Many years ago, I stumbled into and read a document entitled How To Ask Questions The Smart Way. It’s an excellent document that should be required reading for people to get their Internet license. I’ve been in those channels, helped those newbies, had the same frustrations and seen the same patterns as the people who wrote that. Probably in different contexts, but when you read something like that and laugh to yourself, or think “Yeah, seriously!” then you know there’s some common experience there. This post isn’t really intended to be a thorough counterpoint to that one, just a little food for thought.

When you’re in the position of the Expert, you see Newbies every day. They come in asking the same questions as every other newbie, for the most part, in more or less eloquent ways, and pushing anywhere from one to all of the buttons that really piss the Experts off. Mostly these involve expecting the impossible of the Expert or making him do all the work so the Newbie has to do none of it.

There are a few kinds of user I see commonly. One of them, and unfortunately the most common, is the Dumb Newbie. This is the guy that can’t  figure out simple things on his own, doesn’t bother or doesn’t know how to even approach the manual, and thinks Google is a very large number. They are mostly useless and the best you can hope for is to get it over with quickly or to ignore them. Depending on how kind-hearted you are, you may pity the Dumb Newbie and help him out more often than your fellows, but inevitably he wears you down and you become just as jaded as the rest of the older Experts around.

To the Expert, three factors go into whether or not you get help: How easy it is to answer your question, how interesting your question is, and how motivated the Expert feels at that particular moment. If all three of these are prominent, you’ve got a pretty good shot. Usually they are in a much lesser state of balance, and if you’re that guy who brings the hard, boring problem to a bunch of disinterested dudes idling in an IRC channel, well, you’re pretty much SOL.

The Intelligent Newbie is a rare breed. He tends to bring an interesting problem that he doesn’t know how to approach, and he takes what you give him and runs with it. He soaks up the knowledge like a sponge, makes intuitive leaps and progress without being spoonfed, and is generally Not A Dick. He usually knows the rules of engagement beforehand. The Intelligent Newbie is a pleasure to work with; it is a genuinely rewarding experience to be an integral part of the joy of discovery for someone else.

The third kind of user is the Foreign Newbie. Sometimes he’s hard to tell apart from the Dumb Newbie, because he doesn’t speak your language very well. Sometimes he can turn out to be an Intelligent Newbie who just can’t communicate, but the chances are no better than someone who can communicate fluently. Because the Expert is so used to encountering the Dumb Newbie, the Foreign Newbie sometimes gets the snub. I’ve done it a few times personally, and I always feel pretty bad when I realize my mistake and put in extra effort to compensate. I can’t speak a word of his language, but he’s struggling to communicate with me. That’s worth something.

I’m sure there are others that could be named, but this gives you an idea of where the Expert is coming from. The majority of his time is spent dealing with Dumb Newbies, and it becomes a hassle for him. He gets cynical and bored. This is where things tend to go sour. When a large proportion of the Experts in residence get jaded, the community stops being a helpful resource and tends to drive away all the wannabe Experts over a period of time. It becomes less friendly, more abrupt, and less useful. The true anathema to resource channels on IRC is the Bot.

The Bot is that seemingly useful resource that sits there and answers commands with pertinent information. The Bot comes around when the Experts get tired of dealing with the Dumb Newbie personally. They load the pre-fab stock answers into the Bot and when Newbies come around, they type Bot triggers until the Newbie gets his answer or goes away. The Bot lowers the level of effort and motivation required for action from the Expert, but it also does something insidious. The Expert stops really paying attention. He tends to slot every question that comes around into Dumb Newbie territory immediately, and peremptorily pound out some Bot trigger with a stock answer with nary a thought as to whether the answer fits or not. Undoubtedly it does, much of the time.

What, then, becomes of that rare breed, the Intelligent Newbie? Well, he gets lumped into Dumb Newbie territory too and written off. Unless he’s personally known to the members of the channel, which requires either random associations or long-term interest in/association with the channel’s subject, he’s treated like any other Newbie: his questions are worthless and it’s not worth gauging his merit.

I find this process somewhat disappointing, no less because I’ve been on both sides of it. I fight it in myself, but I can’t say that I see the same effort in most Experts. You see, the Newbie doesn’t know everything. He’s coming to ask for help from people who know more than him. Sure, that frequently happens because he’s lazy and his question is simple, but sometimes it manifests as something subtly different. When the Intelligent Newbie comes asking for help, it’s because he doesn’t know what he needs and he is looking for someone with the knowledge to decide for him. That often takes a similar form to the Dumb Newbie asking you to do something for him, but it’s usually discernible if you take more than a couple seconds to consider. The Intelligent Newbie asks for resources, knowledge, methods; the Dumb Newbie asks for you to fix his code, or worse — write something for him.

To sum this all up, let’s come back to the topic of this post. How do you help Newbies the smart way? The answer is simple: you give them a chance. The Dumb Newbie can’t help but reveal himself in short order, but the Intelligent Newbie is well worth your time. If you’ve stopped bothering to try and discern between them, you don’t deserve to be in the position of Expert. Turn in your ops and go join a social channel, instead of the one that states clearly in the topic that help can be had here.

Yes, it’s annoying when Newbies waste your time and energy — but what did you think you were doing there in the first place? By putting yourself in the position of Expert, this is what you have to deal with. It is known and expected. Respect is a two-way street, and you don’t automatically deserve reverence for your position; you have to earn it too, and earn it anew with each new user — whether you see them a hundred times or only once.

Post filed under Musings.

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