Helping people with computers... one answer at a time.

It was one year ago that Ask Leo! opened for business. Since then I've received thousands of questions, posted hundreds of answers and hopefully made computing life a little easier for many of my readers.

Thank you, dear readers, for being here.

I want to indulge myself and take this opportunity to make a few observations. More specifically, what have I learned in the first year of Ask Leo!?

Surprisingly, my lessons have been less about technology and more about the people behind it.

We have a long way to go.

It seems like many folks in the computer industry still don't "get it" that the average computer user is not a computer professional. They're not using their computer for fun, they don't have an innate curiosity about how the computer works, and they don't want to have to spend time learning about things that relate just to the computer.

Most people are simply trying to get something done.

Most people use computers like tools, not toys. And they want their tools to "just work". A computer should be like a toaster - it should do what you want it to do with a minimum of fuss and without burning you or the toast.

The volume of very basic, yet very legitimate questions to Ask Leo! is perhaps my biggest revelation of the past year. By basic questions, I mean simple things that most of us "in the biz" take for granted. How to change passwords. How to move email accounts. What some of the jargon they apparently need to know means. (Recent example: POP3. Why should anyone be forced to even see the acronym POP3, much less care what it means or implies?).

And heaven help the average user when something goes wrong. Be it a hardware failure, a virus, or a simple software bug, the systems of today do almost nothing to help the user diagnose or repair the system themselves. They're faced with obscure resources with technical information that can't comprehend, and instructions that, at best, they follow blindly in hopes it will resolve their problem.

I believe that as computer professionals we take much too much for granted, and in general lose touch with what "average" computer users are really all about.

Things have certainly gotten better in past years. The number of people using computers and the internet is testament to that.

But we have a long, long way to go - just to match the usability of a toaster.

It's a big small world.

It sounds silly, I know, and had I thought about it I probably would have expected it. The way that the internet has made this huge planet of ours smaller continues to amaze me. I regularly get questions from around the globe.

The globe.

That still blows me away. I think the only continent I haven't heard from yet is Antarctica. It just fascinates me how connected we've become, and how much interaction is occurring between people world wide.

Every on-line publisher from personal blog author to corporate website creator needs to realize that a significant chunk of their audience is not where they might think.

And that's just very, very cool.

But there is a dark side...

English: required, yet dying.

It's clear ... English is the language of the internet. That's both an indictment, as well as a statement of reality. The fact is the majority of the information on the internet is in English, certainly most of the technical information. Granted, there's a tremendous mount of information in local languages and on local sites.

But the global common denominator is English.

The harsh reality is that not every company can afford to do business in more than one language. Ask Leo! is a great example. It's me, one person, Leo Notenboom. I speak English and a bit of Dutch. I can't help you in any other languages, and there's no way I can afford to. Larger corporations face similar problems. Perhaps they can handle one, or two, or a handful of additional languages, but that only goes so far. It all comes back to this:

The global common denominator is English.

The practical reality of the situation is that non-native English speakers are at a serious disadvantage if they don't learn the language. I feel for you, because it's a difficult second language to learn, full of broken rules and inconsistencies. But if you don't, you're missing out on many, many opportunities.

What that means for those of us writing on line is that the people reading our content may not speak English as fluently as we do. They may not comprehend it as easily as we think. Writing in English for an international audience is walking a very fine line; simple enough to understand yet not talking down to your native speakers, and still complex enough to accurately describe the concepts you're trying to get across.

It's not easy, I know.

The other side of the language issue I find both sad, and somewhat frightening. And I don't know what to do.

I could almost be convinced that English is a dying language.

One of the things that's really surprised me about the questions I get at Ask Leo! is the apparently common inability to write coherent English. Don't get me wrong - many, perhaps even most, of the questions come in reasonably clear and understandable. But the number that come in properly spelled and grammatically correct is miniscule. And the number that border on the indecipherable is what's truly amazed me.

And yes, I'm talking about folks who would apparently be native English speakers. I honestly don't know whether it's an educational problem, a "why bother" issue, or a side effect of computer and instant-messaging shorthand.

And other than trying to understand the questions as best I can, I'm not sure what to do.

You can lead a horse to water...

90% or more of Ask Leo! readers get here via search engines. They'll have a question for which I have a posted article, and they'll click through landing directly on that article.

Then something happens that I cannot explain.

A surprisingly high number of people will post a comment containing a question that was clearly answered in the article. The very article that they at least had to scroll through in order to enter their comment.

If the article was somehow unclear with respect to the question, I can understand that, and that's not what I'm talking about here. I've had people post the exact same question that is the title of the article as their comment on that article.

What am I missing?

It seems like there's a lesson here for on-line publishers if I could understand what's happening.

Related, but not ...

As you might expect I do get my share of "odd" or funny questions. Since they're not really tech content I've posted a few of those out on my personal blog. And I recently ran across some humor I'd saved relating to the inconsistencies in English, which I've posted out at forwardedfunnies.com as English 101 and English 102.

Article C2152 - August 11, 2004 « »

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Leo Leo A. Notenboom has been playing with computers since he was required to take a programming class in 1976. An 18 year career as a programmer at Microsoft soon followed. After "retiring" in 2001, Leo started Ask Leo! in 2003 as a place for answers to common computer and technical questions. More about Leo.

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4 Comments
eelco
March 11, 2005 3:13 PM

Ooooh,

I júst posted a Q to you, and reading this article now makes me feel a kind of pity for you. The things you have to deal with.
And...I had no idea that you have a Dutch name and speak Dutch too ! So now you'll answer my Q in Dutch ? Ja toch ? Niet dan ?
I vote for making Dutch the leading language on this site.

Bye,
eelco

Justin
July 28, 2005 12:48 PM

English, as used by many people who claim to have it as a first language, is misused and abused. Shorthand and laziness is a lot of what's going on.

I often see people use the lower case 'L' to represent the upper case 'i'. For example, 'l am l33t'.

Using these shortcuts just makes it harder for ESL or ETL people to understand what you are trying to say.

Engelbrekt
August 12, 2010 6:09 AM

It's not so much that the english has deteriorated or somesuch. If anything, people are, globally, getting better at it. It's merely that the internet is a lot more accessible to people from, as you stated, across the globe.

Of course, those who natively speak english yet seem to misunderstand it's finer nuances, are hopefully merely lazy youth. They're not going to use proper english no matter where, complete convenience. Of course, then you have that same generation of former youths growing up, with their english just as flawed as before. Ugh, I just keep telling myself it's because everyone is a lot "closer", so you have a bigger chance of experiencing other spectrums.

Naive? I'm keeping that bubble intact.

As far as people completely ignoring the answers. They open the page, scroll down, look for a commenting box, they type it in and hope a personal notification is going to tell them the magic words or combinations of keypressing that'll solve whatever issue they have. Reading a big article means understanding underlying issues. Such as preventing said issue arising to begin with, they lack the priorities for that. Afterall, your articles are too indepth and detailed. I doubt a summary would help, they'd have to identify the summary. Noticed this throughout my short 12 years on the internet...

Other than that, thank you for providing this. While I rarely have any major issues that can't be solved with a simple google, it's a comfort knowing someone is so openly sharing their knowledge. Truly admirable and respectable.

I type too much, also damnit, I'm already subscribing to your newsletter, I can't do it twice. Damn popup. ;_;
Take care. / Engelbrekt.

Daniel
August 27, 2012 6:29 PM

I found the answer to my problem I had and it worked for me. so, thanks to ask leo!

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