On AMSAT-BB, sometimes people ask for someone to call them on the phone and walk them through things. And people actually do it. On Linux and other open source mailing lists, when people ask basic questions they’re told to “read the f*cking manual, noob.” 
My first experiences in a technical field were in the free and open source Linux world. In some ways the ham radio world is a huge contrast to it.
In the open source world, and in other internet subcultures, beginners are sometimes disparagingly referred to as “noobs” or “newbies.” On its own, noob just describes someone who is new in the community (thus they are a NEWbie). However, if someone responds to your question with “RTFM, noob” (RTFM means read the f*cking manual), they are basically shaming you for not figuring it out all by yourself.
In the ham radio world there is the concept of the “Elmer.” The term comes from a ham radio operator named Elmer who was especially helpful to beginners in his local ham radio community. An elmer is basically a mentor who helps you figure things out faster and increases your likelihood of finding success in the hobby.
Supposedly, in the earlier days of ham radio, it was so complicated to setup a radio station you almost had to have an elmer to help you figure it out. Today we can buy complete functioning radios and accessories from manufacturers, but the elmering mentality is still alive and well.
On some level ham radio is just access to lots of different segments of radio frequencies (RF). There are many ways you can use RF, from tracking whales, to taking calls. As such, ham radio is often considered a bunch of hobbies within a hobby.
I am most experienced with the satellite ham radio sub-hobby. AMSAT, the Radio Amateur Satellite Corporation, is the biggest organization that puts ham radio satellites into orbit. One of the most helpful services they provide is the amsat-bb mailing list.
I often see the same questions asked on amsat-bb repeatedly. Occasionally, I’m tempted to suggest we setup a wiki or FAQ where we can document answers to these common questions. The open source world lives off online documentation like this. Whenever I have the impulse to suggest this my justification is we could save time for both newcomers and experienced folks alike if we set one up.
Honestly, I think I’m just tired of duplicate emails in my inbox ;-). When I step back though, I can see value in not having an FAQ.
Without an FAQ no one can blame you for not reading it after you ask a question that was already documented there. And similarly, you can’t feel bad if someone points you to it. Literally, “there are no dumb questions.”
Sometimes on amsat-bb, people explicitly ask for someone to call them on the phone and walk them through things! And people actually do it! That’s incredible to me. Every time I see it happen, and it’s NOT infrequent, I literally find it hard to believe. And that’s AFTER I had someone ask me for my phone number and I actually talked to them multiple times over the course of weeks figure our basic things about ham radio satellites like how to track them with a smart phone.
I have never seen or experienced anything remotely like that in the open source world. In contrast, there is actually a competitive spirit there. The more you know, and the greater your mastery of the software is, the higher you are regarded. If you’re only good when you’re a guru, it gets harder and harder for the people that most need your wisdom to approach you. If they build the courage to actually ask you a question, they can be unnecessarily gracious if you respond, and while that’s good for your ego, it might not be great for the community or its goals.
I was humbled when I helped that person on the phone with basic satellite stuff. I’m not a satellite expert but I’ve spent a lot of time both learning how to operate them and making videos demonstrating how to do it. At no point did he shower me with thanks or apologize for taking my time, as people who email me after watching my videos often do. Even when he first asked me for my phone number he didn’t give me an out by saying something like he knew how busy so many people were, and how I might be too, and he’d understand if I couldn’t call him. It’s almost like he expected I would say yes, like he might if he was more experienced with an elmer culture than a guru culture. I think that’s good because it brings us closer together.
Recently, I emailed Don Argo, the developer of MacDoppler, a question about a problem I probably could have figured out myself if I spent more time debugging it. In his response he quoted and linked to the documentation that ultimately helped me resolve the issue. As soon as I saw the link to the documentation I was embarrassed because RTFM mentality is so ingrained in me. After I told him that helped me fix the issue I literally apologized for “throwing this over the fence too soon.” Don was completely gracious and said he was glad it was working.
This demonstrates that even though I can feel superior over some (which is good for no one), I can still feel inferior to others. That’s the downfall of the hierarchical guru culture. While you can feel good about being more experienced than some, there is almost always someone or many people who are more experienced than you. And even the person on the top, if there is one, is probably constantly insecure because they have to continually prove and defend their stature. Everyone is insecure, just from different perspectives.
We should respect experts by not taking advantage of their time, and we should respect beginners and those who don’t learn as fast as us because they are courageous enough to publicly display their ignorance or struggles.
Really, we should just respect all people regardless, but especially people that like the same things as us!
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73, John Brier KG4AKV
- Obviously that’s hyperbole, and in fairness, the free/open source community is very different from the ham radio community. Much of the open source community is centered around developing software. This is something that requires a certain level of aptitude and/or skill to start with, so there is an expectation that people already have something to offer and an ability to figure things out on their own. It’s like applying for a job, you need to meet some base requirements before it’s worthwhile for the company to invest time in teaching you how to work with their products and with their company. However, the ham radio community is not mostly about developing radios, for example. A lot of it is just about using radios (for emergency communications in particular). So in some ways it’s more reasonable to just ask other radio operators “how do I use this radio” in the ham radio community than it is to ask developers of software “how do I use this software.” That’s my off-the-cuff admission that it’s not completely fair to compare these communities in this way to avoid some flame throwing from the open source community. Take it with a grain of salt because I didn’t think about it too much.