The Evils of Support (Rant)

Not everyone is a computer expert and we need to respect that not everyone wants to be a computer expert. In fact, some people have very minimal experience with computers and can’t engage in learning at all. We still need to help these people and we need to remember that computers did not use to be the most important thing in the world and frankly, neither are they now. Computers are there to make the lives of humans easier. This is what a lot of “elite” and “superior” technology experts are forgetting when trying to help others. Just because the problem of another person looks trivial to you, it doesn’t render the person trivial. I always like to quote the IRC channel guidelines about this:

support

Don’t be elit­ist. To­day’s new­bies are to­mor­row’s ex­perts. A sup­port chan­nel is a place where peo­ple with knowl­edge lead by ex­am­ple. Is the ex­am­ple you want to set that tech­ni­cal knowl­edge is a hi­er­ar­chy of con­trol, or that peo­ple with knowl­edge have an in­her­ent so­cial ad­van­tage over peo­ple who do not? Help­ing oth­er peo­ple takes pa­tience. It is bet­ter not to an­swer a ques­tion than to use the op­por­tu­ni­ty to em­pha­sise the lim­i­ta­tions of the per­son you are try­ing to help.

This is something I come across again and again in computer forums. Either I receive no helpful replies, or worse, my threads are deleted without warning and without any apparent (to me at least) violation of the forum’s rules. I had a problem the other day with someone trying to break into my email. I was getting repeated reports of attempts to access it.  I could not understand all the logs and kept googling and searching to interpret them but it was just too complicated. So I thought to search for some advice on computer security forums. I guess I should have thought twice. After googling about the best security forums I decided to register at Wilder’s Security forum. I wrote a lengthy post, which took me more than 2 hours to edit and compose, I thought including as many details as possible would help people give me some advice. Duh. The post was deleted and no explanation offered.

It is in times like these that I get this nostalgia about the old Antivir Forum. The forum closed down many years ago but when I was in it, it was one of the greatest experiences I have ever had in a community. Not only was I genuinely helped by its experts but they actually taught me most of the things I know about computer security. It was one of those unique times when many people with knowledge converged at a single forum with a genuine intention to spread knowledge. Since then, I have not found a forum like that again.

Security forums have become like professional platforms of support. They require you to read a lot of threads with rules and regulations before even posting your problem. Most people don’t have the time and struggle with the expertise to follow those regulations. Sure, the experts in forums don’t have the time to take everyone by the hand, sure, the users should take the necessary steps to examine and research their situation beforehand. But what if they can’t? What if they did? A little kindness goes a  long way and anyone who does not have the time nor the patience to help, they should not try to do so.

Which reminds me of another recent experience I had with a well known security software, I prefer not to name here. I was asking about why a software I am using was marked as PUP and the guy just didn’t know or didn’t want to tell me. He kept evading my question by replying formally but irrelevantly. This is a very very bad strategy that a lot of support teams assume. They reply in a formal but irrelevant way. How is that helpful? If you can’t answer a question it is best to be honest about it and say “We don’t know” or “we don’t have the authority to tell you”. It is such an insult to the intelligence of the person asking to evade an answer. Support or retort? It took me about 10 persisting emails to make the support guy spill it out, that he can’t answer my question. (Guilty as charged of persistence!) He referred me to the software’s forum and in the meantime I found a potential answer to my question.

Nowadays, the place I have gotten the best replies so far is Quora. It is also the place where I replied a lot of questions as well.

You may ask me why do I care that computer forums suck? Can’t I google my problems out? I actually can, because I have the freaking time to read dozens of manuals, dozens of times until I understand something, but this is neither fast nor efficient, nor a luxury that everyone has. What I care about  is knowledge, and knowledge should be shared and made available to everyone. Any person who has acquired an amount of wisdom has the ethical responsibility to spread it somehow. Not necessarily in computer forums, but if they choose to do so, they should assume the equivalent responsibility. –