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Making Pictures

  • June 13, 2001
  • By Dennis E. Powell
The moral of the story has, really, only been hinted at so far, but it's important. I often write of the "Linux community," and in some ways that's a useful term, but it glosses over what is really a whole group of nice, little manageable communities. The "Linux community" is made up of millions of people, and there's not much you can do with or about it. But those little communities are one of Linux's greatest strengths.

What do I mean? Well, when I wanted a quick take on the best and easiest software for burning my CDs, I posted a question to the Caldera list. I've been on that list, off and on, for years. While most of the people there use Caldera's distribution or variations thereon, that's not a requirement for membership. Nor is discussion limited to things Caldera, or to things Linux, or, really, to anything. Over the years threads have gone all over hell's half acre. The lone consistent quality is the sense of community, of people who have never met but who are friends anyway. Oh, yeah, there can be, are, and have been some pretty fierce flame wars, but mostly it's a bunch of people sitting around talking. The list spawned a highly successful step-by-step effort, which has documented a lot of Linux stuff in pure recipe form, in an effort to defang the "I dunno; I just did some stuff and then it worked" approach to configuration and to strip the excess out of the often outdated how-tos. I knew that if I asked there, I'd get good information, quickly.

Each little community has its own flavor. The KDE developers list has its own group of personalities. The KDE user list likewise. Both are fine lists, but had I asked there, I would have been pointed to the KDE application for burning CDs. I like KDE, but my quest was for an application that would do the job, not a KDE application that would do the job. (There is a KDE app, KreateCD, that is very promising; I built it and abandoned it because it wanted to use a goofy, almost unreadable typeface, probably because I have font anti-aliasing enabled.) But those lists are both very helpful, and, though to a lesser extent than the Caldera list and some others, people there can get to know each other. This is important: You have a configuration problem and the solution is a little bit complicated. On a big, nameless list or newsgroup it's easy for the person who knows the answer, and who maybe has posted it a time or two before, to go on to the next message. But if that person has gotten to know you, has maybe shared a joke or two, he or she is far more likely to take the time to write it all out.

Linux, maybe more than the mainstream operating system, tends toward community. Some of it no doubt comes from a shared sense of being under siege, though the community was there before Microsoft launched its silly little assault. There is, too, the fact that by definition Linux users have chosen to be out of the mainstream. Mostly, I think, it's because in what one would think would be a totally technical sphere, we want to make it clear that though we're talking about machines, we're not machines ourselves. (For much the same reason, developers I know really appreciate it when they get thank-you notes from happy users.)

Each little community has its own tone, its own flavor. The Caldera list is, like the distribution that spawned it, pretty mellow. The last time I was on the Red Hat list, it tended to be a little more contentious, which is consistent with the distribution's sometimes-too-bleeding-edge character. I've not been on the Debian list, but from what I've seen of messages there it seems to tend toward the legalistic and is more technically oriented than some of the others. This is not to criticize any of them but instead to suggest that there's a place for everybody among Linux's multitude of communities. It's surprising, sometimes, the extent to which they will go to solve a problem, to share happiness or grief, to behave like non-virtual communities ought to behave but seldom do.

Every so often I encounter someone who is using Linux but who hasn't taken part in any of these mailing lists, these groups of people who began with a common interest but ended up friends. They're missing a lot and they're denying other users a lot -- almost everybody has hit upon the solution to a problem that isn't common but that someone else will run into. Making that solution public is a useful exercise, and the way that users who don't write code can give back to the system. And because of the large amount of cross pollination -- people who are members of multiple "communities" -- the word gets spread.

So, if you're new to Linux, or if you've been using it awhile but haven't found out that it's more than just an operating system and applications, consider this to be both advice and an invitation: Look around at the various mailing lists, then join as many as your mail-reading time can handle (I still have 4,000 messages to go through that stacked up while I was in Florida), and participate in the community. You, and it, will be richer for it.

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