RTFM

Kyle Brandt

It seems to me that every system administration community eventually de-evolves to a bunch of negative administrators that answers questions with things like:

> “RTFM.” > “Let me Google this for you ….” > “man ps, idiot.”

The next step is to end up like the typical IRC channel, “Happy to give you advice, as long as you don’t mind that I am going to insult you while I do it.” For those who haven’t spent time in many IRC channels it goes something like:

> “OMG You are SOOO STUPID. What is so god damn hard about calling a function by dereferencing a pointer to the function just because the pointer to the function is stored in a struct of array pointers that point to arrays of function pointers? , that was answered in comp.lang.c in `91 you moron. Didn’t you read the last 20 years of the usenet group, JESUS”

If it isn’t that bad, people just post a link without any explanation. The reason I love the Stack Overflow system is that is strongly discourages this. Well written answers will generally get upvoted above the bad ones. However there is a trait in our QA sites that not only does an upvote mean “You’re awesome, well written answer, and this is what I needed!” but it also can mean “I agree.” Herein lies the problem; if we all agree to de-evolve into a negative BOFH RTFM or the IRC attitude then the following happens:

Negativity = Frustration = “I am frustrated as well” = “I agree” = Upvote = Negativity gets upvotes

What we have here is a feedback loop or vicious cycle. Systems administration can be a frustrating job because often stuff simply doesn’t work. This is why so many system administrators end up frustrated and you get negative communities.

I am starting to sense that Server Fault might be inching in this direction. The reason is that short answers that are not that helpful are the slippery slope to RTFM. We can’t let this happen. Server Fault has an excellent system and is a great system administration community in a field that seems to me to be fragmented. The system is optimized to prevent sarcasm (for example, see Why are Stack Overflow People Nice?), but a system can only do so much against the will of a community.

A Case Study Today this came up in the Server Fault chat room when someone asked if the following was too sarcastic:

If you google “tail for windows” the first response is THIS, it’s called “Tail for Windows”.

Well it isn’t really sarcastic, but is isn’t the greatest answer either. Short answers that require someone to go hunting elsewhere is where the de-evolution in sysadmin communities starts. They may be helpful, but they really are not that helpful. If the link goes dead, then they are just no longer helpful at all. I have found the pattern on MSDN forums where all the posts are just a bunch of links to technet articles that you have to sift through which isn’t that useful.

Another thought was that “the author of the question hasn’t spent a single minute on google.” The most helpful answers on Server Fault are not about helping the person who asked, but rather they are about solving the question for everyone. I think the following is a better example of how to answer a question like that:

Have a look at Tail for Windows. It boasts the following features on their web page: A few features of Tail:
  • Watch multiple files in realtime
  • Detect keyword matches, and highlight occurrences
  • Send mail notifications on keyword matches by SMTP or MAPI
  • Plugin architecture allows you to write specialized handlers
  • Can process files of any size on all types of drive (local or networked)
  • Now this is by no means the best Server Fault has to offer, but that is not my point. The idea is that future visitors can see what features this program offers and decide if they want to try it. If there are other similar answers they have a comparison of programs that offer the functionality they need. One other thing to consider: If you are already taking the time to answer the question, making it more than just a link probably takes only about 10 seconds more of your time.

    What if a technet article has the answer the person needs? By all means link to it, but give a summary of what is in the article that you think answers their question. This saves time and makes sure the answer will always be useful. It also gives future visitors an idea if the link has the content they need. For example instead of just link:

    You can add service dependencies by adding the “DependOnService” value to the service in the registry using the `regedit` command, services can be found under `HKEY_LOCAL_MACHINESYSTEMCurrentControlSetServices`. The details can be found at MS KB article 193888, from which the following is an excerpt from: “To create a new dependency, select the subkey representing the service you want to delay, click Edit, and then click Add Value. Create a new value name “DependOnService” (without the quotation marks) with a data type of REG_MULTI_SZ, and then click OK. When the Data dialog box appears, type the name or names of the services that you prefer to start before this service with one entry for each line, and then click OK.”

    Here are couple things to keep in mind:

    1. Don’t think of answering the person who asked, think of answering the question for everyone. People will find it on Google in the future so really you answer the question for everyone.
    2. Any question you answer sets a tone for the site and our community. Good thorough answers encourage other people to do the same. Imagine a whole site of answers like the one you are writing — is it a good one?

    Keeping our answers excellent will create a tone for our community that attract other great administrators. That will lead to better answers for everyone and the bettering of our field.

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    1. Why Participate on Server Fault? - blog.serverfault.com says:

      [...] Sever Fault is usually less rewarding to people who show off their knowledge in an unkind way (i.e. RTFM). Because of this you might develop a better attitude as a system administrator — another [...]

    2. SysAdmin1138 Expounds says:

      The power of nice…

      John Scalzi, SF author, once quipped:The failure-mode of clever is asshole.Indeed, he is not wrong. I bring this up because when sysadmins get together and a new person comes along with really basic, not researched at all questions, the response……

    3. Martin Böhm says:

      I’m a relatively high-rep user on StackOverflow. My answers are kept in a helpful and friendly tone (or so I believe). They are as detailed and complete as my time (and my knowledge) permit at that particular moment. I try to create answers that are useful for the next person coming along via a search engine.

      I treat people the way I would like to be treated and I try to write answers that I would like to read. It’s a matter of respect. And that’s a two-way street: Certain behaviors show a lack of basic respect for those who help you. Mainly that’s people who can’t be bothered to find out how the question formatting works, to write proper English (language skills taken into account) or to do even the most basic research before spamming the site with a “write this code for me” question.

      Frankly, obvious laziness offends me. Not to the point where I would call someone an idiot, but to the point where I think it is in order to tell them that just maybe looking into Google would have helped saving everybody’s time. Of course I could say “let someone else answer this stupid question” and move on (most of the time, I do). But will is that person ever know that they are being lazy as f*ck, if nothing but the friendliest tones are approved? 

      Sarcasm is a method of self-defense for a community. I don’t see why I should not be sarcastic (in a comment, not an answer, mind you) when I notice someone exploiting the place.

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