I help out in a number of forums online; the two big ones are the WordPress support forums and the Graphene Theme support forum.

In general, I enjoy helping people out, partly because I have received a lot of help there myself, and partly because I learn quite a bit that way. But every once in a while, it’s a little less than fun. The reasons for this are varied, but they generally fall into four general categories:

  1. People want WordPress to do something it wasn’t designed to do.
  2. People are upset because WordPress keeps doing what it was designed to do, and they just want it to stop.
  3. People really have no idea what they are talking about, from a technical viewpoint, a practical viewpoint, or both.
  4. People have an incredibly strong sense of entitlement. These are the worst to deal with, and they are almost always Americans.

People want WordPress to do something it wasn’t designed to do

WordPress is a CMS: a content-management system. You can use it as a blog (that’s what it was originally designed for), or you can use it to run a regular website. It has limited capabilities to interact with your audience, and although those capabilities can be extended with plugins and child themes (WordPress is highly extensible), it is not designed to deliver instruction (that’s Moodle), or to provide a way to collaboratively edit documents (you’re thinking of Google Docs), or to make you incredibly attractive to the opposite sex (that’s alcohol). It does have some limited ability to act as a wiki (that is, if you set it up correctly, there are limited ways to allow multiple people to edit pages; but if you really need a wiki, then you should probably get a wiki), and with the bbPress plugin you can add a forum to it, and with BuddyPress, you can add some social networking capabilities. But it’s still not Facebook or Twitter.

Inevitably, I run into somebody who just doesn’t get it. Oddly enough, they would if they were dealing with something more familiar, because about once a month I have a conversation that goes something like this:

PERSON: I want to know how to mix concrete with my hair dryer.

ME: You can’t mix concrete with a hair dryer. You need a concrete mixer to do that.

PERSON: That’s not true. I heard on the internet that you can mix concrete with a hair dryer. I’ve even heard of people who have websites that describe how to do that.

ME: Then why are you asking here? Why aren’t you asking there?

PERSON: Because they weren’t really using a hair dryer. They were using a waffle iron. And they weren’t mixing concrete, they were pressing flowers. But I figured that they were similar enough that it didn’t matter.

ME: Hair dryers and waffle irons are completely different things. Neither of them are good for mixing concrete or pressing flowers.

PERSON: This is a hair dryer support forum, right? I’m just asking for help with my hair dryer.

At this point, I usually just bow out of the conversation, because they are in danger of becoming annoying personality type #4. But notice how many assumptions they have made here:

  1. Everything on the internet is true.
  2. Hair dryers can mix concrete.
  3. Hair dryers and waffle irons are pretty much the same thing.
  4. Mixing concrete and pressing flowers are pretty much the same thing.
  5. Just because they’re on a support forum, there is someone there who knows exactly how to do what they want to do. (And they will come to their assistance immediately.)

People are upset because WordPress keeps doing that it was designed to do, and they just want it to stop

This is really an RTFM issue. If you had RTFM, you would realize what WordPress is supposed to do.

Again, if we translate the conversation into something more familiar, it goes kind of like this:

PERSON: I need help with my car. Every time I put the key in the ignition and turn it, put it in gear, and depress the accelerator pedal, it moves. I don’t want it to do that.

ME: Yes, but it’s a car. That’s what it’s designed to do.

PERSON: I realize that, but I don’t want it to do that. I don’t like that.

ME: In that case, you shouldn’t be using a car. You should be using something that doesn’t move.

PERSON: But I like this car. I got it for free, and I spent a lot of money buying things for it.

ME: Well, you could have gotten those things for free, but the point it, when you put a car in gear and depress the accelerator, it moves forward. That’s what it does.

PERSON: Well, I don’t like it and I want it to stop. If you can’t tell me how to make it stop, please get someone in this forum who knows how to make it stop doing that over here to tell me how to do it.

The things that people buy for WordPress are usually themes and plugins. There is absolutely no need for a beginner to buy anything right off the bat; doing so only makes the learning curve even steeper. Generally, people like this have a site which is all about making money, and it turns out that they bought a book or an ebook about how to create a website that will send millions directly to your bank account. Such a thing is not true, of course, and often, when I check back a year later, these sites and their domains are gone.

People really have no idea what they are talking about, from a technical viewpoint, a practical viewpoint, or both

I have a link to a post in the WordPress support forum that I periodically visit for amusement. In it, the person asks for help with a commercial theme (which is not supported in the WordPress forums), and when told to seek help from the vendor, responds with “I am convinced this is a coding thing and I am sure someone here will know the answer pretty quickly.”

Yup—his problem is a “coding thing”. That’s like saying that when your toilet backs up, it’s a “plumbing thing” or when your car dies it’s an “automotive thing”.

Listen, you may know nothing about “coding” and I may know tons (and that’s just fine—a forum like this is meant to bring us together), but don’t assume that the answer is either simple or obvious. Every situation is, or can be, unique.

Later, when this person gets chastised for creating duplicate posts (also a no-no), he says “what is it with the WordPress community always being so jumped up?”

Notice the assumption here: this is a support forum, so I am just going to keep asking the same question over and over until I get the answer that I want. (And again, notice that they are dangerously close to becoming annoying personality type #4.)

I have found the WordPress community to be a warm and generous one, and I have generally had little trouble getting the help that I need. (Again, notice that I say “the help I need”, not “the help I want” or “the help I feel I am entitled to”.) But I also realize that the WordPress community is just that—a community. Like all communities, it has its own rules and customs, rewards for people who go above and beyond, and ways of dealing with people who feel that they don’t need to adhere to the community standards. It is only by adhering to those standards that the support forums retain any usefulness. If you don’t believe me, there are plenty of unmoderated forums on the internet that are full of spam.

For those new to the forum, the community standards are often expressed in a “Rules” page or a FAQ of some sort, and those who violate the rules are usually gently admonished to review those, or more likely, read them for the first time. Those rules are the only things that keep the community together and functioning.

People have an incredibly strong sense of entitlement

These are the worst, because it can be damned near impossible to shake someone from their belief that the rest of the world exists to satisfy their every whim. Often, they say something like “I’m an artist, not a coder” or “I’m a writer, not a coder”, insinuating that code is something too dirty to for their lily-white, perfectly manicured hands to delve into. They don’t want to know why the damn thing isn’t working, they just want someone to fix it for them and fix it NOW!

When I suggest that if they want free help, it’s going to be on our terms and in our timeframe, and that if they want help on their terms and in their timeframe, they’re going to have to pay for it, they often become even more incensed. But it’s simple, really—my time is limited. If you want help changing the oil in your car, with the idea that you are learning to do it on your own, then fine, I’m glad to take a Saturday afternoon and help you do that. But if you just want me to change it for you because I know how and you don’t and you’re too lazy and cheap to take it to the car shop, and you much prefer standing around drinking beer and watching other people, then no, I’m sorry but I’m busy this weekend and all next week, and probably every day after that until the heat death of the universe or I go paws-up, whichever is sooner.

Time for Mayonnaise!

In general, I really enjoy helping out on those forums, because it’s always fun to help people and I learn something myself. But there are times when I need a break. So I take one. Nobody’s making me work there, so I take a vacation from them whenever I need one. Sometimes it does become a bit too much. Sometimes, real life beckons in ways that I can’t ignore. (In a similar vein to what John Scalzi posted.) Sometimes I’m tired and edgy, and I feel myself becoming an asshole. Then I know it’s time to step away for a while.

So I do.

Then, rested and relaxed, I come back and dive right in. And it’s fun again.

It’s important that it’s fun, because I really do enjoy helping people, and I don’t want those people who need help and who genuinely appreciate the help they get to not get it, just because a bunch of douchebags and asshats made my afternoon into something that was less than completely enjoyable. Even worse, when you deal with douchebags and asshats long enough, you are in danger of becoming one yourself. If I can help someone overcome their frustration, fine. But when they’re more comfortable being angry than they are learning something, there’s not much I can do to help them. Anyone up for a game of Magic?

And the lesson here, which some of us take a lot longer to learn than others do (and which some of us never do) is that when something that is supposed to be fun isn’t fun anymore, it’s perfectly okay to stop doing that. A corollary is that just because something was once fun and it has stopped being fun, doesn’t mean it’s ever going to be fun again. Such is life. Move on.

This image has nothing to do with this post. I just needed a title. And it's funny.
This image has nothing to do with this post. I just needed a title. And it’s funny.
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