Friday, August 20, 2010

Learning: A Rant.

Sometimes it's really, really hard not to offend people.

This morning, I got an email in my podcast account that I'm posting here verbatim:


I want to make a podcast as well. How do I do it?"

…Wow... Just wow.

My response was a single word: "Google".

Sure, I like to be a nice guy, and I like to write the occasional tutorial… but it amazes me how people think that a complete stranger is going to take a few hours to write a personalized step by step guide just for them…especially when they don't even include a single please or thank you.

I don't get it. This guy sent me an email, so he obviously has access to the internet…but instead of searching for one of the million or so Podcast guides online (or even looking at the FAQ on my host's website), he just decides to ask a perfect stranger to do all the work for him.

…but I really want to talk about a different aspect of this.

This is something I've been plagued with over my entire life. Someone will see me doing something and then ask me to show them how to do it.

This is where it's really hard not to offend people. They're giving me an impossible task. What they're basically saying is "Hey, take this thing that took you months or years to learn, and give me all that knowledge in a couple of paragraphs or less, using no terms that I don't already understand and make sure I understand every aspect despite the fact you're talking about things that are completely alien to me."

Take podcasting for instance. That's a huge topic. Where do I start? Do I talk about microphone technique, hardware setup, editing? I'm still a journeyman audio editor at best, but damn, I could write two thousand words on compressing and normalizing alone…and this person wants to know all that despite they've never even seen an audio editing program.

Then, I'm in a no-win situation. If I point them to the same resources I used to learn, I get "Why are you being a douche? Why can't you just tell me?" If I try to give them the absolute basics in a nutshell that they appear to want, then I'm being an asshole for not giving them enough effort and trying to fob them off…and if I actually sit down and try to teach them, then I'm deliberately trying to confuse them with big words and jargon.

The other thing is they want absolute black and white answers. If someone asks me what bitrate their audio file should be, I tell them that it depends on their needs. If your recording has a lot of music, you'll want 128k or above, if it's just speech you can get away with 96k, if your podcast is short and server space isn't at a premium, go with a higher bitrate, if you're short of space and your podcast is long, a lower bitrate can really save space. This is a whole topic in itself.

But that isn't the answer they want. They've just been presented with an option and want to know what to click on. I'm not trying to teach them what this stuff means so they can make an educated choice, I'm just being a dick for not giving them a straight answer.

Basically, it's like someone calling you on the phone and asking you how to drive a car. You tell them to put the key in the ignition and they say "Stop confusing me with all this jargon and just tell me how to drive. I don't want to know all this 'ignition' stuff, I just want to go places in my car!"

I think the big problem is that, to the uninitiated, a lot of things seem simple. Podcasting in a nutshell is 'record some audio, put it on the internet'. Photography is 'point a camera at something and press a button'. Using a computer is just 'push buttons and click on things'.

Except it's not. This shit is complicated and the only way you're going to learn is to sit down, open a book or do a lot of research on the web. That's what I did.

Basically, the one response I get a lot when someone calls me to fix their computer or do something else I'm good at, is they look at me in amazement as I run a virus check and say "How do you know how to do all this?"

The answer is simple…a metric fuckton of study and practice. I'm good with computers because I cut my teeth on an Acorn Electron when I was four and have been playing with them ever since. I know how to work with digital audio (to a degree) because I sat down in front of the computer and invested many hours playing with audio editors and reading a lot of tutorials. I actually read the manual when I get something I'm unfamiliar with and learn about it… instead of admitting defeat immediately and calling someone before I even open the box.

The other big problem is that people assume I'm an expert on things I know nothing about. I've had family and friends think that because I'm good with computers, I'll know how to fix their cell phone or DVD player. If you call me around to set up your surround sound system, all I'm going to do is read the manual and follow the instructions…something you're perfectly capable of doing yourself. In that case, all that's happening is I'm doing something because you're too lazy and can't be bothered to do it yourself…and that I refuse to do.

Ok, I don't want to sound like a blowhard or make this sound like I'm an expert making fun of the novices, because I'm not an expert…it just seriously pisses me off the way people expect me to pass on years worth of knowledge in a couple of sentences… and then act like I'm being deliberately obtuse when I tell them it's just not possible.

If you want me to teach you something I know how to do, that's fine. If you're willing to sit next to me for a couple of hours with a notepad, I'll gladly walk you through the basics of the software I know how to use. I'll even answer specific questions that may come up later (although for a lot of topics, my answer will be 'google' or a link to a webpage).

My basic point is that, at one point, I was completely clueless about things I'm now competent at…I learned photoshop by spending hundreds of hours in front of it over a period of years. I learned how to use Audacity by downloading it, playing with it and reading a lot of tutorials. If you've just got your first computer and still aren't sure what the difference between a click, double click or right click is…I'm sure as hell not turning you into an expert in 15 minutes. It'll take me an hour or two just to show you the basics of how to work the interface.

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