'tgripping to the majority of people in the room.

That non-technical user is the future of FOSS. If we don't reach out to that person and get them using FOSS, it's only a matter of time before Linux on the desktop is synonymous with OS/2. Yes, I acknowledge that Linux powers the Internet, and most of the search traffic and the most e-commerce and most supercomputers, etc . . . but that's not enough. People have to know they are using Linux and FOSS and that means it has to power their desktop. In the absence of an awesome Linux desktop marketing machine (Canonical is good, but they've got a ways to go before they can match the awesome marketing of Microsoft, or that up and comer, Apple, it's up to us. The community. We've got to speak with something resembling a unified voice, delivering a consistent, inclusive message.

Perhaps the greatest challenge we face is that non-technical user, but it's a challenge we are up to. The catch is doing it, and that requires a very different approach because now we have to talk to and reach out to people other than our own community of geeks.

Thus endeth my rant. Until next time . . .


Non-technical end user

" Either they don't care enough (too causal) or they grow."

I have cared enough to pursue this for about seven or eight years. I feel as if I'm knocking on the door of a medieval castle. The guards just look over the top of the wall, chuckle, and go away. I have attempted to RTFM, read several books (including one of Marcel's), gone ahead and installed, but couldn't make it work, and had to re-image at least two computers. People who claim to offer me help give nothing but attitude. I just unsubscribed from a Yahoo group for Linux Newbies because the FAQ made me want to punch someone. I had a less dramatic experience with my local (Columbus, Ohio) in-person Linux User Group, but it did no good.

I have been an end user of computers since 1989, and my Internet experience dates back to 1999. I am not an IT person; I'm in customer service. To give back just a little of your collective attitude, nobody here has ever been in customer service. I can tell.

TLUG and New Users

The question of how we are to support new users has come up time and time again within the GTALUG (formally TLUG) executive. Casual end users don't regularly attend technical user group meetings unless they want to become one of the technical users. GTALUG supports the people who show up. We present information at a level of our users. Our users are the ones that show up month after month. We scratch our own itch. I have seen numerous groups try to form to support the new user. NewTLUG (now defunct), Toronto's Ubuntu user group (a handful of people) can't sustain the 16 years that TLUG has because new users don't stay new users. Either they don't care enough (too causal) or they grow. If a member grows and the group stays a new user group, then they will lose that person since they no longer are at that level. On the other hand if the group becomes more technical then they keep the users but exclude the very people that the group was created to cater for. I watched NewTLUG morph into the later, a technical group.

That then begs the question who supports the new user. We all do, but some of us don't all support them directly. GTALUG supports the people that supports the people that supports the new users. Our core group of 30 or so that show up month after month have a collective knowledge that is truly astounding in its breath and depth. We share freely what we know and argue endlessly about issues that affect us. There is no requirement to become part of that group other than to be fully engaged. Hence that is why we feel no obligation to support those that are not willing to support themselves. Linux is about freedom, not handouts. Pure altruism is not sustainable. Our time is limited and a precious resource. We give it freely to those that are willing to do the same. There are other models for groups that can support the new user. If you can figure out one, GTALUG will be more that happy to support your efforts. That is why we exists.

-- Drew Sullivan, president GTALUG.

Computer Support

As a computer refurbisher I see quite a few people that need support. Universally it seems that It doesn't matter what the operating system is, some people just don't have the confidence or willingness to learn on their own what they want to know. Some of our clients don't know the difference between a web browser and a word processor. What we've found is that if people are willing to try Linux, they're usually quite happy with it, provided we're on top of their support questions.

It also doesn't seem to matter whether the end user has or doesn't have previous computer experience. One of our clients bought both a Windows and Linux system from us. That client had never tried Linux before. I saw him outside of work a few weeks ago and he started telling me about how happy he was with the Linux system (because it's been more stable than his Windows system). All of our volunteer machines run Linux, so whenever we have a new volunteer they learn a bit about Linux (even if it's not to fear Linux). Some clients only want the computer for a particular purpose. In one case we had a client who ONLY wanted the computer to play Tetris. We loaded a system with a dozen different Tetris games under Linux. They came back to us upset one day saying all the Tetris games were gone... what had happened? A "friend" had loaded a pirated copy of Windows XP on the system because the friend thought it would be better for them.

The key really does seem to be support.

Re Reaching Out To Which Community?

Artie wrote: "You do know Mr. Blaine, that one negative experience hardly represents what Linux is about? How many Mac or Windows upgrades have you done inside a virtual machine, or at all? Did you quit Mac after one bad experience? Have all of your Mac or Windows experiences been perfect and trouble-free?"

It was my second bad experience. I tried a year earlier using the previous version of VMWare Fusion, and I couldn't get anything to work then, either. Granted, that upgrade worked. But nothing else did.

I use Windows XP often in a virtual machine, and also as a dual-boot on the Macbook Pro. I wouldn't have Windows installed except for the very small handful of apps (2 in my case) that don't run on the Mac. Compared to anything else, my 18 years of using Macs as my OS of choice has been a breeze, granted with a few easy to overcome hiccups.

My argument stands. Unless Linux becomes less geeky, it will remain marginalized to the geeks and the corporations that run it as an enterprise OS for some applications.... but certainly not on mainstream desktops in the home or business.

And if the negativity towards "noobs" (a derogatory term often used in geekdom) adds to this marginalization, then it gets worse for the platform's future.

New Linux users

I wholeheartedly agree, the most important users is the new Linux user, the non technical new user especially. I've been using Linux since 2000, so that's 10 years to date. I've been promoting Linux, and assisting new users for about the last 6 or 7.

I've been doing this, not on your Linux Forums and other geek sites, there's really no point, the people who visit those are at least as technically sophisticated as I am, and often more. Instead I've been providing help, advice and Linux advocacy on Social Websites specifically FreeThinkers Pub on Yuku. These are the places Linux advocates need to make their presence known, places where they can quietly and persistently advocate Linux, and keep the Linux 'Brand' in front of people.

The trick is to be helpful and courteous, to avoid as much as possible being strident, but to quietly and persistently continue to show people why Linux is the best choice. When people require help, for what ever operating system, give it to them to the best of your ability, and or provide links to better advice.

The important thing is not to be the be all and end all of knowledge, although you will gain that reputation anyway, but to be known as the Linux person, and to gain a reputation for always being helpful. Even when you are helping with a problem on a different OS you are still keeping the Linux 'Brand' visible.



one glitch and you're gone?

You do know Mr. Blaine, that one negative experience hardly represents what Linux is about? How many Mac or Windows upgrades have you done inside a virtual machine, or at all? Did you quit Mac after one bad experience? Have all of your Mac or Windows experiences been perfect and trouble-free?

Marcel's point is indeed spot-on-- I would like to add that for those folks who do not have the inclination or patience to deal with noobs, do please do us the kindness of not being mean to them. Just go quietly do something else, and let us who do want to invest our time in helping noobs do it without interference.

Re. Reaching Out To Which Community?

Spot on article.

Here's the 2 kopeks of a marketing guy who has spent more than a decade in the consumer marketing trenches...

Note that I am not a Linux user, but a reasonably advanced computer user... I have played around with Ubuntu, but deleted the VMWare Fusion partition on my Macbook Pro when Ubuntu, well, barfed upon attempting an automatic upgrade after installation. There's 2 hours of my life I'll never get back. The only choices I had to find a fix were spending hours or days digging through extremely geeky websites written in gobbledegook to find a fix, or throwing the partition in the trash. I chose the latter. I've wasted enough of my life finding fixes for Windows (which were usually quite necessary for productivity), so wasn't about to do the same for Linux.

Concerning Marcel's valid argument: Imagine what life would be like if automobiles remained a plaything only for the geeky (well, geeky for the early 1900s) and the rich, and Henry Ford didn't invent the Model T for the masses. If the masses don't embrace something, it'll die or become totally marginalized. That's Linux' Achilles' Heel and its potential future. If I get frustrated with it, and there's no reasonably easy fix, then Mr. or Mrs. Layman will not even try it.

The expanse of space surrounding Planet *buntu is getting busier and busier. As a result, achieving a stable orbit is particularly difficult when you're easily distracted. Consequently, Marcel Gagné's blog looks at pretty much anything and everything that orbits Planet *buntu. News, howtos, rumors, opinions, controversy, tech tips, helpful hints . . . you'll find it all here. Oh look! A shiny object!

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