Getting Help With Linux

Typical open source *nix distributions open up quite an array of possibilities.  Using one you can easily set up a Web, Email, Database or whatever server.  You can do it with anything from an old PC you have laying around to a brand new server type machine too, on either a fast connection in a datacenter or your residential broadband connection.  And, if you’re new to these operating systems, setting up a server is a great way to learn.

Although the task of say setting up a Web server for a site like this is not very hard, for the new user it can be kind of intimidating.  Just as knowing how to use Microsoft Office does not automatically qualify you to run a Windows Web server, being familiar with say Ubuntu GNU/Linux as a desktop OS does not instantly mean you’re ready to set up Apache.  If one wants to learn to set up some sort of service, there are of course places to turn, namely the program’s Web site.  Google is also a great reference; just typing in something like linux apache php mysql yields numerous tutorials, for Linux and other systems.  Different distributions also have guides and tutorials.

Now, obviously a tutorial is only so helpful; at some point you’ll probalby need to ask a question.  Forums, mailing lists, and IRC channels are all great for this, and just about all Linux distros have these associated with them.  And so begins the major point of contention new *nix users might have:  You ask a question, and you’re told to go and RTFM (read the fucking fine manual).  Maybe there are more swears in there, or something else very rude.  This no doubt leaves new users with the impression that open source/Linux people are arrogant, elitest pricks.

Well, here’s the thing.  Arrogant, elitest pricks are everywhere; they exist in the open source movement, in businesses, at school, in the government, everywhere.  I won’t deny that you may very well talk to someone like that, and that they may very well waste your time.  It’s one of the risks you take when you interact with people.  But to say that all of us are like that is a rampant generalization.  Now, this is a hard thing to hear when you’re in the process of trying to get your new file server up and running, but you should really think about how exactly you ask the question.

Usually, people who get responses such as those mentioned above do so after asking a balnd, general question.  “How do I set up Samba?” is one such example.  As I mentioned, there are plenty of documents and guides for doing this.  Most of the time, this is just going to annoy people in a forum who are already aware of such guides, and figure that turning to say Google or the distributin’s home page should be blatantly obvious.  Sometimes, people will be nice and point you to a favorite guide they have, or will maybe give you a general response that probably won’t be all that useful (Do sudo apt-get install Samba, edit /etc/samba/smb.conf, add Samba users, and then do sudo /etc/init.d/samba restart.) to you as a new user.  And then some people will tell you to f*** off.

Again, there are assholes, and you will run into them.  But also remember that using only text it’s quite possible for emotions to be misinterpreted or even lost completely.  And, many users of open source are just that: users.  They are hanging around on forums on their own time, which they don’t like to waste.  So, a user may come off as an asshole anyway.  How can you minimize this and not make everyone think you’re an idiot n00b?  Well, it’s simple:

  • Try use Google or applicable documentation first.  Try to get whatever it is working on your own the best you can.
  • If you’re just not sure of something, ask about that specifically in say a forum rather than “How do I configure xyz.”  As long as you give some indication that you actually tried to read and understand available material so the other members don’t have to regurgitate it, you’ll probably be fine.
  • Take note of any errors, or strange behavior, and ask specific questions using this information.  Get comfortable going through things like system logs also; they can provide helpful information for people who really know what the program does and can thus provide the best advice.
  • Search the forums for similar issues; someone else may have had your problem and solved it.  If not, you may be able to get an idea of how to tackle your problem, or what information to provide the community.
  • Finally, along with the above say you’re a newbie, and that you’re doing your best to get your machine running.  Remember you’re interacting with people, not a machine like with Google.  Be polite.

Now, before I go on, I would just like to point out that this does not give experienced users the right to be jerks at the tip of a hat.  Some people will troll, and just try to annoy, but if someone seems genuinely confused, but maybe not accustomed to the community support model a forum provides, the appropriate response is to politely inform them to go through the proper channels.

Well hopefully this will clear some things up.  Just remember that a lot of what response you get depends on how you ask the question.  So, take a moment, and make sure you’re holding up your end.