Introduction
I’ve often seen Linux users on forums link to “How To Ask Questions The Smart Way” by Eric Raymond in response to “dumb questions” asked on the forums. I’m not sure this is the best link to refer people to. The tirade is quite wordy and will bore the “noob” who is “too dumb” to ask questions well. It also assumes the people from whom you’re asking help are “hackers” and that you’re most likely contacting these hackers through a mailing list.

Times have changed in the Linux world. A huge percentage of new Linux users use Linux forums as a way to get help. I, as a newcomer two years ago, definitely found them easier to navigate and sign up for than mailing lists or IRC channels. And the bulk of forum users are not the hackers Raymond is talking about and are almost always not the developers of the actual programs being asked about.

Finally, as a Ubuntu user, I find the constant labeling as “losers” of people who exhibit inappropriate behavior… itself inappropriate. There are some good principles to be gleaned from Raymond’s document, but the document itself is not the best reference, especially for the Ubuntu Forums, or any Linux forums that wish to be new-user-friendly but still sane.

Show you at least tried to do some research on your problem
Outline the steps you took and what results you came up with. New users do not always know how to read the manual (or even know where the manual is), and they may not know what the best Google searches are to find answers for particular problems.

For example, you may try searching for my sound doesn’t work and come up with thousands of search results that have nothing to do with your problem. Only someone with knowledge and experience (or an unusually great intuition) would know do a search like site:ubuntuforums.org sound card audigy in order to find good results.

Even if you don’t find the answers with your initial efforts, just outlining what you’ve already done and showing that you did put in some effort will get you better help. You’ll get help from both generally helpful forum members and those who do not wish to spoonfeed users they view as “lazy.”

Come up with a subject title that describes your problem.
Yes, if you post a thread titled Please help! Urgent! you may actually get responses, but you’ll also be wasting a lot of people’s time—people who were intending to be helpful, but once they clicked the link to your thread, realized they didn’t know anything about your problem. Those unnecessary clicks also create extra traffic and put a heavier load on the forum server. In other words, by creating a vague title, you’re being a parasite and getting a lot of views for the same amount of help at the expense of more people and of the forum owners.

The I hate Linux. It’s a pile of crap. I’m going back to Windows! threads are even worse. Not only are they vague in terms of what the problem is, they are big time-suckers and will get you an enormous and quick set of responses, but most of the responses won’t be helpful in solving your technical problem; instead they will argue the relative merits of Windows and Linux, turning into a huge flamewar.

Your best bet is a thread title like Audacity will record but won’t play. Something about a sample rate? Those users who know anything about solving sound problems will know to click on your thread and try to help you. Those who know nothing about sound will stay away and can help someone else. And no one is going to get in an argument with you. The thread will stay focused on fixing your problem.

State the important facts, but don’t ramble
I’ve seen one-sentence posts, and they’re frustrating, as the thread gets quite long, with the users who are trying to help “pulling teeth” to get basic information out of the original poster (OP). Likewise, I’ve seen first posts that are five-hundred-word rambles with no paragraph breaks, and those tend to get few responses. Here are some key points to hit in the content of your first post:

  • Give a brief overview of the problem you’re experiencing.
  • Recount a couple of steps you’ve tried in order to research/fix the problem.
  • Post any error messages you get.
  • Ask for help.

See? That simple.

Focus on the problem you’re trying to fix.
A lot of new users think they know the best way to solve a problem and just want help with the method and not the end goal. For example, a new user may post a thread entitled How do I change ownership of a file? thinking that changing ownership of a root-owned file is the best solution to the problem (which might be configuring a wireless card or installing new software). A better title would be something like How do I get my incompatible Broadcom wireless card working? or How do I install TeamSpeak?

Be polite to those who help you, and ignore those who are rude to you.
Linux forums (especially the Ubuntu Forums) are generally pleasant places. I’ve been a Linux user and forum member (on several forums) for over two years as of this writing, and I rarely if ever see read the f’ing manual or stupid noob! Go do a Google search responses. However, you may get some unconstructive remarks nonetheless. Just ignore those, and be polite and respectful to those who are trying to help you—remember that these people are not paid customer service. They are volunteers, who just (out of the kindness of their hearts) want to help new users like you.

Follow up with a resolution
If people are nice enough to volunteer help, you should be nice enough to say what the outcome of that help was. Did it work? If so, what worked. Did it not work? If so, what error message did you get. Did you give up? What happened?

Other things to keep in mind

  • Allow at least 24 hours before bumping a thread with bump or anyone?
  • Do not post the same thread multiple times in different sections. Pick the most appropriate section and post it there once. Bump the thread every day or two if it appears to be dying. Don’t do more than four bumps, though.
  • Do not ask for support through private message or email. A forum thread is the best way to get help. It allows more than one person to help you, and it also allows others to benefit from your solution (the forum thread could be found through a Google search; your private messages and emails cannot).

Conclusion
The most important thing to remember about help forums (for Linux, for Ubuntu, for anything) is that they’re made up of people and usually volunteers. Be nice. Be courteous. Treat people with respect. Explain things. Ask questions. Be appreciative. And “pay it forward” (help others, too).

48 Responses to “Getting the Best Help on Linux Forums”

  1. Simon Gray Says:

    I really like this post aysiu. You’re right about the Raymond article, it doesn’t represent the Linux of today, but rather the Linux of past times which was created for and by hackers. The Linux of today is for everyone.

    I think ubuntuforums.org has lost a bit of its friendliness during this past year as a consequence of its staggering growth in membership. It would be nice if flaming and elitism would be more moderated these days. I think a reason why UF has this reputation of being a friendly place is because it used to have great deal of “self-moderation” in the early days, of users politely saying “this is not accepted behaviour”. We’ve lost that since growing big.

  2. ubuntucat Says:

    I think you’re right. When a forum becomes too large, it’s harder to have that tight-knit feel-good community vibe, but I still don’t see too much RTFM or “just Google it” (both of which are against forum rules, by the way).

    If you see any violations, please report them, and the mods will try our best to deal with the offenders. As you say, though, self-moderation is best if possible.

  3. frak Says:

    If only everybody would read this, it would help so much. The only posts I really get kinda annoyed at are the ones about,
    1. How to install tar.gz (or bz2)
    2. Ubuntu sucks because it can’t do what Windows can
    The first one I can kinda forgive, because they are new, and I’ll give them as much help as they need.
    But the second one shouldn’t be tolerated at all, its a support forum, it is not a place to bash Ubuntu because its not Windows.
    I would only tolerate it, if instead of acting like a**es, would just report what they would like so some of us could actually help.
    Thanks for posting this Aysiu. I again wish everyone would read this.

  4. ubuntucat Says:

    Well, its target audience is highly unlikely to read it, but I just wanted to offer a viable alternative to the Eric Raymond article, which is a bit outdated and also mean-spirited at times.

  5. hari Says:

    ESR (Eric S. Raymond) is self-important, pompous and arrogant. I don’t like his articles which smack of self-aggrandizement and the “How to Ask Questions” article is just one of them to show how much of a “hacker” he is.

  6. hari Says:

    By the way, if you’re interested in a link exchange, just let me know. I’ll add your blog to my blogroll in any event.

  7. st33med Says:

    I’m definitely not a hacker. Some people who come to Ubuntuforums.org think we are hackers, that know how to fix everything that’s wrong with their system. We may know what to do from past experiences, or we may not have a clue.

    I can certainly help people with Dell WLAN 1390 cards, but I won’t know how to emulate Windows within VMware.

  8. Guh Says:

    Pay it forward… hehe, thats my shameful problem. I wish i can help others beside keep asking stupid questions :P

  9. Michael Says:

    This was a great article to read. I am in need of assistance and have been trying to set up my wireless usb stick, and now I’m going to the forums. ubuntuforums.org has been a great experience; unlike many customer service services (ha- that was a little funny), its free, and it actually appears to have solutions sometimes (actually a lot). Things in this article would be great to have in a terms of service kind of page; it doesn’t look like legal techno mumble jumble, and it would be greatly beneficial it it were fully implemented by every forum user. We all need to do our part and bring back/ make sure we maintain the self policing that it takes to keep our forum in the best shape possible: helpful, polite and easy to use. Having such great help is ont of the things that make Ubuntu so great.

  10. rafael Says:

    please on how to set login time out for root account in ubuntu 6.10.
    thanx

  11. alvin Says:

    Hi

    how do I see ext3 format data on my window eviroment?

    Thanks

    Alvin

  12. nathangrubb Says:

    I agree with all your points. Everyone should read this!

  13. ubuntucat Says:

    Well, nathangrubb, thanks for the affirmation. Please feel free to spread it around.

  14. bodhi.zazen Says:

    good points

    I use that link (smart questions) not for new users, but rather for demanding ones.

    This link may be better for general use …

  15. dragonfly Says:

    Hello,
    I’ve read your articles here and in Ubuntu forums and if I’m not mistaken you’ve had previous experience with windows and other distros of linux so I thought that you would be a good person to ask the following: I am considering Freespire as a great distro to start with, since I am a linux newbie but I was looking over the compatibility list and most of my computer and components are not even listed there! …I have had a month long crash course on the software and hardware of my old P2 and this computer in question: HP workstation x4000 2.4 MHz (older Xeon chips), 1Gig ECC Ram (Rambus Rimms). I had to install/re-install, memory chips, windows OS’s and much more! Yes, I am pleased with my new skills and knowledge, but for now I want to load a linux distro that will dual boot with windows and install as easily as is possible! I will learn line commands later, I need a break, before I breakdown! Proprietary programs access is perfect for me right now, but if it is new and buggy can it crash my windows OS or how hard is it to get out if I install Freespire and my computer just hangs there? (I heard that this can happen). If you advise going with a more stable distro; I also like linux mint and Dream linux, perhaps I don’t need as much proprietary sofware as I think- I want to be able to share my music production, video streams with others who are solely windows users- back to MP3, wav. files or JPeg,Mpeg ect…). Unfortunately, the Mepis distro can’t be loaded onto a scuzzy drive, so what of the other distros? I esp. don’t want to damage my ol’ SCSI, it’s dear to me(note: It’s already NTFS partionned with around 14 GiGs free space!) When I feel ready, I will try to load Ubuntu Studio on my large IDE drive if I can triple boot from both drives (or at that point I will uninstall my introductory distro… but now I am getting ahead of myself.) If you know any other individuals who could help me on these matters and whom I should post to pls. let me know. I could post a copy of this to the ubuntu forum but I don’t know who will want to discuss other distros so ….Thanks in advance!

  16. ubuntucat Says:

    Linux Mint would be a good choice, and it actually does have proprietary codecs included. I’ve never tried Freespire, but I found Linspire a bit clunky and annoying.

    As far as I know, DreamLinux, Freespire, and Linux Mint all have live CDs, so you can always start with those and see which one is worth installing. Good luck!

    If you need more help, try the LinuxQuestions or Ubuntu Forums.

  17. dragonfly Says:

    Hi! Again and thanx for the reply-It’s so encouraging.

    I can’t stress enough how bewildering it is for a newbie! Esp. when you don’t always find solutions to your specific problems-just more and more forks of knowledge-until you hopefully hit the right spot!

    Note that some distro sites (unamed)even bash other distros it seems- and one site freaked me out ’cause they programmed-in words to automatically replace the words that a member posts: They changed my writing Windows 2000 to W$ 2000 and…. I won’t say more…I even thought at first that any user could just come and edit my post at will…then I understood! – I only started to use forums lately! Yes I am behind the times!

    I know this wasn’t the right spot for my queries. So it will be my last post in this chain. I started trying several linux distros on my ol’ P2 first (those matching my system requirements). To gain courage for my P4. What I got almost invariably were a bunch of fatal errors including aspi failed for fan/thermal. RSDP failed and my video card was unrecognised, so I never fully booted or the screen went all haywire/muddyish. Do you know if Ubuntu sites or which has a lexicon, drive list for those messages I got? Or which site? I discovered Ubuntu lite 1.0 quite by mistake so we’ll see. I did get one distro to load to desktop but it doesn’t recognise my soundcard while another distro works ok but is french (Kaella).
    I found that “wubi” can install some of the main Ubuntu distros easily- so then I’ll feel better about asking more queries in Ubuntu forums since I actually will be using an Ubuntu distro!

    Honestly if I had the $ I would get a linux tech over for a couple of hours just to configure everything right the first time and to teach me the basics- with less headaches and mucho mucho time spent away from some other things I was badly supposed to be learning/doing.

    So I guess it’s knowing where to ask, too! By the way, cool site and articles, and yes I will eventually learn line commands!
    Thanx and take care,
    goin nutty and too tired, Dragonfly

  18. Biogon38 Says:

    Very helpful article. I certainly want Linux to be for me, and me for Linux, but I realise that I must in the meantime continue to work with Windows. I will install Linux on a secondary computer where I can learn without stress, and build up to a level of competence where it can be the primary environment.

    Thanks, from an absolute beginner.

  19. strabes Says:

    I would also stress using proper grammar and writing complete sentences in questions. I’ve seen so many posts that look like this:

    “ZOMG i tried 2 nstall smthn but i edited a cfg file and now i cant login 2 ubunut!!!111 ubnutu sux!! how cn linux get popular if prblms lik these r soooo common!!!”

    I usually end up just going on to the next thread so I don’t have to hurt my eyes trying to decipher what they wrote.

  20. Rick Moen Says:

    “UbuntuCat”:

    I might feel more confidence in your view of “How to Ask Questions the Smart Way” if you’d at least gotten the author credit right. ;->

    Anyway, thank you for adding to the supply of attempts at help documents. I hope yours does some good.

    Rick Moen
    rick@linuxmafia.com

  21. ubuntucat Says:

    Sorry, Rick. I guess I should RTFA more closely next time! Thanks for the gentle correction.

  22. James Stansell Says:

    Ubuntucat – I like your approach here. I think it could flow better (and so hopefully be more useful) with some more editing. Let me if that interests you and I’ll be more verbose.

    Regards,

    -james.

  23. ubuntucat Says:

    I generally don’t license out my blog entries as open, but I think this might warrant an exception, so I’d say to think of this as Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 3.0 United States License.

    Feel free to copy it and edit it as you see fit, James.

  24. cldnails Says:

    Followed a link from your sig at the ubuntu forums to find your blog. This is an awesome post and almost immediately makes me feel more welcome in the forums. This is especially important, since any Linux install can be intimidating, good to know there is someone on the noob’s side. ;)

  25. Very Vegan Says:

    While I remember how intimidating hacker personalities can be for a newbie (having been bitten by them many times:-), these days I even enjoy their brisk elitism and straight forwardness. As long as they’re not attacking someone on a personal level or being overly derogatory that is.

    Their specific personality / demeanor only starts to disturb me when they begin to construct an identity that is based on and in elitism, deriving meaning through devaluing others. This for me is equivalent to classism or just male chauvinism decorated as professionalism.

    For example, a common German abbreviation for a non-tech person used by hackers is DAU, which stands for dümmster anzunehmender User, roughly meaning “most retarded to be expected user”. This is a pretty awful description for what is simply a beginner. When I stumble upon that usage in a setting I have access to, I change it to DU meaning Durchschnitts-User or regular user. However I’ve recently come across posts in which people casually refer to themselves as DAU’s as a semiotic description of their status of knowledge.

    But if not taken to the extreme, I’d say that not only newbies deserve tolerance, but there is certainly a bandwidth of tolerance for arrogant hackers as well.

    Here is more on hacker personalities, highlighting indirectly that many of them may have become hackers as a consequence of a specific neurological setup: http://catb.org/jargon/html/personality.html

  26. dfreer Says:

    I also agree with what strabes said earlier:

    [quote]…stress using proper grammar and writing complete sentences in questions.[/quote]

    It would make a wonderful addition to your already excellent post ;)

    See ya around ubuntuforums!

  27. alorttumwrirm Says:

    Hello
    I’ve just registered at the forum. This is my first message.
    Please don’t become angry about me.
    Thank you.

  28. boyturtle Says:

    “New users do not always know how to read the manual (or even know where the manual is)”

    That will be me. New to it and loving it, tho sometimes a little frustration sets in as its not windows and I still cant quite work out how to fix it. Yet!

    So, if you can tell me where I can find this manual, you know, the one that explains things to you like you are a 3 year old, thus securing a firm foundation for future learning; I would be really happy and then maybe I will be in a position to help other noobs

  29. ubuntucat Says:

    Well, part of the problem is the first part of what you quoted—it’s not just that new users can’t find the manual; they also do not know how to read the manual. So “the manual” is not, as you’re asking for, “the one that explains things to you like you are a 3 year old.”

    The manuals are not for beginners. They are hard to find and hard to read.

    I found most manuals were not even for 30-year-olds, let alone 3-year-olds.

    That’s why I wrote my own tutorial site, which I have targeted at beginners:
    http://www.psychocats.net/ubuntu

  30. boyturtle Says:

    Brilliant. Thanks, I will be sure to get back to you with some feedback.
    At last, I have a low cost project for those long winters nights ;-)

  31. boyturtle Says:

    Excellent tutorials, thanks. I really like the way you explain things; so a 3 year old would get it.
    I have couple of questions for you though, and I am not sure if this is the right place to start asking for help, if not please direct me to the right place and I will go there in future….
    My questions are all to do with partitions (1) I have now created a /home folder and share info between gutsy and xp, when I come to reinstall/upgrade, how do I treat the partition in the install process? Do I need to reassign it as /home and not format it or do I just leave it alone and ubuntu will automatically ‘know’ that its the /home partition to use? (2) Why would I want to create partitions for all the ubuntu folders? does the new release of ubuntu only offer changes to root, leaving the others unchanged? If not, how will I know which ones will need updating? (3) What sort of space should I allocate to each of these folder partitions (4)Can I use GParted to resize the windows partition with impunity?
    I shall be pointing my 2 friends who have also just taken the ubuntu jump to your site for reference too. Please keep up the good work, its much appreciated

  32. ubuntucat Says:

    I’m glad you have enjoyed the tutorials, boyturtle, but the best place to get help is the Ubuntu Forums.

  33. spayced Says:

    You guys are wrong to bash Raymond’s article. Although to you it appears to be jerkish, he gives you a true and accurate portrayal of how real hardcore experts think. He’s telling it like it is, and shouldn’t be penalized for that honesty. He himself admits that such things appear rude to outsiders, but also explains why.

    A nice thing resulting from Ubuntu’s strong user-friendliness is a layer of users that are not hardcore experts but yet know enough to help total newbies is created which drives the “pay it forward” attitude nicely. Just because ubuntu forums are more polite than old linux forums, doesn’t mean the rules Raymond outlines don’t apply. Especially where he insists people with a problem give as much detail as possible, this is essential regardless of the level of complication of the problem or receptiveness of the community. The many times he encourages people to do a bit of work on their own rings true. If you have spent time ‘volunteering’ on a forum helping others you have certainly linked to other threads where the problem has already been solved and the person could have easily found it with some effort.

  34. Marshall (linux nub) Says:

    Thanks for this helpful post – I will be sure to heed your advice! :)

  35. Mehdi Sadeghi Says:

    Thank you.

  36. Google Spider Says:

    Thanks! Now I realize that I had been asking dumb questions ,lol..

  37. Jadd Says:

    And please remember to mark the tread as solved if it has been solved, it gives volunteer helpers great satisfaction to see solved threads and it helps other people find your solution.

  38. Ben Says:

    Good article.
    And recommend following article.
    “How to Report Bugs Effectively”
    http://www.chiark.greenend.org.uk/~sgtatham/bugs.html

    Happy reading :)

  39. Xochi Says:

    I found your post very helpful and your idea of linking a typical “help yoself, u damm foo!” tirade very brave.

    It is discouraging to seek help and find attitude.

    Sure, most help comes from volunteers and I sympathize; spoonfeeding people can be frustrating, but there’s no reason to be nasty. “How to ask questions the smart way” is not, in my opinion, a terribly smart article.

    I actually do relish on the occasional retort.

  40. gardenerman Says:

    Thanks for the tips aysiu as a relative noob to both the computer 1 1/2 year and the linux community I’ve yet to install it, and have just registered .

    I shall bear the points that you outline in mind before asking dumb questions as I am about to launch into a new build before I install a linux operating system on the system I eventually build myself.

    I will use the advice in your post to help with questions I will have for other forums that I use to help with the build and when it comes to the installation and use of whichever linux distro that i choose I will be back asking questions here no doubt in that. lol

  41. Chris Edgell Says:

    I’m so glad I stumbled upon Tutorials on Forum Basics, Aysiu. I’m thinking that it is not to be found in the stickies leading up the absolute beginners…..I’ve learned so much and actually want to change my name, I’ve done so much so poorly. I really do want to change my name, where do I go to do that?

    Thanks so much

  42. Jim Haslip Says:

    Thanks for the time to write this article and present it for us n00bies. Much appreciated.

  43. Rick Galbraith Says:

    Thanks again for encouraging patience.

    P.S. if you see a thread and can expand it into a tutorial, it may help those of us who google the forums for answers already submitted.

  44. archolman Says:

    Thanks for an informative & useful article. I have just found it, & have bookmarked your guide pages as well.

    See you in the forums!

  45. Peter Wallis Says:

    Great document, should be on the front page of Ubuntu. Politeness will always be appreciated by those who try to help.
    I have had to ask for lots of help over the years, (and sometimes for what turned out silly questions). But there is usually some kind soul who will take pity.
    3 Cheers!

  46. d'Arc.LP Says:

    Hi.I really need help .:$.
    I tried to install Cinelerra from :
    http://www.ubuntugeek.com/howto-install-cinelerra-in-ubuntu-gutsy-gibbon.html ( please don count as spam ).
    And after i done all what it does says, now my apt-get update dont work.
    My synaptic manager nither works :(.
    It showes to me :
    E: The method driver /usr/lib/apt/methods/ttp could not be found.
    PLEASE help me :$.

  47. Bing Says:

    I am new to ubunto and i dont know how to use it. i run the synaptic package manager coz i want to install something, but it says E: dpkg was interrupted, you must manually run ‘sudo dpkg –configure -a’ to correct the problem.
    I dont know how to run manually the sudo dpkg. where can i run the sudo dpkg? what command i need to used? thank you & i hope u can help me regarding this problem.
    thank u so much.

  48. crustyasp Says:

    Was reading on the Ubuntu forums, and following the responses found your link to this article. Very good advice and well written. I also read the article by Raymond and did not find it overly offensive.

    At times we noobs forget that those on help forums are volunteers and each response given in most cases are what the volunteer sees as helpful to the question asked.

    Speaking from experience, because Linux and sometimes computing is a total new experience, the most simple answer sometimes seems totally geek.

    I for one have forgotten at times that the help volunteered is offered freely and as a service of the volunteer, because they care and want to help. Because my grey matter can not compute the help offered I should not take that frustration to the forum.

    Thank you for a great post.

    I am learning to follow links on the forums, there “are gems hidden in some of them, and I just found one. Thanks.

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