Google is not your friend, and neither are they that suggest it is.

Join many IRC channels, Web forums or Mail lists in order to seek help or assistance with a particular problem or issue and there is a very good chance that you may be referred back to Google. Sometimes, unfortunately all to regularly in the open source community, you’ll be encouraged to JFGI. I have been guilty, in the past, of this particular attitude and it amazes me how easily I slipped into becoming a Google snob. So this post is as much a rebuttal of my previous attitudes as it is a reminder to others to be more accommodating.

Its not the Auntie Madge or Grandma Butlers who are joining IRC and Web forums ( Although the Sussex Linux User group does have its share of Grandmas’ ) but the technically competent and genuinely interested who wish to give Linux and open source software a real opportunity These are the very same people who have already , like myself , spent hours or even days attempting to configure and resolve some issue in the Windows world. Unlike the Microsoft world though we have created a large and easily contactable community through various on line mechanisms. These new users have already discovered those communities through the power of Google and feel that it may be possible to get some one to one support and advice relating to their questions. Imagine then the frustration and annoyance and being treated in a dismissive and frankly snobbish fashion when they ask an apparently new question. Its not surprise to me that many of the “defensive” windows and Microsoft users I meet are the way they are when you discover the responses they received to asking “simple” questions. When I read posts like Another Lost year for Linux I realise that our strengths in the open source community can indeed become our weakness. Many a new user to the open source community experience the issue of not finding the answer to their problem. Instead they need to find the answer to their specific problem and have already Googled the results for themselves.

The provision of support and end user assistance is an extremely sensitive and fragile topic to many open source enthusiasts. The division and levels of support and its acceptability in the community are wide and vast, and the possibility of the definitive statement on where it begins will never be settled. We have enabled so many different and varied ways of sharing information among many, many , individuals that answers to any question are available anywhere . We should therefore continue to be aware that new enthusiasts will be joining at any moment and that we should do what we can to help them discover where and how to help themselves and to help each other. We should avoid snobbishness or elitist attitudes. It should not be acceptable to establish authority or rightness solely on the privileges of access or attendance such as the operator rights or long term membership of a group. More importantly we need to remember that being dismissive or negative about just one persons inquiry does nothing other than to damage the view of the whole community and not just that member.

The next time you encounter a situation where you feel the need to tell someone to Google the answer, read the friendly manual or consider their questioning technique take a moment and try a new tactic. If you dont wish to give an answer then dont give a unhelpful or unfriendly one. It would be better to provide direct links based on your own googling than to embarrass or upset a possible new friend.

Thanks for reading.

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13 Comments on “Google is not your friend, and neither are they that suggest it is.

  1. I have to agree that IRC can be an unfriendly place at times. I think #ubuntu is a much more friendly place than other channels on Freenode. I must say though, it becomes extremely aggravating when I see “how do I install packages?” 6-10 times in the span of an hour. I just have to remember that ubotu is there for me with the shortcut answers.

    Also, what is there to do about the users that refuse to read? There have been times when I’ll refer people to pages on the wiki, through ubotu or cutting and pasting URLs, specifically addressing their question. Inevitably, they’ll return to the channel 2 minutes later and ask once again (up arrow then enter). I’ll say, “that wiki page has the answer you need.” Alas, it’s no use, they ask again. It seems like there are a few users that refuse anything other than being spoon fed the information. Thoughts?

  2. Excellent article! I really enjoyed reading it.

  3. Interesting post.

    BTW, could you consider improving your attention to grammar/detail? Your quote at the top says “Dr. Suess” for “Dr. Seuss”; it’s “all too regularly”; “Many a new user […] experiences” (or simply “Many new users experience”); “It’s”, “person’s inquiry”, …

    The problem is probably that some people are sick of hearing the same questions over and over again and answering them each time. Fortunately, most IRC channels have discovered the solution that allows them to be polite and informative without greatly troubling themselves for every question — to have a bot that has answers to the most common questions and which can be triggered by a few keys.

  4. Yes, some people can be rude about RTFM, but that doesn’t mean that it’s bad practice to help people learn how to get better answers. I frequently see people make the same mistakes on IRC asking questions like “is anyone here?” and leaving a minute later when they haven’t gotten a response. Most of us probably made similar mistakes when we were new, but someone pointed us in the right direction and we learned. Yes, you should be polite and give good answers, but it’s also important to help people learn how to anwser their own questions.

  5. Usually, the reason people ask a question in IRC is not because they haven’t searched on google, but rather because they have, and came up blank.

    This could be because they used the wrong search terms, weren’t sure how to narrow down the scope and ended up with way too much info, or because it was an odd problem to start with.

    It’s perfectly fine for someone helping them to hit google, as they’ll probably have better search terms to throw at it. And, yes, with the better search terms, the question is probably answered in one of the top 5 links. The reason someone came to ask for help is because of that.

    Also, for the Ubuntu IRC chat at least, there’s always Ubotu hanging around. The information given through the ! commands is usually spot-on, and really can help people out. To those asking the questions, don’t discount the info a bot throws at you as ‘bad’ just because it came from a bot. Someone took the time to type up a howto or info page, and someone took the time to link it into the bot. When Ubotu gives you something, you’re benifiting from possibly 3 people (the person who triggered Ubotu, the person who wrote the line for Ubotu to reply with, and the webpage it gave you).

  6. A well-stated call for sanity! I was digging for dirt on the Google corporation but this blog post is very timely: this year our LUG is re-emphasising our focus on free and friendly user support. I think this can be the make-or-break of Linux take up for general purpose desktop computing.

  7. The title of this post is (probably deliberately) quite misleading. Google *is* my friend. I have a pretty good google-gland and am able to find things pretty quickly as a result.

    That isn’t true of everyone of course, but surely if the answer is out there, we should give them the skills to find it (teach a man to fish), not refuse to reference google because doing so is rude. A simple “have you tried googling using the manufacturers name and model number” teaches someone much more than pasting the resulting URLs, or indeed as I have seen the google search url itself!

    From my point of view, “I am not your google-bitch”, if you want help then you have to be prepared to help yourself even just a little.

    An example, in the Hampshire Linux User Group irc channel irc:// we used to have someone who would arrive, instantly ask a question, and when they have their answer leave. This person didn’t contribute in *any* way to the conversation, never offered any help, never stuck around to answer anyone elses questions or in any other way give back. This was frustrating and irritating – especially after the twentieth time, with no googling whatsoever on their part.

    Is that fair? Is it right that someone should ignore requests to JFGI repeatedly? Should we (the community) just put up with it? I don’t think so, I think it’s somewhat disengenuous to suggest that we should. These people need to be able to stand on their own two feet and not rely so totally on the community, but get a grip and RTFM & JFGI once in a while!

  8. If I want support I normally consult my desk lamp from which I normally get more assistance.

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  10. I agree that there are some newbies whose question could be answered easily by Google, but there are many people, like me, who tend only to pose questions once we’ve tried. In these cases, the JFGI response generates annoyance.

    Generally, when I ask a question, it usually means that I have already googled, but not been able to find information that answers my question specifically.

    There might be a number of reasons for this, but the three most common are:

    – I lack a conceptual framework into which to put to use the answers that google has turned up.

    – I don’t know what terms I’m meant to be using.

    – I’ve found several different pages in google, but they give different, conflicting advice, and while I’ve now tried several, none actually seemed to work in my installation

    The first reason is, alas, very common in the Linux world, for many new users. They want to know how to change the font colour to red in AardvarkManager (as far as I know, a hypothetical piece of software for this post – certainly google returns 0 results). Being told to read the section about AardvarkOverlays (which runs to only 37 pages in a PDF) is seldom useful when up against a deadline, when a better answer would have been “Type CTRL-F, CTRL-G, then type in #F00”.

    The second – I often don’t know what I’m meant to be asking for. Knowing that the words on a screen have a colour associated to something called a “font” is likely to be useful information for me in the future. Knowing that AardvarkManager calls something an AardvarkOverlay isn’t if I’m not going to be a regular user.

    And the third is, alas, the most common for me. I am fairly IT literate, I’ve been programming computers for over 25 years, but quite often the documentation google turns up is for integrating widget X with either a previous version of application Y, or specific to installation Z.

    Final thought: A new user who gets the information they want, but is left with the impression that the OSS world is full of unwelcoming, arrogant people is unlikely to become a long-term convert.

  11. LOL I’m not a linux user, all of that messing with operating systems is far beyond me, but for anything else the only person I tell to ‘google it’ is my brother – mainly because I know he’s too lazy to try to find anything out himself as I’m always his first call and it gets annoying – anyone eles I do as you suggest here, send ’em links to help ’em help themselves.
    I’ve not seen the rtfm page before *grin* I love this line:

    PEBKAC : “Problem Exists Between Keyboard And Chair”

    That’ll keep me chuckling for a while methinks..

  12. Well it all depends what you consider is of most help to the questioner, and most efficient for the (usually) limited support resource.

    I’ve been answering questions in the Exim users’ mailing list for longer than I care to remember – I’m on the moderation team, too. We get our fair share of questions which beg one or more of the answers ‘Read the Docs’, ‘Search the archives’ or ‘Ever heard of Google??’.

    Every few months, someone comes along with a particularly easy-to-Google question, gets shown how easily they could have found out the answer themselves, and starts on a rant about how unhelpful we are, and tells us in no uncertain terms that they’ll never be back.

    Well.. good. I support OSS for fun. Repeatedly looking something up in the docs (using the same tool that the user could have used), and pasting the search results into an email isn’t that much fun. It’s the same for most other OSS support routes – nobody’s being paid to do the support, and the user needs to consider the needs of the support people when joining the party. It’s a 2-way thing.

    There’s always an alternative route – take out a support contract and pay someone (me, even…) to search Google for you.