Sooner or later we all decide to try and use our computers to do something new, something we've never done before, something exciting! Then we realise it's not as straightforward as we'd hoped. Luckily with a bit of perseverance you'll figure it out and once you have the feeling of satisfaction is great. Where to start though? This may seem obvious, but on countless occasions many people I know have given up at the first hurdle only to ask me to do it for them. This article is aimed at these people: to help them take their first steps in helping themselves.
If you already know the application you're expecting to use then there are some very easy initial steps that you can take. For example, almost every single GUI (graphical user interface) application has a Help menu located at the top of the screen. These do vary widely in usefulness but it is none the less a good place to start; even the major desktop environments have help programs: Gnome's can be found under the system menu and KDE's can be found under the K menu.
Not a bad start, but what if you don't know the application that you need to use? Both KDE and Gnome catagorise their menus into task related groups such as Internet or Graphics; just explore these, look at the program names, open them up and look at their buttons and help menus. Very quickly you'll build up a picture of what each application can do and which program (or combination of programs) is best for what you want to do. Some programs do have cryptic names such as Xine or The Gimp but you can't break your computer just by opening an application so just go for it!
Google is your best friend
When this fails Google is your best friend: search for the program's name, or your general goal, and you'll more than likely find its homepage among the first few results where you can often find more detailed instructions and tutorials. The help sections of these pages may not be immediately obvious on first inspection, but don't get frustrated; just look around and explore – you'll find it sooner or later. Also among the search results you may find links to forum discussions, mailing list archives or blog posts about the program in question. Don't just dismiss these as unofficial because in the world of computers (especially free software) users are often very knowledgeable about the programs they like.
A few other notes on Google that are worth knowing include the “More” link at the side of the main search bar. This will take you to a screen with plenty of different options including specialised searches such as “Linux”; when you're looking for results specifically about GNU/Linux take advantage of this as it will improve the accuracy of your results. Also, the “Advanced Search” options are very good at refining your searches and getting results that will be really useful.
When this fails you may want to turn to other options in the community and actually ask other people about your problem. Some people feel nervous about doing this as they've read rude responses along the lines of “RTFM”; however, if you go through all the above steps, and make this obvious in your post, people will see that you have “RTFM” and they'll also respect you for making such an effort yourself! Asking nicely can go a long way too ;-). Places to find this sort of help mostly include distribution forums and mailing lists, LUGs – Linux User Groups. Learn to love your LUG: they are a really great resource and often a great place for discussions on a massive range of subjects! For immediate help, IRC – Internet Relay Chat – is very useful and has helped me through numerous problems.
And don't be selfish! If you find the solution to a problem that you don't think was particularly well documented already, write up how you managed to solve the problem on a forum or mailing list – or even start a blog to document your discoveries – and help somebody else in your shoes solve the problem a lot quicker than you did. This will also save you time if you ever need to look up the same information in the future.
Experiment and explore!
I think this covers the basic methods of helping yourself which can allow you to solve many problems. I believe a common theme through all of these techniques is to experiment and explore! It's surprisingly difficult to break your computer, although please do be careful when issuing commands as root, and figuring out how to do something yourself is often one of the best ways to learn and remember how to do something. The spirit of exploring and experimentation can also be very useful when looking around the web and finding your way around new websites so never forget it.
As a brief aside – I'll probably post more details about this next week – the next episode of my podcast is being recorded on the 26th February and my guest is set to be Mark Shuttleworth. The idea is this: I ask him YOUR questions so please feel free to send them in to email@example.com or visit the site to find out more information at http://questionsplease.org.