Well, I have an interesting, if cautionary tale of why you might not want to help out strangers with software advice.

It started out when I posted detailed instructions on how to setup wview on Ubuntu. I posted and updated detailed instructions on how to set up a complete system, from start to finish. I maintain(ed) this very carefully, and when changes came up, I updated the article. Nonetheless, this process has become outdated, and so the procedure documented still works, but is not the easiest way to do it (techies: the developers have packaged up the install, so it’s almost a one-liner, now).

So, by posting instructions, I was unnecessarily exposing myself to questions, which is fine, and I enjoy helping out people to guide them to a successful installation. Moreover, I have often been the recipient of similar help with other issues, so I feel obligated to help out people. I really enjoy providing detailed, accurate instructions that other people can follow, and upgrading those instructions if they prove inaccurate. These “free” help sites are what makes the internet work, right?

SO: It is with deep regret that I had to terminate my mentor/mentee relationship with a person asking for help on this very matter.

Here’s the brief rundown:

  1. User posts comment on my blog
  2. I answer, trying to help out.
  3. User posts another comment, a “dump” of a system log. The log clearly shows the user is not using my instructions at all. I give the user the benefit of the doubt.
  4. I get a chat request from the user. I answer. I stupidly give user my e-mail in this chat (English is user’s second language, no problem)
  5. User sends me another log dump.
  6. I firmly answer back that I will provide help for my instructions, that the user should seek help on the forums for doing it “on their own”. Stupidly, I postscript the e-mail with a obvious piece of advice on the log (typo in user’s command which I spotted)
  7. User says thank-you, sends another log. In a separate e-mail, says he does not know how to post in a forum.
  8. I respond back that this program is not easy to install, and that posting to the forum is a likely a higher bar in terms of skill level than installing this particular program.
  9. Nothing happens.
  10. A few days later I get an e-mail saying the user has posted to the forum, and that nobody answered him, so he’s sending more logs to me.
  11. Far be it from me to be suspicious, but I checked the forum, and there’s no sign of a post. I tell the user that I did not see a post, and will not help him privately (heck, I charge people for this, and many are happy to pay).
  12. He (tries to) post another comment on the blog, asking for more help. I spammed it.

So, question for you all…. Am I being too harsh? My firmly worded e-mails are ignored. I feel an obligation to help out people with my instructions on my website, but when it comes to other instructions, I’ll only help out on the forums. I generally try to put instructions if they’re a little more generic into a public area of the support site, and answer people publicly if I think I can help out.

Some of the exchange can be found in the comments for the aforementioned article (some comments were removed using my prerogative as editor of my own website). The user’s name is Jari Monttinen (maybe from Finland). He seems to use a few different e-mails, a small number of which actually work.