Emacs: It’s all about people

Kathy Sierra of Creating Passionate Users quotes Nat Torkington: “It’s
no longer aspergers and emacs… we’re putting people back into the

Why do people like bashing Emacs so much? Why do even geeks pooh-pooh
it as a text editor that’s too complicated for its own good?

If you just want a plain text editor, Emacs is really easy to learn.
Just start up a graphical version of Emacs and you’ve got menus and
toolbars that can help you start editing right away. I think this is
more of an image problem than anything else. It’s like the way people
say, “Linux is too hard to learn!” Linux isn’t hard to learn; you just
have to try it. Emacs isn’t hard to learn; you just have to try it.

What probably intimidates people, though, is the knowledge that
there’s so much more out there. There’s so much potential. Once you
know how to use gedit or vim, that’s pretty much it. Everything else
is just about shortcuts. But Emacs… the more you learn about Emacs,
the more there is to learn about Emacs.

Richi Plana wrote:

My only problem with it is that it doesn’t seem to be
designed to be self-learnable. It requires trundling for documentation
and, more than that, asking people. In a sense, it’s passed on from
generation to generation by word-of-mouth.

And I _love_ that! I love the fact that when you really get into
learning how to use Emacs, you can’t help but get hooked up with all
these other people. I love the fact that when I download Emacs
extensions, I’m getting an idea of how other people made their Emacs
fit them better.

Emacs is the most user-friendly application I’ve ever used. I’m not a
typical user. I _like_ hacking my editor. I tweak it every so often,
whenever I want to procrastinate doing something else. I _love_ how
Emacs invites me to change it, to make it my own. In Emacs, source is
not sacred! I can change anything I want about Emacs. I can make it
fit _me_ instead of having to fit it. Emacs gives me all the tools to
do that and all the source code I need.

I also like tweaking programs for other people, and that’s another way
that Emacs is just so wonderfully user-centered. I love how I can make
Emacs be so many things to so many people. I’ve made it into a
Japanese-vocabulary flashcard game for a coworker. I’ve made it a
planner for a non-geek friend. I’ve even used it as a Tetris game!
Emacs lets me help other people by tweaking the code that’s already
out there to fit the people I know, and I think that’s absolutely wonderful.

For me, Emacs is inherently social. Emacs really transformed my
experience of free software and open source, hooking me up with all
these awesome communities. Unlike the bare and merely functional
configuration files I have for other programs, my Emacs configuration
files say something about who I am, what I like, and how I think. And
_that’s_ why I can’t help but gush about it all the time. It’s
something so different from any other open source project I’ve ever

I want to learn how to explain this mindblowingly awesome difference
to other people. We’ve got nongeeks learning Emacs. They’re fantastic!
They’ve never heard about Emacs. They aren’t scared of it. They just
happened to see one of their friends using Planner or whatever, and
they wanted to try it out. Isn’t that cool?

So yeah, Emacs is all about people. Other geeks may put it down, but
it spreads because of word of mouth anyway. It’s really awesome, and
one day I’m going to figure out how to describe just why it’s awesome…

  • I know this post is 7 years old, but here is my answer:

    emacs has a learning curve like a brick wall. It smacks you flat into hard, but once you get over the wall (i.e. you know the help and info systems well, and are on your way to elisp enlightenment) then you’re over the wall and into smooth sailing.

    That and emacs (and vi) both have entered into the realm of mythical programs. Even non-geeks have heard of them, and it evokes images of really big computers with blinking lights, and really big guys with long beards.

    (But we know that the myth is not the reality)

    Also, sometimes Emacs users can get pretty smug. That doesn’t help. Lord knows I have been guilty!

    • Jonathan: Heh. Or a learning curve that’s like a staircase to infinity (with a reaaally steep first step), as you can keep going and going and going!

  • When I was in uni, I used emacs to read mail and edit everything I could. It’s still my preferred editor though I haven’t figured out how to integrate it with git + ssh as easily as I did with command line git and Netbeans, though I know emacs has git mode and tramp, which I’ve used once or twice when I get the urge.

    But that’s not why I’m writing.

    In uni, my friend Steve ended up choosing vi over emacs. I was shocked!! I asked him why, and his answer was something like,

    “making mistakes in vi is much more painful than in emacs, so I was forced to remember the right way to do everything in vi. With emacs, I could easily undo and redo everything so I never had to learn the details of how to use it.”

    I was like, “huh!” cause it makes sense in a weird way… But it had the exact opposite effect on me! vi was painful and infinite undo and paste in emacs is a dream come true!

    Hey my computer OS, why don’t you have unlimited paste buffer??????

    C-y M-y M-y M-y

    ah there it is!!!

  • Noorul