home of the madduck/ blog/
Explaining Debian at parties

Josh isn't quite sure how to answer questions about Debian at parties without being stamped nerd. I have often met this challenge. And I think I got good at it.

Rule number one: stay away from opinions, comparisons, and technical details (at least in the beginning). Give them the humanly-comprehensible facts and do not mention Windows or OS X unless asked. For me, Debian is "an operating system ("computer system") that is completely free, which lets me do a lot of cool stuff with the computer." I don't mention that I am a developer so as to not scare people off.

After this 20 second introduction, you can usually tell whether your peers are interested. If they are, give them a little more: "It is developed by thousands of volunteers who all help out without getting paid, because they all use the system and want to make it better."

By now, the first questions should come, and usually they mention other operating systems. A great line is "well, I've found XYZ to be inadequate for my needs, but to each their own". Don't go confrontational. And don't grow over-enthusiastic, that's what nerds do.

At other times, the first question will be about how anything can be free (as in beer) these days. Be careful not to answer with too much idealism. Also, I've found few to care about "free as in speech" at this point of the conversation.

If your audience is still with you at this point, now is the time to dive into depth. Now you can talk about idealism, technical superiority, security, whatever, but always keep in mind that you don't want to compare (laymen don't care about comparisons too much) and that you want to draw from metaphors as much as possible to make them understand.

I usually take the opportunity to touch upon privacy issues and trojans, faked email senders and that kind of stuff. My audience usually grows quite pensive after some time, and I have yet to meet some layman who didn't ask "just why would anyone care about my data". Explain "pwned" computers and distributed denial of service attacks, or the scenario where someone impersonates you can does bad stuff.

Finally, I've often found it to be fun to play somewhere along the lines of "do you really want to know" and exciting their interest by being somewhat discrete about it all. I've also had success with the direct approach: "ah, but I'm a geek, you couldn't care less about my stuff." People usually ask for more infos. After all, you are at a party and not in front of your machine; anyone with something else but mush between the ears will put two and two together and suspect that you aren't actually a geek, at least not at the moment. Those are the people worth talking to. Anyone else (including drunkbolds) is a waste of time, IMHO.

It helps to have some Knoppix or Ubuntu CDs in your pocket and just hand them out. People really get excited about free stuff. And a live CD can work wonders.

Do not try to convince people to try it out or you will become a support hotline. Instead, tell them about LUGs and mailing lists (and how cool it can be) and put the challenge on them: "if you try it, those are your support channels. Are you up for it?"