October 24, 2006

The FOSS community makes new users feel welcome

Author: Lisa Hoover

After being semi-comfortably ensconced in the world of Microsoft products since the days of Windows 3.0, I recently joined the growing ranks of people who realize the value in switching to open source software. What surprised me most about changing operating systems wasn't the myriad of different Linux distributions (how refreshing) nor the vast control they give users over their systems (what liberation). No, what surprised me most was how friendly and welcoming the open source community has been.

Lately, I have been spending my spare time trying out what seems like 500 different versions of Linux on my desktop PC. I've become a regular fixture in certain IRC chat rooms and often roam from channel to channel, watching various conversations roll by on the screen to see what tidbits of knowledge I can pick up. I read public discussions on everything from pesky printer problems to what's the best open source instant messenger program, and I've also joined dozens of email lists to keep up with current FOSS news.

In every chat room, mailing list, and forum -- almost without exception -- my questions and comments have been received with patience, grace, and humor. I doubt I would be alone in saying that the friendly assistance I've received across the board has been the saving grace during some rather trying installation difficulties I've encountered in recent weeks.

When stories of dissension and loud differences of opinion make the news, it's easy to jump to the conclusion that the open source community is driven by egos and Type-A personalities more interested in finger-pointing than in resolution. My experience, however, is that situations of that ilk are the exception rather than the rule.

Advice for newbies

There are a few things new users can do to encourage a warm reception from others within the community, and while this is often-heard advice, it bears repeating.

If you find you can't solve a problem on your own, your first line of defense is a good search engine. Looking for specific code? Try Koders, Krugle, or Google Code Search. Want a specific application? Try freshmeat or SourceForge.net.

If you have a problem with a package you've installed, or are trying to install, visit its Web site, locate an IRC chat room related to the application or distribution, and join the channel. Be polite and remember that there are most likely other conversations taking place before your arrival. Succinctly state the problem you're having and let the group know you tried searching on your own and came up empty-handed.

Wait patiently for a response, since others in the room may be busy and unable to respond right away. Respect and politeness will garner the same from others and, chances are, you'll get a variety of helpful responses in just a few short minutes.

Free and open source software is more than a business model. It's a philosophy, and, by its very nature, it evokes passion among participants. Furthermore, the vast majority of people working on development, maintenance, and bug-squashing are voluntarily contributing to the community on their own time. Often when the only recognition of your efforts comes in the form of praise from your peers, it's tough to not become exasperated by the little things and easy to let molehills become mountains. But, generally speaking, I have found members of the community to be respectful and generous.

Clearly, all organizations -- from Little League baseball teams to churches to cubicle farms and sprawling corporate offices -- have their share of inner politics and people who don't want to play nice. It's the nature of group interaction; there is usually someone who wants to be heard above everyone else or who resents the intrusion of a new person who will just slow everyone else down by asking loads of questions.

While I'm sure such people exist in the open source community, they are almost always quieted by the welcoming nature of the larger group of people found on mailing lists and IRC chat rooms. In fact, the appearance of "fresh meat" sometimes seems to energize the regulars, who are happy to see another person joining the fold.

Let's face it -- though support of open source software is gaining mainstream traction, it is still viewed by many as "the hacker's choice," and committing to it presents inherent challenges from a logistical perspective. First, you're confronted with dozens of different distributions to choose from, all claiming to be better and more functional than the next. After installation, you have to get all your drivers and hardware to function properly (and woe to you if you want your laptop to have wireless capability). Then there's the learning curve associated with customizing the system to your liking.

If someone sticks around without throwing in the towel and going back to proprietary software, there will certainly come a point where he or she will seek help from others in the community. An atmosphere that welcomes new users goes a long way toward building confidence that open source has a strong future.

Getting people to switch to open source is only half the battle. Keeping them is what counts.


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