August 6th, 2007
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).
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).