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 is often sarcasm and mocking. And sometimes riffing on the mocking in increasingly clever ways.

The ServerFault chat-room transcript has examples of this scale most days. Most often it's the "Jeez that guy is a putz" kind of gripe, but sometimes it expands into more then that. Compared to IRC, ServerFault is a very nice place, but we still have our moments of withering scorn. As a moderator I see more of the withering scorn as those answers and comments earn flags (yay!). However, even when folk are being nice it can be very discouraging to new entrants.

An example is this question.

The asker is looking to set up a server infrastructure for an undisclosed application and asks several questions around that topic. It's clear from the question that they haven't dealt with this kind of problem before.

The first comment states this kind of question can't be answered here and gives a very broad reason.

The second comment, by the author and after the question earned a pair of down-votes, asks for down-voters to explain their reasons (a common gripe among new-ish people who are earning downvotes, as it happens).

The third comment ups the snark ante and denigrates the experience of the asker in the process.

That's where I found it this morning. Rather than let it get closed as 'argumentative' or let the comment-snark get out of hand, I dropped an answer on it explaining, in detail, why this kind of question is not able to be answered on ServerFault and what more information would be needed to answer it at all. I used neutral tones. It did the job, since the snark stopped and as of just a minute or two ago the asker marked that answer as accepted.

Even though the full extent of their question couldn't be answered, by taking the time to answer what could be answered, and describing what is needed to answer the rest of it, the original poster learned things. And importantly learned more than just, "you don't know enough yet, come back when you do."

Sometimes, you just gotta expand "It depends."

In the comments, Holocryptic pointed me to an article I fully intended to link to but couldn't find. Kyle Brandt, of ServerFault/StackOverflow fame, posted to the ServerFault blog back in October 2010. The topic touches on a lot of what I mention above.

Go read it.


In looking at that specific question, I don't find anything particularly wrong with it, other than it is a bit broad. Other than that, it is a well thought out question.

Personally, what brings out my snark more than anything isn't ignorance; frankly, I feel like I'm the most ignorant of the "regulars" of SF. But then again, I'm my own worst critic, and the things I tell myself are a couple orders of magnitude greater than what I leave as comments to others. No, it's not ignorance so much as a lack of effort and/or a lack of thought. In my opinion, a lack of knowledge is no excuse for intellectual laziness, and that's what sets me off.

You do bring up a valid point however. In fact, I've been wondering if we've been jumping the gun on questions that could have been left open (perhaps with some judicious editing). As it is, I'm trying to think hard about casting a vote to close a question. It's kind of funny, really. Before I had the ability, I was quick to say, "Yep, close it." Now that I can vote for that outcome, I'm hesitant to pull the trigger so quickly.

I think you're right with your theory. Also, the fact that you're up at 0600 on a Sunday eating breakfast boggles my mind. It's Sunday... which means sleep in time!

Great blog post & thank you for taking the time to educate one and all, i.e. 'noobs' and 'cynical hacks' alike :-)

The serverfault forum/social thing is an exceptional place.

Hrmmm... I seem to be coming here a lot. On a related note to your post, I found something similar in Kyle's post (I swear, I wasn't looking for more comment fodder)

I know I've been guilt of getting snarky with questioners at times. I find there are three primary modes of provocation:
The questioner who has not put any effort into the question and want an answer (commonly these questions are short, might get close NARQ, and lack the necessary details to provide a proper answer). Those who forget that the Answers come for free, that we have no duty and receive no compensation (directly) for effort put into answering the question (this is usually related to the first point). The most egregious, is when the questioner demonstrates the attitude that System Administration is trivial; there is no value in experience, knowledge, and that minimal effort is required to obtain acceptable results.I don't walk into my doctor's office and demand to be treated for free, without telling them what's wrong, or with an attitude that it should be incredible simple for them to treat any affliction.

Perhaps it is a side effect of Internet communication; that unless writings are carefully crafted to convey both the message and tone intended, the reader can easily misinterpret either. I try to take naiveté and simple ignorance in stride; but frequently it comes across as willful ignorance or contempt. The question you reference seems to fall in the gray area; I feel the questioner's comments are shoving to to the dark side however.

I can only hope that your Power of Nice has influenced this questioner, helping him realize the complexity and breadth of his question. I fear that the spoon-feeding may reinforce his perception that system administration is easy however; potentially setting him up for failure (including any clients/users he serves).