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Basic Troubleshooting Is Still a Must-Have Skill

Are we lowering the bar too much for people with self-hosting? Where do we draw the line?

How low is too low?

I wish I could say that lately I’ve noticed people asking ‘dumber’ questions on support forums, and while I do firmly believe the world’s IQ drops significantly between Thanksgiving and New Years, that’s not the problem here. People aren’t getting dumber. The problem is that the better people get at making software, the lower the technical requirement becomes.

Look at email. Back when it was elm or pine, you had to really know what you were doing to get in and send mails. Then we got a couple GUIs, and you could keep all your emails on a floppy disk (which we all had a million of, thanks to AOL), carrying them around from computer to computer, Mac or PC. Everything to do with computers has this curve: First only the hard core programmers can do anything. Then the tech-savvy users, who are usually friends of programmers, get in on it. Then the smart kids who play with stuff. Then their family. Then everyone. Then your grandmother.

By the time your grandmother gets around to things, it’s easy to use, easy to understand and friendly. This is, inherently, a good thing! To make the transition from geek toy to something usable that will change the world, you must make the entry barrier low enough for anyone with a reasonable amount of brain-power to use it. Twitter’s a great example of this. It’s easy to sign up, easy to use, easy to understand. Like anything else, you can get overwhelmed by the data influx, but that’s true of all technology. The telephone, for example, suddenly brought in the ability to have your dinner interrupted. It brought change where everyone has a phone. Of course, now we all have cell phones, but the idea remains the same.

So when I look at support forums and people are having trouble installing software on servers via FTP, I put my head in my hands. Sometimes this stuff is supposed to be hard. We can all use phones, but we can’t all fix phones or even build them. And that’s okay! We all have skills. Twitter would probably be something hellish to install on your own website, but to utilize their site? Not so bad! And again, that’s okay.

If you want to host your own website, you’re going to have accept this fact: You will need to be a smart, technical savvy, person.

There. I said it. Yes, you can totally be too uneducated to run a website. Here, I’ll go all the way! You CAN be too dumb for WordPress!

But let me stress this one more time: IT’S TOTALLY OKAY TO BE TOO STUPID TO RUN YOUR OWN WEBSITE!

See, people get hung up on this. They forget that there’s a huge difference between running a website and posting news to your site. The line between a webmaster and a blogger is blurry for a reason, and that’s what’s causing all these headaches. Back in the day, if you wanted to run your own site, you had to be a webmaster. Now? Not so much.

A webmaster is generally someone who thinks ‘Oh, sure, FTP, SSH, and SQL, no problem.’ They may prefer something like phpMyAdmin versus command like mySQL calls, but the most important thing is that they’re comfortable troubleshooting. A webmaster is the person who looks at an error, immediately looks it up (if they don’t know it off the top of their head), goes to forums, skims posts, reads what others have tried, and is willing and able to try things like a reverse DNS check. A webmaster makes backups so, at worst, they’ve only lost a day of work.

A blogger is a writer. A creator. Someone who can make content. A blogger looks at a sunset and creates a haiku. A blogger takes a photo of a naked man on a bicycle. A blogger tells you the drama of returning an unwanted present, or about how her son wants to wear a dress on Halloween.

And still, every day, I see people who don’t understand .htaccess asking for help with errors on their websites. I see people who complain they can’t auto-update their site from the inside, because FTP is too hard. I see people complain the magic 5-minute WordPress install is too hard. And I think that, perhaps, we’ve lowered the bar too much. If we’re at the point where the non-technical people are complaining it’s too hard to do something that is, by it’s nature, a technical thing, then we have a problem.

This problem is compounded by webhosts who, in order to make money, want to make it ‘easier’ for you to run a blog, so they have auto-installers. They lower the bar. Then we have web-apps (like WordPress) which let you install, from within the app, plugins and themes. This means that someone could create a site just like this one, without ever touching FTP or SSH. That also means when things go wrong, and they will, you’ve got someone stranded, crying that this ‘easy’ application sucks, you’re terrible, and whyyyyy meeeeee!

Every single person who’s ever worked support just started nodding their head and reaching for a drink.

So here’s the deal. Yes, you can become smart enough to run your own website, but before you jump into it, think about how long it took you to get comfortable with your computer. How long was it before you could email, link videos, and save MP3s? Do you know how to make folders in your email app? Do you know that emailing 200megs to someone will piss them off? Did you need a book, or someone to sit by you and teach you all this? Are you comfortable googling errors and applying fixes? More to the point, are you willing to get your hands dirty and make mistakes?

If you want to run a website community, you may need to break down and hire someone to do the heavy tech lifting for you. Just like you would want to hire someone to create cool art, or decorate your house. Sometimes you just need to grab an expert. Remember you can’t get something for nothing. Either invest the time and money in learning, or in someone who already knows it all and can support it for you.

Apropos of all of this, Google has a new site called Teach Parents Tech. Lowering the bar. Again.

4 replies on “Basic Troubleshooting Is Still a Must-Have Skill”

Well said. I think people need to realize their limitations. We can’t all be good at everything. I might be good at troubleshooting tech problems but I’m a total dunce when it comes to knitting. And I’m never going to be good at it – I’m not interested and would rather pay someone to make something for me. People need to realize this about running software like WordPress – there comes a time when it just makes more sense to pay someone for assistance.

I am, by no means, an expert. But I sure can use google, or copy the hell out of someone else’s code for my own purposes! That being said, more and more recently, I’ve wanted to just reply on the support forums with what you just said above! (I doubt I would have said it so well tho….), and I just might if I read one more “Omg thiss blogg softwar suxx it broke my website I need moar addz on my page so I can get rich plz fixx k” 🙂

Yeeeah, it’s hard to get people to understand that, when you tell them they may not be technically skilled enough to do something, it’s not a value judgement, or a ‘You suck!’ sort of comment. It’s just … y’know a fact. Okay? My partner can’t drive a stick shift! I can’t fry chicken. These are things that are facts, and it doesn’t diminish her general ability to drive or mine to cook. We just know when to get the other to do certain tasks.

Know your limits 🙂

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