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On Being A Nerd and People Person

I'm a web nerd. I build my own websites, can write a Wordpress plugin, have run my own webservers, and done a bunch of nerdy things just to do them. But I'm also a people person. I use the web as often to communicate with real people who I will meet in person as often as I use it to research the latest glitch I created on my computer.

So it shouldn't come as a surprise that I often get frustrated by the nerds of the world being unable to understand why regular people get turned off by a lot of very useful software. Here is a recent example. The company that develops the Firefox web browser, one of the most popular browsers on the Internet, recently decided they are going to remove version numbers from the" About Firefox" dialog. The majority of the public's response to this was likely complete indifference. But over on Slashdot, a very nerdy website, a commentor posted the following "If the user wants to hide the version number, someone will write an extension to do that. Quit dumbing down Firefox." It's this mentality that sends your average user directly to Apple or Microsoft's products.

Extensions aren't written for your average user. Except for those few that are necessary to do some basic task or are heavily promoted by Mozilla, none of the top Firefox extensions are going to be used by your average web user. They provide help for web developers, allow users to change websites to fit their ideals of how the Internet should work, and allow a user to download everything on a page. What the comment's author doesn't seem to grasp is that extensions allow us nerdy types the ability add additionally functionality that other people don't care that much about. By removing the version numbers from a standard user facing dialog, Mozilla gets rid of something that 99% of it's users won't even know is missing. The other 1% can probably write their own extension to bring them back.

This is something you see often in the Open Source ecosystem. The software is might be extremely powerful and actually may work better than software that you have to pay for, but because someone is worried about dumbing it down, it's too complicated and clumsy for your average user*, with options and menu entries available for every possible scenario that this developer could think of, all because one person out of every hundred might need to tweak that setting twice in a year. This is crazy.

People who are passionate about something, whether it's food, cars, or the web tend to know more about their chosen passion than the rest of the world. They want to ability to change the font that a website uses, want to be able to change the timing of their engine, and notice the taste differences between the five different salts they have in their cupboards. This doesn't mean that everyone wants to do these things. Being a nerd probably means you like to figure things out, dig into the nuts and bolts, and understand what you are using better than your next door neighbor. Let's stop worrying about dumbing down our software, we can dig to find the version number, let's not make Aunt Sally look at version numbers**.

* The opposite does happen, see Apple's latest version of Final Cut.

** And for those of you that say "But I need the version number to troubleshoot her problem." I say "really?". I'll then ask you to spend 30 seconds coming up with a solution. I bet you can.


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