Computer Ettiquette

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

A few weeks ago, one of our neighbors asked us to help them with a computer problem. It was easy enoughall they wanted to know was how to resize their browser. The whole thing took about 10 minutes, and everybody was happy.

Unfortunately that made us the Go-to Guy for our neighbor’s computer problems, and the next time they asked for help it wasn’t as simple as clicking the right spot on a window.

Our neighbor had a virus and asked us to look at the computer right around the moment we got home from work. That’s not the sort of thing we’d like to do the moment we get home from work, but we figured the problem would be something simple--like resizing a browser window--and it won't take long to at least look. Long story short, it turns out to be a wretched beast of a pest of a virus, and we spend three hours trying to fix it.

Now, somewhere amid those three hours reading up on the virus and downloading the program to fix it and figuring out some way to get the program onto my neighbor’s computer (as the virus both restricted Internet access and periodically restarted their computer) and manually making sure all traces of the virus were gone, we reflected on our situation: Here we were, after spending about 12 hours at work, using up three of the approximately five hours of free time we have in a given workday busting our ass all the while knowing we weren’t getting anything in return.

This wasn’t the first time we’d done something like this either, and if you were born some time within the past 30 or so years and you have parents or relatives or any number of technologically disinclined people nearby, we're sure you’ve gone through something similar. Our poor uncle, whose a good deal past 30, works for IBM, and he’s spent far more than his fair share of vacation time fixing the laptops, desktops, towers, blackberries, iPods, iPhones, and anything else electrical or tronic of everyone within a two-mile radius of his summer cottage. The bottom line: If you’re good with computers, other people who aren’t think you’re obligated to help them.

Now if helping them were always something as simple as resizing a window or copying something onto a disk or whatever, that’s fine, and we’ll be happy to do it—but that’s very different from removing a virus, installing hardware, raising your hard drive from the dead, and a lot of other massive computer-related timesinks, especially when that help is free.

And a lot of—we’ll call them Computer-Disinclined—people don’t seem to appreciate the difference, even if it’s a difference of several hours. The only time we’ve ever seen them notice is when we suggest they take it to a professional: They look at us strangely and we see the gerbils begin to trot on the exercise wheels in their head: Why take it to a professional who's gonna charge me God-knows how much when I have someone right here who knows computers?

Granted, if we were they, we'd probably feel the same way, too, but that's why we learned how to fix the problems for ourselves. And think of it from our perspective: Someone asks us to look at their computer. We haven't looked at the computer yet, so we have no idea what the problem is and even less of an idea how to fix it. Likewise we don't know if we're going to be there for 10 minutes or three hours. The only thing we can be sure of is that we're probably not going to be paid or receive anything even remotely resembling compensation for our time and labor.

They're called Paid Professionals for a reason, and if you're willing to shell out God-knows-how-much-more to a doctor or automechanic for their opinion, why draw the line with computer advice? After all, fixing up a computer is usually just a matter of following the directions, so if it's so easy, why not do it yourself? And
if you truly are convinced that this is something you/they can’t do, then put your money where your mouth is/foot down and start paying/charging for the help. We did, and we got a pack of smokes out of the deal!