Asking Questions

A few years ago, when the internet was new and shiny and GeoCities were the place to be, two men wrote instructions and advice on asking questions the smart way. (Eric S Raymond and Rick Moen, in case you were curious). This was because, back then, internet forums and message boards were still relatively new and the misguided among us were making them terrible places to be by asking silly questions, derailing threads and generally making the boards less than useful.

Fast forward to 2004 and a genius, a shining example of moral fortitude and general all round nice guy…. alright, it was me. Anyway, I wrote something shorter based off that document and personal experience to help people on the LinuxQuestions.org forums.

Fast forward again to 2006 and Lorelle has written an article on her blog dealing with much the same things on the WordPress.com forums.

So what has changed? Answer: absolutely nothing. Despite technology moving on, despite search engines becoming better and indexing more and more pages, despite there being more and more people providing help to others on the internet, nothing at all has changed. Forum and message board and mailing list members still refuse to search, they still refuse to ask decent questions and give information on the problems they are having, they still blow up at people who are trying to help them and still, despite the fact it’s crap and old hat, they still troll and spam the boards.

So what does this tell us? Is the internet a terrible place because of this? No, is the answer, the signal-to-noise ratio is still balanced enough that many of the wrongdoers just disappear under the weight of the goodwill out there or go to boards better suited to their … talents.

So, comes the question, why have I written this? Well, the reason is simply that education is the best defence (in my opinion) to combat this. We can ban people, IP ban people, insult them, berate them, etc etc, but in the end it comes down to politely and quietly telling people where they went wrong and what they can do to rectify the problem in future.

And, because I don’t mind blowing my own trumpet, quoted below is my how to. It is still published at LinuxQuestions.org and, if you want to take it and adapt it for your own forums, it’s released under a Creative Commons licence – contact Jeremy on LQ to find out which one.

How To Ask a Question

Written by XavierP – 2004-09-14 18:36

 

Your Thread Title
This seems silly but it is actually pretty important. Many people will just skip over a thread if the title isn’t informative.

Bad Title: Help Me, Please!!!!!! – putting 5 exclamation marks after your title doesn’t make it any more compelling. It tells us nothing about the topic and decreases the likelihood of a member reading your thread.

Good Title: Installed GAIM, Won’t Connect to MSN

Your Question
Before posting, it is always a good idea to know exactly what your questions is. That sounds strange, I know, but too often we see short, one line questions which need lots of further questioning until we can see the problem. In fact, the best thing to do is to run a Search first – chances are, your question has been asked and answered over and over again already. Another great resource is the LQ Wiki – there are a large number of articles, many dealing with diagnostics.

As an example:
Bad Question: Help me, just stopped working, what do I do????

That does not give us any of the information needed to help you. We need to know: your distribution (really this should be set in your User Profile so you only need to type it in once), the version of the program (if it’s, for example, GAIM, the answer may simply be to upgrade to the latest version), how you were trying to run it, what happens if you run it from the console, what error messages you get, what searches you have run already (this is important, there’s nothing worse than spending ages on a search for someone only to be told “I tried that”)

Even worse, is to say that you are too busy to search. Why should your time be more valuable than anybody else’s? We are not your personal technical support team, nor are we your personal research assistant, the spirit of Linux (one of the many spirits :)) is of helping yourself.

So a good question would be:
I have been trying to get GAIM running and it will not connect to MSN. I am running version x.xx in Fedora Core 2. When I open it, there is no problem, but when I try to connect to MSN, it returns “error message”. All other applications seem to connect with no problems.
I have tried a search on Google, but I really don’t know what I need to search for. Can anyone help me to solve this? Please bear in mind that I am new to this and so would appreciate being told in plain English what I need to do or where I need to start

What was written above applies to all questions – we need information. Tell us your hardware, what happened before you tried it, what changes have you made. Tell us everything – you save a lot of frustration down the line.

Be Polite
It may be that after 10 posts, you still haven’t found an answer. Instead of posting this, it would be a good idea to read back over the posts and see if you can work out why it is that no one can answer you. Does your question need restating? Is there a piece of information which, at the start, seemed not to need stating but now does? Have you tried any additional troubleshooting since posting?

What If No One Answers You?
Firstly, if after sitting for an hour hitting refresh on your browser no one answers, do not despair. LQ’s membership is drawn up from a wide variety of people – from all around the world. 2pm your time is the middle of the night for someone else – and that person may have the answer.

My (and everyone’s) advice is to wait for 24 hours – give us all a chance to see your post. If no one answers after at least 24 hours, reply to your own post giving us some more information: of course, you didn’t sit there waiting, did you? No, you searched and tried some things – tell us what you tried, it may mean that a member seeing your post will know what you need to do.

What To Do When Your Question is Answered
Tell us. Tell us what worked for you. Someone coming along after you with an identical problem needs to know if the fixes work. And, just as importantly, the people who have spent their free time helping you would like to know that you have now solved the problem. Please don’t just vanish or walk away without saying Thanks.

Even better, find a place in the LQ Wiki to describe what was done to get it working properly first time. Not only will you help others, but your solution will be saved for posterity.

And Remember – every member of LQ (and that includes Jeremy and the Moderators) is doing this on their own time and for no remuneration. No one is guaranteed an answer and no one can always expect one.

For a more detailed essay on asking questions, please read How to Ask Questions the Smart Way by Eric S Raymond and Rick Moen. And don’t forget, 3 very invaluable resources are Google, Google’s Linux Pages and the LQ Wiki – much of the help you need can be found there.

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Posted on 31 August, 2006, in Generalities, How To, Writings. Bookmark the permalink. 12 Comments.

  1. So what has changed? Answer: absolutely nothing.

    Actually, I’d disagree: When the Web & Linux came out of the “Geeks only” arena and into modern life, the expectations became higher and the demands became greater.

    “Linux detects most of my hardware” used to be a cry of triumph – now it’s an accusation of failure from the “Just Works” addicts. . .

  2. Good post, and thanks for the comment.

    As you say… to educate in this matter is the way to go!

  3. Dom – ok fair enough, in the geek arena some things have changed, but (and this is a big but) … (insert “yo momma” joke here) … these things are fairly cosmetic. People still hit help forums expecting immediate responses, even now.

    xtroyer – yup – education is key.

  4. People still hit help forums expecting immediate responses, even now.

    Ehh.. isn’t that what I said..?

  5. Yeah, but slightly differently šŸ™‚

  6. The sad part about this is, no matter how much you educate, there will always be those that can’t do such simple things to make everyone’s experience that much smoother..

  7. Very true Drew. Despite everything you do, there will always be those people who refuse to learn or follow instructions.

  8. That is true. However, even though these guys are ignorant, you also get the type who reply telling them to JFGI. Now, while I find that absolutely hilarious, that is NOT the way to treat an idiot šŸ˜›

    First, you must wash their mouths out with soap until they’re spiffingly clean. Then, take out the hair drier and… Oops!

    Sorry, back to the point – I agree. The situation has not changed at all, but that is not our fault – that is just the way the majority of us are. We’re lazy – we want to know the answer as soon as possible and with minimal effort, so, we ask others, without bothering to do any research ourselves. Of course, that’s not the right way to do things, but anyone new to forums, mailing lists, etc usually don’t know any better šŸ™‚

    Nice article, by the way šŸ˜‰

  9. Nice article, by the way šŸ˜‰

    I thank you šŸ™‚

  10. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again:

    “Lookit the brain on Ray!”

  11. I’ve seen Ray’s noggin up close, it is a big brain.. šŸ˜‰

  12. Xavier, I like both of your short-essay versions, very much. And you can flatter me any time, thanks.

    Rick Moen
    rick@linuxmafia.com

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