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The decline and fall of the Linux forum

Posted 10-26-2015 at 09:51 AM by cynwulf
Updated 07-02-2018 at 04:34 PM by cynwulf

Foreword

As this is a blog, you may find some comments offensive. If this is indeed the case, then I would strongly advise against reading blogs - or grow a thicker skin. The comments or examples in this article are not directed at anyone or any particular forum. I may allude to some forums, but won't name any names - if you make the connection, you might have made the right or the wrong connection. This is mainly because, it's not fair to those sites to just single them out and name and shame them - hopefully they read this, hopefully they improve things, probably not, but who knows...

If you're reading this diatribe through to the end, then this is probably directed at you. This is not directed at the new members who need to 'RTFM' or 'STFW' or the members who post that. It's directed at people who are the best kind of Linux forum member - those who post technical answers and try to help others and xshare their experience and knowledge in a transparent way. This is for you to think about or dismiss as you see fit - not for you to agree with or disagree with - it is, as they say, 'provided as is' ( and without warranty).

Finally I am not going to discuss "unfair moderator action" or how "forum xyz sucks because I got banned!". That's not what this is about, so if you're going to add comments to the effect that you were on the receiving end at such and such a forum, that's a shame, but such comments will be deleted.


Introduction

I wasn't around in the early days of the web, in fact when I started using computers though there was no web, I was late getting on board and I also think that those of us in the UK were held back a little by the educational establishment. When I decided to take a part time college course in the late 90's (I was out of work for a while and hated sitting around doing nothing), it was Windows NT4, The MS office which was built to run on 16 bit windows and the amazing thing is that the PCs were networked... the www/internet? Linux? BSD? What? Back then virtually no one had the internet at home. I remember going to the library in the early days before I bought a dial up modem and subscribed to a "pay as you go" service.

This is about Linux forums in general, where they go wrong, how they get it right and how they can improve and be successful. It's not about singling out any particular forum, whether distribution specific or general.

'Official' forums

Several years ago a 'big' Linux distribution decided to take direct ownership of the biggest fan forum. They weren't the first nor the last to have an official forum, but I certainly think their decision was a momentous one and the effects have been lasting and influential.

If you can't see any issues at all with 'official' forums, and there may be none at all at a given forum, please read on - I hope to convince you to at least consider why they can be damaging or at least counter productive.

Official distribution forums... : -

- Especially for corporate backed distributions, protect the reputation of the distro involved and the company funding or promoting it.

- Stick rigidly to the systems, practices and methods of the distribution and do not encourage members to experiment with other methods (what free software should be all about).

- Tend to morph into volunteer free tech support for the distribution

- Discourage or ban discussion of other distributions

- Censor negativity about the distribution, sometimes aggressively

- Censor / ban discussion relating to certain decisions for the inclusion of certain software in the distribution

- Can be used as a platform for pushing the backer's or parent company's other products - often proprietary ones.

- PR is a factor, so forced politeness and political correctness and answering any and all questions in a nice sugar coated manner is actively encouraged by the administration.

- The above practices can be 'viral' in nature and tend to propagate elsewhere - even on a subliminal level - for example if an individual involved in an official forum becomes a moderator at another forum, or if some members join other forums. This is because those people may leave the official forums with the basic idea that the forum does things the "correct way".

Official forums have their uses, but when all is said and done, they can just end up being "fan clubs". The 'distribution agnostic' user will not find them too interesting - and most experienced users are distribution agnostic. In my opinion: If discussion can't be reasonably open, then the forum is essentially a useless 'circle jerk' for fanbois only.

Note: I am only discussing Linux here, but I am also aware of similar issues with other free *nix official forums.

The culture of something for nothing

We've all seen it a hundred times and it can be as irritating as haemorrhoids to some, while others are content to either ignore it or oblige.

There has been and always will be people who are active in the "Linux community" to freeload off others.

There are those who have 'googled', bull-shitted and copy and pasted their way as far as they can, but the stumbling block will be lack of basic knowledge. Any config file they have for e.g. samba, sudo or even their repositories config file will be full of copypasta from some random blog or woefully out of date documentation.

The trademark of such users, is that they will only release the specific bits of information they believe is necessary for you to solve their problem for them.

In worse cases they will treat any forums, official and otherwise, as a "support channel", behaving like consumers - and if you provide an answer which they do not like, they will usually ignore you or post something like "that is not a solution". Yes you got that right, there are some people out there who demand solutions spoon fed to them with colic drops, not answers.

Worse still are those whom, on being corrected or advised that what they are trying to do is not the right way, will usually reply that they've been "running agadoo Linux mixed unstable and emotional branches for 10 + years (as root) and has NEVER HAD A PROBLEM!" or "yes I'm running X as root, I HAVE TO run X as root, don't tell me NOT to run X as root!" (going overboard on upper case is another sure sign). So clearly that distribution is not what it once was or you're a troll - either way someone is of course to blame, but not them. Attempts at reasoning and correction will usually fail, though some eager helpers will of course oblige...

Such spoon feeding doesn't help anyone, it's not "helping Linux", it's not making Linux more "popular".

The fallacy of popularity

So Linux needs to be more popular and maybe you feel the need to promote that on a forum and be an "ambassador" for Linux/your top favourite distro?

Well Windows is popular and look how that has turned out? Presumably many of you reading, abandoned Windows or never used it in the first place and started using Linux for some other reason than it being "popular". If you didn't abandon windows and "dual boot" - well you still have windows, so Linux doesn't need popularity as far as you're concerned because you have another OS for all the things you can't do in Linux and dual booting is not going to make Linux more popular. Analogies are usually poor but what the 'heck' lets go for it.

1) You like a certain singer. You like that singer, do others also need to like that singer for you to like that singer? Or can you just like that singer because you like them?

2) You buy something 'quality' because it's popular? Are the best products used by the masses or are their certain little known better products which you know are better and which you prefer use, which are not common knowledge?

3) Think of any given product that was niche and little known, that was a quality product, that was preferred by those who used it. Then think about what happened when that product got more popular, went "mainstream", in order to appeal to a wider audience and to cater for the lowest common denominator. It was watered down and production moved to the far east to cope with demand and then the brand was diluted by offering a range instead of the one long established quality original.

So in terms of Linux, think about what you gain from popularity. Many will say "hardware support", but in fact lots more people running desktops and more user friendly distributions doesn't improve hardware support.

It might shock you, but the vast majority of device drivers are actually written by volunteers and some are reverse engineered. There are too many drivers to count in the kernel and the ones for your hardware are vital to you. Sadly when many people say 'drivers', they are thinking in windows terms and probably only know about some proprietary video driver. For them the existence of these drivers is "progress". If you think that big business pay people to sit down and write drivers for "1% of the desktop market" think again. Where there are drivers, they're there because there is a business case or an interest into research in that area from the company involved. This is not some exec realising that lots of people are running some popular distribution and that they need to act now.

(I actually once read a post where someone said of the nouveau driver words to the effect that they didn't want "some crap 3rd party driver I want the DRIVER FOR MY CARD!!!1111". My response was to advise him to find vendor drivers for every single driver provided in the Linux kernel and good luck with that...)

Popular "user friendly" distributions which have an easy graphical installer are also misleading. Someone can get these running with ease and be browsing the web in no time. On forums, from people with average technical ability, this translates to "Linux is now easy and you don't need to use the command line!". This is actually not true and amounts to misleading "marketing". These flashy systems can and do break and like any Linux system, it's usually the command line which is required to fix it. You cannot fix a broken system with the GUI. Usually for every one of these systems in use, there is a volunteer (family) administrator doing the upgrades and updates and fixing any breakage...

You cannot even fix windows with the GUI most of the time as 9 times out of 10 the solution to fix that OS when it's FUBAR is to reinstall it. By trying to mimic the user friendly "NO COMMAND LINE" approach, some Linux distributions are simply heading down the same route as proprietary OS and ignoring one of the great strengths of *nix systems - the command line. This is the path to crippled systems and total dependency. This is why the command line should always be part of any help and new users posting on forums should be expected to use it. If someone refuses to use it, it's likely that they can't be helped and those reading and thinking of responding should probably just move on. Such people should stick to a supported, most likely proprietary, consumer oriented OS preinstalled for them.

If popularity means dumbing down to suit migrants from proprietary OS - you don't need it.

Pure RTFM/STFW posters

This "vocation" is quite simply the perverse polar opposite of just not spoon feeding people.

There is a big problem with these kinds of answers - mainly that they don't require that the poster have any kind of skills or experience. This means that anyone with the balls and the ability to put up a convincing front (not too difficult when using an anonymous medium) can become the next "forum veteran", in the right circumstances/conditions.

The poster usually exudes self confidence, may be an elaborate and eloquent poster and use fancy wording, many anecdotes (usually alluding to a professional history of some sort), analogies, etc, but will rarely, if ever, post anything technical - they will accrue a large post count and new users will just 'assume' or feel intimidated. In fact many of their posts may be ideological opinion pieces more suited to a one off blog post (like this one). To these people however, every post made by some wet behind the ears user, is the blank canvas for the next installment of their ongoing blog.

Most will spot such people easily, they tend to behave as if the forum revolves around them and as if they are on the stage. After getting comfortable they will start posting more and more anecdotal evidence, assuming that you're enthralled and captivated. Sadly they will fool quite a few of the fanboi types and even gain a few followers and 'emulators'. The person usually exudes an aura of "hidden knowledge", i.e "this guy knows more than he's letting on!" - in fact he probably knows very little and is just a simple fraud and a bully who gets off on putting down and ridiculing easy targets in an attempt to make up for his shortcomings.

You will also note that they curry favour with forum staff and keep potential threats onside or isolates them.

More than 9/10 posts will be STFW/RTFM combined with typical patronising comments. It's actually just another form of trolling - yet these types of posters like to label a lot of new users as trolls if they ask an ill researched question. Ironically they still often google the person's query and still waste their time posting and responding.

The problem

Many forums are now a massive sweaty scrum involving all of the above personalities and lots of people making assumptions - automatic assumptions often based on the contents of 1 post, in order to appear clever or as a means of "deflecting a blow". To be clear - this is both those asking and those answering.

We can all probably think back to the beginnings of our Linux forum participation and see where we asked our first few questions. I'm pretty sure none of us asked perfectly constructed or worded questions, no doubt we left out vital information as well. Probably because we just didn't know what information to include, what was expected and well, maybe just didn't really understand web forums or how they work.

The solution(s)

There are none, but you could try some of the following...

Don't be part of those forums which allow those kinds of cultures to develop and don't be part of that culture - choose individualism over "group think" or being part of some clique. You cannot change those forums - because it's likely that "admin knows best!" and you will simply be ignored, banned or asked to leave. You can vote with your feet however and try posting on a technical focused distribution agnostic forum - especially if this kind of thing is going on at your chosen official/de facto official forum.

You can also stand aside from the "gang" and give the benefit of the doubt to new users with poorly constructed questions. Ask for more info - without the attitude. They will reveal themselves and pre-empting won't earn you any respect.

On certain forums with these kinds of problems, it's all too apparent that expertise has migrated and fanbois and frauds have filled the void. There is no lack of expertise, they are just not using the forums anymore. That is, in essence, the big problem with many Linux forums today.

Thanks for reading if you made it this far.

Comments, errata, etc most welcome, but not rants about specific forums/staff (will be nuked on sight).

Footnote

I have tried to help people with Linux for years - and I claim to be no veteran or expert and have no professional background - but in recent times it's gotten to the stage where I do wonder why I bother. Too many people are just expecting a "stack exchange" style "give me a solution" answer and too many are actually setting out exactly the kind of answer they want to read and pretty much stipulating "don't tell me this" or "please don't ask me to do that", etc. It honestly feels like command line solutions are just wasted typing. All too often the person just reverts to their windows roots and reinstalls and claims that as a 'solution'.

As I migrated to *BSD in 2012, the idea of just giving up is all the more tempting. Over the last several months I've scaled down my involvement here and elsewhere and eventually I will probably stop answering questions altogether.
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Comments

  1. Old Comment
    What a thoughtful and well-written post.
    Posted 10-26-2015 at 01:42 PM by vmccord vmccord is offline
  2. Old Comment
    Thanks for such a thoughtful post.

    I think the observations are accurate, but I must say that I do not believe any of this behavior is new or that it's worse now than previously.

    I used to use newsgroups heavily for support and amusement. I particularly read alt.folklore.urban and rec.boats in the early 90s, when AFU was big and brawny, literate and active, and when I had a trailer boat. I also read and occasionally asked questions in various tech newsgroups, such as alt.html and alt.comp.virus (which was an anti-virus group and a great way to keep up with the latest DOS/Windows security news in those days).

    The groups I read were normally well-behaved; I stayed out the truly dicey groups, such as warez groups.

    Every bit of the behavior you described took place back then, also, in some groups much more than in others.

    I agree that this forum gets it right far more often than most.* This is, frankly, the only forum other than my LUG's private forum (that used to be a mailing list) that I've ever been motivated to participate in for just that reason.

    Nevertheless, I think that the negative behaviors you described have little to do with forums or with Linux (though they may have something to do with corporate self-interest when it's in play--recent history has shown that "corporate ethics" can far too often be--er--an oxymoron). Nasty, autocratic, selfish, self-centered, greedy behavior has nothing to do with forums or with Linux; it's human nature expressed in a different medium. Indeed, I think you will find find it wherever people gather.

    On a public forum, though, I do think it tends to be more out in the open.

    Just my two cents.

    ______________

    *I think that the style of the mods has a lot to do with this--they are generally quite patient and adapt a mode of teaching rather than penalizing, until someone pushes them too far.
    Posted 10-26-2015 at 03:34 PM by frankbell frankbell is offline
  3. Old Comment
    Thanks for the comments both.

    frankbell, by your own admission you only frequent this forum, so I would like to suggest that you have not seen the worst of it in recent times. I have seen other Linux forums decline rapidly over the last few years. I can name a few, but won't as that's not what this is about.

    The situation is a vicious circle. The new users arrive they post the usual leaching questions, they piss someone off and it feeds the problem. Then the next person gets snapped at - they don't come back. The people who take to the snappiness and RTFM approach and want to appear clever by emulating that stick around... Eventually you have a forum loaded with that kind of poster and the result is mostly STFW/RFTM posts and offtopic chatter. For these people the forum, or Linux forums in general, have a problem - lazy users who don't do their homework. They are partially correct, but in fact they are the problem - or part of it.

    It's the beginning of the end for any forum, because a forum is a living and breathing thing. It rolls and gathers momentum and people go there because it's active and because their questions will be answered. Once momentum is lost it cannot be regained easily if at all. For example you or I can just buy some webhosting and a domain and set up a forum - but we can't expect it to be active. You can't buy members and you can make people stay and post. Forums require a lot of hard work and effort and for the admin to understand that members are it's lifeblood and work with them, rather than simply remaining aloof and policing them. Members are the forum, not the admin or mods and not the software it runs on.

    The problem with modern "corporate Linux" forums and the "stackexchange" format is that members are being farmed like cattle to provide free tech support. This has created the odd cultural phenomenon that users are actually competing to answer questions for "trophy" points.

    Some of the type of forum in question had long term experienced people and people who did all the hard work - they wrote howtos and they set the mood. Staff had it easy because these posters led by example. It only takes bad administration and some trolls and/or a certain clique of STFW/RFM'ers to run riot and years of building that up can be lost in a matter of months or even weeks.
    Posted 10-26-2015 at 04:22 PM by cynwulf cynwulf is offline
    Updated 10-26-2015 at 04:26 PM by cynwulf
  4. Old Comment
    Quote:
    Originally Posted by frankbell View Comment
    I think the observations are accurate, but I must say that I do not believe any of this behavior is new or that it's worse now than previously.
    You are correct that such behaviour is not new. The problem is, as knowledgeable users disappear that behaviour becomes prominent, which drives most of the remaining knowledgeable members to leave, which leaves a forum with beginners trying to ask questions posted by people looking for customer support, with both being harassed by the loud frauds.

    There always has been and always will be bad apples in every barrel. With the disappearance of the bulk of knowledgeable members, while new and inexperienced users enter the picture, the bad apples can easily become the leaders of a forum if the board is poorly managed.
    Posted 10-26-2015 at 05:35 PM by Randicus Draco Albus Randicus Draco Albus is offline
  5. Old Comment
    Exactly. The 'decay' of experienced users can gain momentum quite easily - and when they're gone, they're gone.

    If a "veteran" user is surrounded by clueless users and coming across lots of the same repeat questions about X and proprietary drivers, wifi or installing flash, they are not going to stick around for long.

    When there are less experienced users on a forum, it's easier for the frauds to post pretentious ideological pieces and tell other users to STFW/RTFM - no one is there to bring them into check. The new users assume that they're dealing with the most experienced users. That's not a good situation.

    This kind of situation also means that staff also move on and are replaced by more of the frauds or their sympathisers... or just misguided staff who feel that they cannot allow their "friend" to be pulled over and given a ticket...
    Posted 10-29-2015 at 09:35 AM by cynwulf cynwulf is offline
  6. Old Comment
    Burnout. Yes. I suffer a bit from it also. I tolerate ingrates and posers badly. In the real world I am even worse.

    I am not the sharpest pencil in the box. But I try and live by the code of the road and help when I can. Having that hand slapped from time to time can be demoralizing. But it is online and I have very thick skin.

    I always try and get personal and polite like sitting around a outdoor campfire when posting because that is my style. It is a country boy thing/custom. I go off topic because of this style of posting
    but I just want to put the OP at ease. Not sound like a emotionless robot that does not care.

    It gets me in trouble from time to time. I always grin when some forum vampire member tries to chide me by "you did not have to be that way Rok". Replying on how I informed a member to be more detailed in posting his problem to solve his problem. But being detailed as always when I answer a new user by point by point suggestions on how to provide those details. Experienced users can live with a link and a few comments.

    There is momentum going on as changes in operating systems and internet popularity and cheaper gear are available to a larger planet of users. I've seen this before in other parts of my life but not with operating or computers. Which is actually a recent thing for me.

    One can disagree with my post. But I am no computer expert or IT professional or formally educated myself. But at least I am not a forum vampire. In all the years I have been a
    member here. I have only started maybe a dozen or so threads. Most of them not even questions.
    I have done distro reviews here and tried to pay forward for the valuable posts I have read on this forum. Feeling like I owed a debt.

    I try and teach myself, by myself. It is harder way to learn. But my preferred method of learning.

    Usually a ignore list suffices for me to keep me from dealing with folks I do not wish to know.
    Mine is pretty big here. But it takes a certain kind of member to make it to my list. Usually they show their true colors right away. I thank them for that at least.

    Hmmm. Do I hit the post now or just close the page? Awww. What the hell. It is just the internet.
    Posted 10-30-2015 at 10:11 AM by rokytnji rokytnji is offline
 

  



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