Contributing without Code

In the mid-90s I was an avid user of online conferencing system called CIX (Compulink Information eXchange). CIX was built using the CoSy Conferencing system from the University of Guelph, which has since been open sourced. Think of it like a dial-up or telnet-accessed forum or message board with a nerd-heavy userbase.

Each day I’d dial-up to download messages, then read & respond offline. Later in the day I’d re-connect to send my responses and download more messages. The graphical desktop application AMEOL (A Most Excellent Offline-Reader) presented the topics and threads in an easy-to-read way.

There was a really strong community feel among CiXen (the colloquial name for CIX subscribers). The conferences covered a huge range of general and special interest areas, within those were separate topics. They were very much like Internet forums today, but with a smaller userbase - peaking at around 16K in 1994 according to Wikipedia.

One conference, dedicated to owners and riders of two or three wheeled motor vehicles was ‘bikers’. It was one of the most popular, active conferences on CIX. There were separate topics for motorcyle-related fettling and discussion. But there was also a friendly ‘general’ topic in which people asked all manner of non-bike related questions. As the bikers conference contained a lot of people of a certain age, with particular manual skills, questions of home DIY, gardening, and even computing would popup, and would almost always be answered promptly. Some would turn into lengthy threads, just like any online forum.

I wasn’t and never have been a ‘biker’ - the closest I came was riding pillion on the back of my sister’s boyfriend’s bike back in the early 1980s. I’ve never ridden one solo, nor really had a significant desire to. However just like a ton of other non-bikers, I lurked in the bikers conference on CIX, and sometimes waded into ‘support’ questions where 23-year-old me could help.

It was really eye-opening to me. This was my first ‘online’ experience, talking to complete strangers around the country, and helping them, for no personal benefit. I really enjoyed being ‘First!’ to provide a good answer, or detailing some comprehensive response for a topic I had some knowledge of. I’d even frequently dial-up repeatedly over a short period just to check for new responses. My phone bills back then were terribly high!

In around 2005 I started using Ubuntu, and found myself getting really into the community. It had a similar vibe to CIX, much like many Linux communities back then. There were early-adopters, deeply technical experts, and new users, discussing topics and supporting eachother.

I wasn’t an expert by any stretch, but I’d been using Linux by this time for 7 years or more, so was ‘one page ahead’ of many new people on the scene. My urge to help new people took hold, and I discovered LaunchPad Answers, specifically the section for Ubuntu community support. Launchpad was (and still is) a critical component in the infrastructure of Ubuntu, and ‘Answers’ was a fairly basic Q&A system.

Over the next year or so I’d plug away trying to answer questions from new Ubuntu users. Around then I was working for a company that was shutting down, so I had a lot of time on my hands. I learned a lot about Ubuntu by simply researching questions and trying to answer those that I could. The questions (and my answers) are all still available for all to see, click here to see how I spent my time back then :).

Users of launchpad who contributed to Ubuntu would get karma - basically Internet Points. By early 2007 I’d amassed more karma - even more than core Ubuntu developers - by simply answering a lot of support questions, and having those answers marked as the solution. Karma on launchpad ages over time, so my ‘rank’ as shown on the ’top contributors’ page is no longer evident. But at the time it was enough for me to be pointed out and thanked at an in person Ubuntu Developer Summit in Seville, which was nice. I wasn’t in it for the money, but a “Thank you” in front of my peers went a long way ;).

In 2010 it was proposed that Ubuntu should create a “Stack Exchange” Q&A site to provide support for new users. Within a short period, AskUbuntu was successfully launched, and now, 10 years later, is my preferred way to provide new Ubuntu users with technical help. I’ve clocked up some 17K Internet points over on AskUbuntu for which I’m rewarded with additional site features. It’s a really effecive and friendly place to get and give support, so I’ll likely continue dipping in when I have time.

Over on my YouTube channel I recently had a ‘short’ (1 hour 45 mins) live stream going over AskUbuntu and answering some questions on the site. It was super fun, I might do some more of these. It’s quite entertaining and educational to have viewers commenting, providing their own suggestions, and even beating me to the answers while we discuss new support questions! :D

I think what I’m getting at here is while I’m not a biker, not an Ubuntu core developer, and certainly not a comprehensive expert on Ubuntu, it’s possible to support people who are just a few steps behind you on their journey. I have found immense satisfaction over the last 25(!) years providing technical support to strangers online. Maybe you will also, and maybe, if you’re reading this, and you’re into Ubuntu, and have some time on your hands, you can help over on AskUbuntu too.