Thursday, February 17, 2005

Netizens: Help Yourselves Out By Helping A Newbie

(The following has been reprinted from the Brutally Honest website with permission of the author)

Netizens: Help Yourselves Out By Helping A Newbie
– by David Matthews 2
"The march of science and technology does not imply growing intellectual complexity in the lives of most people. It often means the opposite." - Thomas Sowell

You know, one of the more annoying things about being a techno-geek is this belief that yours truly knows EVERYTHING there is about computers! I suppose it comes with the territory. I’ve surrounded myself with computers and computer-related subjects since the 1980’s. I was playing with Apple computers before the birth of the Macintosh. I was writing BASIC code on Digital mainframes. I played on the network that would become what we all know today as the Internet. (I just didn’t realize it back then.) So it’s sort of expected that I would know SOMETHING about computers.

But I also know that just about every computer user gets asked by someone less knowledgeable than them to do the same thing. It gets so absurd that one website that caters to my fellow techno-geeks has a popular tee shirt that says, "No I will not fix your computer". (I may actually order two or three of those!)

In fact, I’m sure many newbies will get pissed off when I mention this, but the geek community has some colorful abbreviations for them. For instance, the most common problem that exists is known as PEBKAC, or "Problem Exists Between Keyboard And Chair". Think about that one for a minute. Then there is RTFM, or "Read The (Frelling) Manual". It seems to be the universal solution to many of the PEBKAC problems.

Of course, the attitude is understandable. You see… once upon a time, the only people who would ever have anything to do with computers ARE the geeks and nerds of the world. The Internet, email, online chatting… those were all OUR domains! But then it became more and more affordable for your ordinary people to get computers, so they did. Then your online services like America Online started offering Joe and Jane Six-Pack easy access to the Internet; and that pissed off the old-school geeks, because now they’re having to deal with these newbies who like to type with the CAPS LOCK on, and know more about football than they do their own computers.

At the same time, there is a general attitude when it comes to many a newbie that just infuriates your seasoned geek. Newbies seem to revel in their technical stupidity, taking great pride to admit that they are "technically illiterate" and how they need to ask their neighbor’s 8-year old kid to program their TiVO, much less figure out how to get their email. That is just unfathomable in the minds of your typical seasoned computer user who is used to figuring these things out for themselves. (You know, that little book called "Users Manual" isn’t just there for decoration.)

So I would like my fellow seasoned netizens to consider this little nightmare…

We all hate Spam, right? That’s pretty much a foregone conclusion. We detest Spam! We hate it and we hate the scum that use it! The only people who like Spam are the advertisers themselves, but then again they love shoving their wares in our faces to begin with, no matter what the medium is.

So imagine all of a sudden that your online service is hit with a fresh deluge of Spam messages. Maybe some of them can be filtered out. Maybe some of them make it through to your inbox. But even if they don’t make it to your inbox, the sheer volume of Spam messages coming in is enough to slow down your provider’s mail servers, or maybe even crash them.

Where are these new messages coming from, you ask? Well they’re coming from all of those newbies out there!

Every year right around Christmas, hundreds, if not thousands, of new computers are purchased and go online. Sure, people buy computers at any time of the year, but it’s only during Christmas that there is a specific concentration of new purchases. Thousands of computer users go online for the very first time, and they start surfing the Internet like crazy. These brand-new users are simply unprepared for some of the viscous little tricks the advertisers have waiting for them. The advertisers will send out viruses and spyware programs, knowing full well that these new users wouldn’t know how to defend against them, even IF they had the right tools.

As a matter of fact, you may have even noticed a wave of new virus-laden emails that came right after Christmas. Coincidence? Hardly! It’s a blanket assault by Spammers specifically timed to go after all of those new netizens while they’re still ignorant enough to surf without any kind of protection.

Oh sure, some new computers will have anti-virus programs already installed. But probably not the computers you get from your local mom-and-pop computer shop. Remember that not everyone can afford to buy the top-of-the-line models. Many of those computers are lucky to just have the bare-bones OEM operating system. And even IF they have the programs installed, how many of these users would know enough to use them, much less see if they’re updated? Not many of them.

It doesn’t take long for Spammers to have a brand new army of "zombie" computers at their disposal. With these computers, Spammers can both send out new Spam messages and use those computers to carry out illegal attacks on anti-Spam efforts.

And here’s the twist: most of these newbies will have absolutely no idea that they’re being used that way! Why should they? The most effective and notorious of the spyware and zombie-virus programs are so sneaky that their victims don’t even know that it’s on their system to begin with! All they’ll know is that their brand-new computer is gradually slowing down, and they really won’t know why.

So let’s get brutally honest here… if we’re going to beat the Spammers and the other unscrupulous advertisers, then we have to reach out to the newbies and offer to help them.

If you know someone who just got a new computer and they don’t know the difference between RAM and ROM, offer to help them get things set up! Ask them if they know whether they have anti-virus and firewall programs on that brand-new computer. Offer to help them get the basic online skills they need to spot Spam messages instead of blindly opening them up.

Now I know what some of you are thinking right now… "Why should I give a damn about these newbies? I’m not in tech support! I found this stuff out the hard way, and so should these people."

And that’s exactly what the Spammers are counting on! They WANT the newbies to be ignorant, and they EXPECT the seasoned netizens to simply watch the newbies fall prey to viruses and spyware. And so far that tactic has rewarded us with BILLIONS of Spam messages hitting our mail servers PER DAY! Nice going guys. Great plan. Keep up the good work.

And it’s equally easy for us to simply fob all of this off to online providers like AOL. After all, AOL is going ahead and giving away free anti-virus programs and free anti-spyware programs and free firewall programs. Most service providers are also providing free tools. Even Microsoft is getting into the game by putting in its own firewall and buying its own anti-spyware program. These companies are also spending big bucks suing the pants off of the Spammers… if they can be tracked down and sued, that is. Remember, these Spammers love to hide behind false accounts and zombie computers.

Yes, the tech giants can provide the tools, but all of the tools in the world are useless if the user doesn’t know they’re out there or how to set them up and turn them on. AOL does give away McAfee Virus Scan for free as part of their new "Security Edition" version, but you have to download and install the program yourself. It doesn’t come pre-loaded. And again, your typical newbie wouldn’t know that… unless they’re keen on reading fine print.

That’s where the seasoned netizen comes in. We may not all have those glorious certifications, but we do have the knowledge and the experience. And unlike those 1-800 tech support people, we can actually be there and take the time to explain things to the new user in a way that THEY can understand. That certainly beats having them turn to a seventeen-page web document put out by Microsoft programmers that only other programmers can understand.

And helping the newbies become more knowledgeable netizens pays off for us in the end, because the more net-aware they are, the less likely that Spammers can take over their computers to be used to send US more crap. Every newbie that gets helped by a more experienced netizen translates into one less computer that can get exploited by Spammers. That gives the Spammers fewer resources to abuse, and that translates into fewer Spam messages in OUR inboxes!

We need to remember that we were ALL newbies once upon a time. Sure we could figure this stuff out ourselves, but geeks need to admit that not every user is that talented. Computers and the Internet are no longer the stuff of geeks and nerds.

And who knows? You might actually LIKE helping these newbies out! After all, you may not consider yourself to be an "expert", but right now you certainly know more that these newbies, so in their minds, you’re the closest thing to an "expert" that they’ll probably ever encounter. There’s a certain amount of ego-gratification that goes with having that little tidbit of knowledge, and it’s high time that my fellow netizens put that little perk to use.