Anatomy of a well-intentioned Linux Troll (or how I learned to stop worrying and love the penguin)

A troll will always be successful on a Linux forum, and I’m about to explain why. Despite numerous protests of “Don’t feed the trolls” and “The best thing to do is ignore posts like these,” people will continue to respond to trolls because trolls (like Linux distros) come in different flavors and varieties. One troll in particular seems particularly impassioned and genuine and so always gets responses:

The “If I can’t use it, nobody can” troll

I actually believe this kind of troll is well-intentioned, and that’s why people respond. This isn’t someone who’s trying to just stir up emotions or just laugh at how people respond negatively to her post. This person has genuine concerns, so people try to genuinely address those concerns.

Here’s what happens:

Someone with a lot of Windows experience—an insane amount of Windows experience—who knows a lot about programming, web developing, administering servers, DOS commands, etc. hears about Linux from some friends at work. She figures, “Hey, I’ll give this a shot. People keep talking about how great it is, and I think I even read an article in 2001 about how it’s almost ready for the desktop market. Let’s see if it is.”

She takes what’s touted as a “user-friendly” distro—say, Ubuntu. Ubuntu doesn’t recognize her screen resolution. She’s used to being able to download a driver to fix that. She can’t find the driver. She wants to install some software. So, she does what she usually does in Windows—finds a program on the web, downloads it, and tries to install it. Instead of a wizard, she gets a README file that tells her to type ./configure, make, and make install. Just about everything she tries to do she can’t do because she tries to do it the Windows way. She also notes a lack of GUI for several things she’s used to having (but that most regular users never need—say, finding the IP address of the computer). After a while, she throws up her hands in frustration. “I’m a programmer, for God’s sakes. If I can’t figure out Linux, how’s an ordinary user [“Joe Sixpack,” Grandma, etc.] supposed to figure this out? I’d better tell all these Linux people to stop telling people it’s ready for the desktop.”

So she signs up for a forum and does just that, not realizing this has been done many, many times before. She’s well-intentioned. She wants to help people. What happens? Instead of “Wow! You’re the first person to tell us that. We couldn’t imagine a long-time Windows user having difficulty with Linux. Well, surely we must go into hiding and develop some more before we can release any Linux distribution to the general public,” Linux users rightly get upset. “You’re doing it the Windows way.” This troll doesn’t understand what Linux users are talking about. “The Windows way? The Windows way is the easy way. After all, I haven’t had any trouble with it.” What she doesn’t realize is how long it’s taken her to learn the Windows way and that now, like a second language, Linux seems hard not because it is hard but because it’s different.

Her assumptions are also flawed. Her logic runs like this

IF var=computing experience, THEN I > the masses IF var=Linux, THEN I have trouble THUS, IF var=Linux, the masses have even more trouble

Using a new operating system, however, is a lot like learning a new language—the syntax is different, the vocabulary is different, even the culture is different. But a linguistic expert in English may have more trouble learning Chinese than the expert’s four-year-old daughter (who clearly knows less about language than her mother does). Just ask children of immigrants how often they have to translate for their parents. Likewise, someone who is so ingrained with the Windows ways of doing things will have trouble with Linux. Most regular users (not programmers) won’t have to ./configure, make, make install and find dependencies. They’ll click a few things in Synaptic Package Manager, and all their programs will download and install along with their dependencies. “Regular” users, who know very little about computers, have less to unlearn. They may be accustomed to certain Windows ways of doing things, but ultimately, they’re used to just seeing an icon and clicking on it.

Well-intentioned trolls also operate under the assumption that Linux is supposed to work for everyone. It’s not. Nor is Windows. Nor is OS X. Contrary to what some companies would have you believe, no OS is for everyone. Now, for some Linux purists, that means not for the weak-hearted. These are the Read the F’in Manual people. They’ve been with Linux a long time and don’t believe that Linux should cater to new users. If new users like Linux, fine. If they don’t, they should bugger off. Others, like me, believe that at least some distros should cater to new users (and many do, actually), but that doesn’t mean Linux is for everyone. It’s for those with an open mind and certain computing habits. For example, if you use Windows-only software, are a big fan of every commercial computer game that comes out, and have a winmodem, Linux isn’t for you. If, however, like the majority of computer users, you do what I call the “basic six,” you’ll be happy with Linux:

1. Check email/instant message
2. Surf the internet
3. Organize pictures
4. Listen to music
5. Word process
6. Play silly games (Solitaire, Tetris)

The last bad assumption these trolls have is that Linux distros are Linux. They try one distro and assume that all distros must be like that. Then, they start making “suggestions” for how Linux “must” improve in order to woo Windows users, not knowing that many of those “problems” have already been fixed. I’ve seen these trolls complain that there are too many programs installed for any given task (solution: Ubuntu—one program for each task) or that the boot-up is verbose instead of silent (solution: Mepis, Mandriva, just about any user-friendly distro) or that themes are difficult to install (solution: Gnome) or that there needs to be a Windows clone distro (solution: Linspire). The amazing thing about Linux is how much variety there is. You can choose a lightweight distro or heavyweight one. You can choose a do-it-yourself or an automatic. You can choose KDE, Gnome, Fluxbox, IceWM, XFCE. You can’t make judgments about “Linux needs to do this or Linux needs to do that” until you’ve tried several major distros. And by “try,” I don’t mean pop the CD in, tinker for a few minutes, and give up.

And we’re tired of all the “it should be easy to install like Windows is” arguments. Windows isn’t easy to install. And most users don’t ever install Windows. Period. It doesn’t matter how easy Linux gets to install and configure—people aren’t going to adopt it en masse until companies start buying more Linux computers for their employees to use, schools start getting more Linux computers for their students, and companies like Dell start preloading computers with Linux.

Many regard Mac OS X as the most user-friendly operating system around. Well, for a long-time Windows user (me), it was quite difficult to use OS X at first. I had to get used to a whole new set of keyboard shortcuts (Cmd-tab instead of control-tab, Cmd-comma for preferences, etc.). I didn’t know how to install software by dragging things from some white disk-looking thing to the Applications folder. I was used to wizards. I didn’t know I needed third-party software to turn off the bootup noise. I didn’t understand why clicking the + sign on a window didn’t maximize it. I didn’t understand why minimized Windows wouldn’t maximize when I Cmd-tabbed to them. The list goes on and on. I was a frustrated user. I sucked it up, though, and now both my wife and I are proficient in daily Mac OS X tasks. Same for Linux. I sucked it up. Now, I’ve embraced Synaptic Package Manager, and I can’t stand wizards any more. That’s twenty years of Microsoft and four months of Linux talking.

By the way, I am not a programmer. I’m not a sys admin, a web admin. I’m not a graphic designer, a game designer, or any kind of engineer. I’m ju
st an ex-English teacher who gave Linux an honest-to-goodness shot, and I’m a total convert now. I’m not anti-Microsoft. I’m not anti-Apple. I’m just pro-Linux and tired of hearing all the same “suggestions” over and over again.

The well-intentioned trolls should save themselves some typing. It’s all been done before. And I hope the next time we get one of those trolls, that you just link them to this post. I know I will. I’m tired of typing these rebuttals over and over again.
If you really want to do some good, instead of whining on some Linux forums, do one of the following:

1. Put some of those programming skills to good use and help develop Linux
2. File a bug report at the appropriate distro/software website
3. Donate some money to help Linux developers

Other than that, no one’s resting on her laurels. Linux distros are constantly being updated and improved, and new Linux users are popping up every day. Linux isn’t for everybody’s desktop, but it’s ready for many people’s desktops.

4 comments

  1. Actually, linux is for much more. It’s even better than Window$ for serving, for sharing, for keeping precious data and for creating. That’s because:

    -Serving: They won’t tell you that after an update they will need to restart and after 60s if you don’t press cancel they will autorestart. This message in windows shows up all the time (after 30min. again and again). And also there are a lot of crashes too. In linux usually you don’t even need to restart your pc or server after every update, and if it is needed to it won’t ask you every 3mins or autorestart and the crashes are few too. Thats because linux developers don’t need to add any bloatware in your system as micro$oft does, and now!

    -sharing: Almost every project in linux is free and open source. This way almost everyone shares his linux-related project and its source code, even if it’s a single patch or if it’s a new linux kernel. Very few projects are commercial (like google chrome, firefox) and most of them have their open source derivative (google chrome: chromium, firefox: iceweasel). And that’s because linux means respect from the developer to the user whereas also respect from the user to the developer.

    -keeping precious files: This is very simple. In the world there are only 12 viruses, so you sould be very, very unlucky if you catch one and even have an antivirus like ClamAV. Also, almost nothing is commercial in linux, so there is few bloatware from commercial software (and only if someone has commercial software installed) so very few may add spyware to your system.

    -creating: the answer is like the first one above (about serving) the computer crashes very rarely and there is no need to restart your pc while doing your project (even if this project is writing a document, creating graphics in gimp and more). So simple. Almost nothing will disturb you a lot from your work.

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