Is Your Open Source Community Still Telling Newbies to RTFM?

Recently, I was shocked to see a newbie being told to RTFM in a forum for an open source community I have been part of for years. It seemed so ludicrous at first I thought it must be a parody.  My disbelief was akin to seeing a roof being built with asbestos “Are we seriously still doing that?”.

Ok, ok, I’ll admit in the very early part of my career, I would have condoned replying to someone in a forum in that way. After all we were busy programmers, under pressure to get things done, why should we waste our time on users who couldn’t even be bothered to try to help themselves? It was a quick way to set them straight.

Knowing this was the culture, it would take me ages crafting a question to an open source community, spelling out the manuals I’d already read and things I’d googled before asking for help. Often I wouldn’t even bother posting at all. I could easily handle being ignored, but not the subconscious fear of an RTFM. Over the years I’ve come to appreciate how really toxic such responses are for open source communities and their growth.

It was oh so arrogant and often too easily done, but I’m glad I now know better. Asking someone to RTFM is never justified and always unprofessional. I was glad to see that in this specific case, another member of the community jumped in to help the newbie and a senior member of the community put out a request to keep things civil.

Like me, the communities are growing up too. One of the best things to happen in the Eclipse community has been establishing a code of conduct, not just for conferences but for daily dealings of the community. Yes, as I found out, it turns out we really do need one after all – laid out in writing for all to share as the common culture. The best bit? Now if you see someone exhibit this behaviour, you can take them quietly aside and ask them to Read The, erm, Manual.

One Reply to “Is Your Open Source Community Still Telling Newbies to RTFM?”

  1. > I was shocked to see a newbie being told to RTFM in a forum for an open source community I have been part of for years

    No link? Disappointed 😦

    Without seeing the full message and the precise wording that was used, it’s impossible for us to know whether this was a “go and read the f***ing manual you idiot”, or whether it was “we have some excellent documentation for that; it would be really helpful for you to read it first”.

    Perhaps you are simply objecting to the tone that was used in the reply.

    But if you’re objecting to a potential contributor/user being pointed to the manual, rather than getting a personal and comprehensive response in the forum, I’m not sure I agree.

    Firstly, if a project has gone to the effort of creating a manual, it’s quite likely that for some questions it will (and should) serve as the authoritative source of information. (We can’t tell if that was the case here, though.) Then there will be many cases where a link to TFM is better than copy-pasting into the forum, or repeating the same stuff over and over again.

    Secondly, the development team – even the wider community – behind a particular project can sometimes be quite small. In that case there (unfortunately?) has to be an expectation that newcomers will try to help themselves first (e.g. by consulting documentation), rather than expecting someone to personally guide them through every issue they face.

    This is something that Fedora has been struggling with; see for example this recent thread about improving the process for new contributors: https://lists.fedoraproject.org/pipermail/devel/2015-July/212234.html. In this case, perhaps more mentors would help; but it seems that if certain contributors were more motivated, and read the documentation that’s already out there, more progress would be made.

    It’s not an easy problem to solve, but there needs to be a balance between the contributor/user helping themselves by consulting existing documentation, versus having more experienced community members on hand to mentor newcomers.

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