Asking smart questions

On public discussion forums such as AntiOnline, the response that you receive to your question depends heavily on how you ask it in the first place. Set the tone right, and people will be glad to help you, but forget one rule of etiquette and you can expect to be publicly ridiculed and flamed by more senior members. This guide will teach you how to avoid the latter types of questions and get the answers you seek, without treading on anyone's toes in the process.

This guide will be biased towards asking questions on AntiOnline, because that's where I'm posting it and where I expect it to be read. However, the guiding principles covered in this guide can be applied to asking questions almost anywhere, whether on Usenet, other internet forums or indeed real life.

First and foremost, you should remember that most of the active members on AntiOnline like to answer difficult questions. Asking such questions gives us the opportunity to stretch our minds to the full and temporarily relieve the boredom of everyday life, whether it be our job, college or unemployment. And, strange though it may sound, a lot of us actually get an adrenaline rush from applying our minds to a problem to find a solution. It's a learning experience for everyone.

However, newbies are often afraid of asking questions because they fear a knee jerk reaction from the established community and the backlash that follows. Whilst I can see where this reputation comes from, it's not a true picture of the people on AntiOnline. Believe me, most of us are more than willing to answer your questions, but we've become so used to stupid queries that we can seem somewhat hostile to those who don't know the situation.

What we are, without any reservations, is hostile towards anyone who is unwilling to think for themselves before asking a question. Those people who just can't be bothered to try and find the answer from basic sources that are available to everyone or who ask questions that have been answered time and time before, will be labeled as 'stupid newbies', 'losers/lusers' and other derogatory names. We make no apologies for this, if you can't be bothered to check the most basic sources and think through the simplest ideas for yourself then we are not prepared to help you. Your questions waste our time that could be spent helping someone who deserves support more than you.

The most important thing that you must remember is that practically everyone on AntiOnline is a volunteer. We don't get paid to help you, we don't ask for much in return and it costs nothing other than your time to ask us a question. Keep this in mind and perhaps you'll understand why we get so angry if you ask a stupid question. Hundreds of volunteers around the world have taken some of their precious spare time in order to read your question. Time that you've now wasted. Time that can never be regained. Time that many people will be very, very angry to have wasted on you and your stupid question.

You may think that the attitude taken so far portrays the AntiOnline community as a bunch of arrogant, obnoxious and condescending group of people who look down on others who are often making their first steps into the realm of computers and the internet. I can assure you that the vast majority of us do not fit into those categories. We're not asking you to grovel at our feet every time you ask a question (though it would help to boost our egos a bit), nor are we asking you to shower us with gifts (although it would be nice once in a while...). We'd like nothing more than to help you on your way and even join us if you wish, but if, and only if, you are prepared to think for yourself before asking questions.

If you do decide to ask for help from the AntiOnline community, make sure you're not one of the losers who gets flamed on first sight for posting a stupid question. The fact that you're reading this guide shows that you are at least willing to learn how to do things the right way. Follow the guidelines where you can, feel free to improvise where necessary and you'll find asking questions easier and your answers relevant and fulfilling.

Before you ask

Before you ask any question, there are a number of avenues that you must first explore if you do not wished to be flamed at first sight. Don't worry, nothing here is particularly taxing, but it's far more productive for all concerned if you can find your answer before you even ask the question. Just think about it for a moment, you find what you're looking for and we don't have any time helping you out which can instead be spent on someone with a much more complex query that can't be answered through a simple reference point.

The first thing that you absolutely must do is read the manual for whatever you're having trouble with. Believe me, if the answer you seek is in the manual and you still ask the question then you will be told, in no uncertain terms, to RTFM (Read the F'ing Manual). If someone tells you to do this, chances are that the exact answer that you are looking for has been covered in the manual, in which case you should humbly apologise and go and look up the answer yourself. The manual is there for a reason, so use it and all those trees won't have died for nothing.

The smaller cousin of RTFM that I have been seeing more and more of lately is STFW (Search the F'ing Web). So do this before you ask your question and see if you can't find an answer straight away. It's usually a good idea to use Google, since that's what most of us will use and we'll direct you there if that is where your answer is to be found anyway. Make sure you try advanced searches as well, and be specific - don't type "linux" into Google and expect to find out information about Canon BCJ-210 printer drivers for that operating system.

Why do we tell you to STFW if you haven't already? Because the exact question you are thinking of has probably already been asked and answered before. Find it and your problem is solved. I remember someone on AntiOnline asking recently about where they could find BackOrfice 2000 for download (supposedly for research purposes). I typed in "back orfice" at Google and the first five results all took me to places where I could either directly download or find out where to download the software. This took me all of ten seconds, but the person who asked the question didn't seem to want to put in this tiny amount of effort to find what they are looking for.

A final note on searching the web - don't expect to be given exact URLs for what you're looking for. Often, if we can find the answer to your question with a quick search, we will direct you to the Google home page and not to the specific search result. This fulfills two purposes; firstly, it punishes you for not bothering to look there in the first place and secondly, it forces you to do some work for yourself, hopefully showing both you and others that simple answers will not be handed to you on a silver plate.

The next thing that you should do is check the FAQs for whatever you are having trouble with. FAQ documents are lists of Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs). I'd say at least 70%, if not more, of questions asked about specific products could be answered by reading the FAQs - which is why people got so sick of answering these questions and created the FAQs in the first place. One example of this (which is by no means unique), is one of the Perl FAQs. The most frequently asked question is "how do I change the file extension on a group of files using Perl?". As such, it is prominently placed at the start of the FAQ document, with a comprehensive answer and code snippet that does exactly what you asked. Yet it remains the most frequently asked question because people don't bother to read the FAQs!

Faqts is an excellent place to start looking for FAQ documents, just search for what you're having problems with and it will probably find a long list of FAQs, one of which may answer your question. Failing that, check out the official home page for whatever's causing you bother, as they'll probably have an FAQ document. As mentioned before, people will get really angry if you ask a question that's already been answered numerous times before and covered in the FAQ, so make sure you check it out first before asking any questions. Even if the FAQ does not address your exact question, it may give you enough pointers to find the answer yourself.

Another option that you can explore is asking a skilled friend to help you. However, that person will expect you to have read all the documentation (manual, FAQs etc.) and looked for an answer on Google before helping you out. Otherwise, you're just wasting his time as much as you'd waste ours if you posted your question on AntiOnline. The great thing about a skilled friend is that you can explain your problem to him in person, whereas it may be more difficult to put your problem into words for us to read. Just make sure that you don't test your friend's patience with endless stupid questions and certainly don't assume that it's his fault that the problem can't be fixed or that your troubles are down to him in the first place (I get this all the time - when anyone's computer breaks down it's my fault and I have to try and fix it - even if I've never seen the computer before in my life!).

When you ask

If you have read all the documentation, searched the web etc. and still can't find a satisfactory answer, now's the time to post your question on AntiOnline. The most important thing that you must remember is that you are in no way entitled to an answer, as I mentioned before we are all volunteers - we don't get paid to answer your questions and we are not obliged to do so or give you any reason as to why. Those of you who think you somehow deserve an answer will be met by either a stony silence or a (potentially rude or witty) retort. If you do deserve an answer then you will get one, assuming an answer is possible.

Make sure that you mention that you have already checked the documentation, searched the web etc., otherwise some people will think that you are just bone idle and will ignore or flame you. Something along the lines of "I've checked the manual and the FAQs, plus I tried various searches on Google, but to no avail" should be sufficient to tell others that you've tried all other avenues and are now throwing down the gauntlet to the AntiOnline community.

One thing that you absolutely must do when you post your question is make sure that it is placed in the correct forum. On AntiOnline, there are specialist forums for almost everything to do with computing. If you have a specific technical problem, post it in one of those, e.g. *nix Security. On the other hand, if you need help with a general problem (e.g. your computer isn't passing the POST test), then feel free to ask your question in the Newbie Questions forum. Whatever you do, don't post your question in here, the tutorials forum (unless you have a problem with a particular aspect of a tutorial). I will personally seek out, redirect and flame anyone who posts non-tutorial questions in this forum, so be warned in advance. Other members will probably also get annoyed if you start asking technical questions in a forum that's intended for general chat or tutorials.

Never cross-post your question to dozens of forums. I've seen this done a few times recently on AntiOnline, one member posted the same question three times to three separate forums, even after some of us had given exact answers to what he was asking about. Even if your question has not been answered, don't post it to other forums as well, you just add to the noise and will be ignored. If you realise that you've posted to the wrong forum by accident, ask the moderator of the forum politely (or the admin if no moderator exists) if he will move the thread, otherwise post a short apology and start another thread in the correct forum.

Another mistake that you should never make when asking a question is to send the question by private message and/or email to someone who you are not familiar with and who is not familiar with you. It's a bit of a shock to some people if they open their inbox only to find a lengthy technical query from a complete stranger. I don't mind too much if you want to ask a question of me this way (in case you're worried about a stream of abuse if you venture into the forums), but other people might not react in this way so just be polite and don't use private mail unless you know who you're talking to.

Another reason for not asking questions via private mail is that your question (and any answer you may or may not receive) will not be seen by anyone else. This has a number of implications; firstly, your question is not reaching a wide target audience. The more people who see your question, the more chance you have of someone coming along who can help you; but this is not an excuse to post to every mailing list you can get your hands on!

Secondly, there may well be someone with a similar question to yours who also wants help. By posting in a public forum, they too will be able to benefit from the advice and help that you are given. Instead of work being duplicated, it is instead shared, which is much more effective in terms of time for everyone.

Spelling, punctuation and grammar

I don't want to end up sounding like one of my English teachers, who spent two years teaching us basic rules of spelling, punctuation and grammar, but failing to remember these rules when asking your question will make you sound like an uneducated moron. I can't stand it when people fail to use even the most basic punctuation (sentences end with full stops and begin with capital letters) in their posts; it just shows complete and utter laziness on their part. If you can't be bothered to check your punctuation before posting, then I can't be bothered to answer your question; it's as simple as that.

Whatever you do, never ever type in ALL CAPS. It makes you sound like you are shouting. Of course, use capitals where necessary, e.g. PHP, ASP etc., but don't capitialise more than four or five words in a row without exceptionally good reason. In a similar vein, don't type in all lower case either, it's extremely annoying. Remember that the letter 'I' on its own is always capitialised, there are no exceptions to this rule in the English language. Typing in proper mixed case (as opposed to all upper or lower case) is actually helpful because humans look for patterns of letters to form words, which allows us to read more easily, and we cannot do this if you type all in one case.

It's not at all cool to talk in l337 sp34k (elite speak), as some people like to do. Substituting numbers for letters and spelling things by the way they sound rather than the way they're written makes it far harder for us to read your question. It also makes you look extremely immature and almost guarantees that someone will flame you for being a lamer. Oh, and one really big bug point for me, 'a lot' is two separate words. There is no such word as 'alot' (perhaps I'm being a bit pedantic here, but I'm sick and tired of people spelling this incorrectly all the time) and 'your' is a possessive pronoun, it is not short for 'you are' (that would be 'you're' instead).

Having ranted on about the fundamental rules of the English language, don't be put off asking a question just because you haven't written a bestseller. If you trip up once or twice, that's perfectly fine, the only thing that annoys me are people who clearly can't be bothered to even attempt to follow the rules of punctuation and grammar. Don't worry if English isn't your first language, people will appreciate this and cut you some slack to compensate. You probably write better English than some people who use it as their first language (I know Negative can constantly pull me up on various mistakes if he wants to, as can sumdumguy).

Layout your text carefully

Even if your text is written to the highest standards of spelling, punctuation and grammar, it's no good at all if we can't read what you are trying to say. I've seen lots of threads on AntiOnline where the post consists of one huge chunk of text, with no breaks whatsoever. Unless you are posting a short and sweet question, make sure that you break your text down into separate paragraphs. Start a new paragraph for each new point/topic, and separate paragraphs with two consecutive line breaks. Don't follow the method used in most novels (tabbed indents and no line breaks), because whilst that may be fine for printed matter, it's no help on the web and actually makes your question harder to read.

Any layout that helps make your text easier to read has got to be a good thing. If we can't even read your question because there's no consistent layout or breaks in the text, then we won't even bother trying to answer it. Breaking up text also allows us to scan your question for important points from which we can decide how to best help you.

Don't use smilies/acronyms excessively

Whilst smilies can be a useful way of conveying your emotions on a specific subject, be wary of using them excessively. There shouldn't really be any need to use them in a question anyway, but if you feel compelled to do so then limit yourself to a sensible amount. Smilies are useful on IRC and in general posts, but not when you are asking what I hope is a serious question. You'll notice that I only use a few smilies in this tutorial, and it weighs in at over 6 pages in plain text format.

Acronyms, i.e. shorthands such as FYI (For Your Information), should be avoided where possible. Type out the whole word/phrase instead, because that way there's absolutely no confusion as to what you're asking, especially for people who might be new to the Internet and not know all the shortcuts used. Again, acronyms really belong on IRC and other instant messaging services (ICQ, MSM etc.), because you often need to get a lot of information across very quickly, so using these shortcuts reduces time spent typing.

Use meaningful names for your threads

If you're going to ask a question on AntiOnline, make sure that you choose a suitable title that briefly describes your problem. Most of us don't spend every waking hour surfing the internet, so we scan pages very quickly and see if anything catches our eye. If you start a thread about whether or not you should upgrade from FAT32 to NTFS partitions with the title 'Help!', you'll get little if no help. However, if you choose a more appropriate title, e.g. 'FAT32 vs NTFS - which should I use?', you will (hopefully) catch the attention of those people who have expertise in that area and they will be able to help you.

Be informative about your problem

Vagueness will make it much harder for us to help you. Provide as much information as possible when asking your question, for example if you having problems with Outlook Express (as many people do), tell us what version of Windows, Internet Explorer and, most importantly, Outlook Express you are running. Have you installed the latest security patches (either way this could be the source of the problem) etc. All this is information that we need to know in order to help you if we can. If you don't provide enough information, you'll be asked for it anyway, so provide it in the first place and you'll make everyone's life easier.

If you have performed any diagnostic tests whilst trying to solve your problem, let us know - you may be closer to an answer than you think. Any relevant stack dumps, server logs etc. should either be enclosed with your post or linked to on an external web site. Information like this can be vital for us to figure out exactly what is wrong, especially because logs tend to be platform independent (i.e. a log for Apache on Unix tends to be the same as that on a Win32 platform).

However, you must also be as precise as possible in your question. Surplus information is almost as bad as scarcity. You need to tell us what the exact problem is, as closely as possible. We may be able to help you if you tie down your problem to a particular piece of software that is playing up, but if you give us too much information it may be difficult to analyse what the problem exactly is - and we can't fix your entire system for you.

Basic courtesy

One thing that you must never do is ask people to reply by private email. First of all, this makes it seem to everyone that you don't have the time for the rest of the community because you can't be bothered to check back and see if anyone has replied. Besides, there is no excuse for this anyway because AntiOnline allows you to subscribe to threads, and you will be e-mailed when anyone replies to your message.

If you ask for a private reply, you are denying the community the opportunity to see the answer to your question. Other people who may have a similar question will have to ask again because you were too selfish to share the assistance you received with the community. On the other hand, if someone helps you out on the forums then that answer stays there, for both you and other people to refer to, hopefully solving other people's problems and reducing the amount of duplicate questions that are posted.

Do not, under any circumstances, post a homework question and expect us to write a model answer for you. Your homework is yours to do, if we do it for you there is no learning experience on your part and the whole point of setting the work is wasted. Asking us to do your homework show laziness on your part and we can tell quite easily when you are trying to trick us into doing your work for you. Of course, this doesn't mean that we won't help you with your homework, quite the contrary in fact. If you need us to fill in some questionnaires for a research project, or you are stuck on a problem question, then most people will happily help you out, so long as you're prepared to do the rest of the work yourself

A small point needs to be made on the idea of marking posts as 'urgent'. An answer may be urgent for you, but we aren't in any rush to answer your question. We might need time to think about the answer or we might not have time to answer your question immediately. Marking it as 'urgent' just makes it look as if you don't have time for the community - you want an answer fast and then get out. Tough. You'll receive a reply if and when someone has found an answer and is willing to share it with you, and not before.

The absolute rule that you must remember though is to be courteous at all times. Even if you ask a stupid question, you will escape at least some flak if you are polite about it. Say please when you ask a question, and people will be more likely to answer it. "Thanks in advance" is a phrase that's good to use (often abbreviated to TIA - though I recommend writing out the phrase in full for reasons mentioned previously) because it shows that you appreciate people helping you out even before they have actually done so. It also implies that you will be returning to see if anyone has managed to find a solution to your problem, and that we are not going to be wasting our time helping someone who will never see the help we give them.

When your question has been answered

So, you've researched everything, decided to ask your question and got a helpful answer. Great! Is that the end of the process though? No, of course it's not. It is essential that you return to the place where you asked the question and clear everything up. A quick note to say "thanks for your help everyone, the problem turned out to be down to..." etc. is better than nothing. This lets everyone know that you solved the problem and that you appreciated their help. Although you don't have to do this, it will display your courtesy and consideration for others, and make it more likely that people will answer any further questions you have in future.

Further reading

How to ask smart questions by Eric S. Raymond - the original inspiration for "Asking smart questions".

Asking smart questions on AntiOnline - the site on which this document was originally posted.