December 6, 2009

Real Linux Advocates Educate, Not Humiliate

Article Source Dissociated Press
December 6, 2009, 1:52 pm

Checking Twitter yesterday I caught a link to "Command Line Idiocy," a post that rips apart an article on "10 powerful CLI tools."Â¬â  Here's a short sample of the flavor of the piece:

It would seem Linux users canâÃôt catch a break. Every year, blow-hard journalists will try out a Linux LiveCD, decide itâÃôs actually worthwhile, and declare date +%Y to be the year of Linux on the Desktop, only to run around screaming about how Linux isnâÃôt ready for mainstream users after they manage to screw their system over while fiddling with sudo.

Combine that with the fact that the majority of journalists who do routinely cover Linux do so as an off-shoot of their Windows coverage, and thusly you end up with ignorant writers âÃúinformingâÃù the masses. There are precious few good sources of Linux news (cough, lwn.net), yet a truly staggering amount of shoddy journalism.

So, here we have member of the Linux community that's dripping with contempt for people who cover technology that aren't as expert as they are.

And, indeed, a case can be made that this happens frequently: A writer or journalist that covers tech "discovers" Linux and decides they want to spread the word. In their enthusiasm, they bite off a bit more than they're ready to chew, and get some (often many) things wrong, and put up a piece that more expert Linux users recognize as flawed. The results of which can vary from mildly amusing to somewhat harmful if the author has given either a very wrong impression or faulty advice that might lead others to futzing up their systems.

So, by all means, a response is called for. It's the flavor of response that I disagree with. Where some might approach the author and gently correct their errors, and perhaps even offer help and resources to allow them to create better materials, others take the piss out of the hapless author and try to demonstrate their superiority by ripping mercilessly on the author.

Which brings me to the title of this post: Real Linux advocates educate, not humiliate.

The Linux community is, unfortunately, saddled with a reputation for being populated nearly exclusively with arrogant elitists who enjoy mocking noobs and generally being asses to people who know less than they do. The "Ubuntard" response to this author simply reinforces this attitude.

Worse yet, instead of helping to correct the situation they've put a writer or journalist on the defensive and made it entirely likely that the author will either stop writing about Linux and FOSS out of fear of getting it wrong again, or ensured that they now have a negative attitude about Linux which is unlikely to benefit the community at large should they choose to cover Linux again.

We should be better than this.

Not for a minute am I suggesting that the article go uncorrected. By all means, drop the author a note or leave a comment that gently corrects the errors. For added bonus points, offer to help spot-check the next piece they care to write, or point them in the way of some better resources.

I give the original author credit for a few things:

  • They actually sign their name to the things they write. In my book, you lose several thousand points of credibility unless you're willing to use your name when writing, unless you have genuine reasons for not doing so. (i.e., someone living in an oppressive regime that fears reprisal for political commentary -- not someone taking the piss out of named tech authors online.)
  • They were actually trying to be informative. OK, minus many points for missing the mark, but they tried.
  • They have enthusiasm for the command line. Getting some CLI stuff wrong doesn't irk me half as much as the "OMG, not the CLI!!" pieces that pop up so often about how Linux is unsuitable because you might need to touch the shell once in a great while.

That's material that can be worked with. Yes, the original article was flawed. But if approached correctly, many of the writers who want to cover Linux can be helped to get it right. And what we want, at least what I want, is more people spreading the word about Linux. The odds of the humiliation approach being effective are zero. You've just gotten off on the wrong foot with a potential advocate and this approach will do absolutely nothing to correct the next newbie journalist before they write their first flawed article, because they're not going to read this sadistic diatribe before penning their first piece. It's only perpetuating the arrogant elitist stereotype, which many others have been working quite hard to correct.

It's important to remember that most journalists are generalists, not experts. And right now, most of those generalists are scrambling like mad to meet deadlines and try to pump out as much material as possible. Yes, they'll get things wrong from time to time. Most people eff up in their jobs from time to time, the primary difference is that journalists and bloggers do so in full public view. Nearly every error is going to be on public display. (Plus the ones made by subsequent editors and people in the editorial chain, assuming one is working for a publication that still has an editorial chain, but I digress...)

While it's important to correct errors, the approach is important too. One commenter claimed that the newbie author "deserved" the treatment -- which is complete and utter garbage. What they "deserve" is to be met with an understanding community that's willing to forgive some errors in the hope of a better long-term relationship and future, more accurate, coverage. You'd be deeply surprised by how much better that approach is, and how much more effective.

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