How to ask questions on the internet

Date February 22, 2009

This was originally written on October 23rd, 2007 and post in my livejournal. It ends short, but the idea isn't too bad, and the content isn't yet out of date.


As the internet has become ubiquitous over the past decade, it has become our primary research tool. Seemingly endless in the knowledge it contains, we use an array of tools to mine for data, most of them from Google.

Sometimes, our search ends up short. The infinite monkeys on infinite typewriters have yet to produce the particular work we need, and it's up to us to prod them into movement. We must ask a question to the faceless, and hope someone succumbs to our petitioning.

I'm here to help you figure out how to do that.

You'd think it would be easy. You'd think you could just ask what you wanted to know. Folly.

At some point during your research, you must have come across two of the most common instances where someone asked a question and received absolutely no help at all. Allow me to illustrate:

Our goal: Why the foo widget doesn't appear to work when the bar widget is installed

Obvious (i.e. wrong) question:
I've got foo widget, but it doesn't work when bar widget is installed. Any idea why?

While to the non-reptilian brain, this might appear to be a perfectly valid question, if you submitted this to a forum, you would most likely be greeted with derision and mocking. Why? You didn't give enough information.

Suppose you asked the question and received several such replies. You might be tempted to say "screw you guys", find another forum, and ask the same question with more detail. Not a bad idea, but you definitely need to be careful. Here's why:

More detailed (i.e. wrong) question:
All: I've got foo widget version x.y.z running on my slackbuntuhat 7 machine. When I install bar widget 37.9 I am getting the following errors occuring in syslog.
- cut 30 lines of text -
I've read through the sourcecode and at the point it generates this error, the $arrBaz looks like it might be overflowing, but I can't tell if it's a bug or a clever programmer. I modified the source, and fixed the original error, but now I am getting this output:
- cut 40 lines of text -
Anyone else had this problem?

The response:

*crickets chirping*

Alright, you have corrected the initial flaw, a dearth of information. In it's place, you have inserted more information than anyone other than the actual developers of the software are likely to know anything about. Unless you're on a listserve where the authors are frequent posters, you're out of luck.

The proper way is to tease support out of the other commenters. You must coax information out of them a bit at a time, just whetting their curiosity. Maybe start like this:

All, I'm having issues with foo widget x.y interacting with bar widget 37. foo works fine, but when I install bar, it goes belly up. Anyone seen this happen?

After that, you'll probably get a reply asking for what platform it's on, log output, etc etc. Include the information they request, and always end the post with a request for more help. That way, anyone casually browsing by who has the knowledge will see your post being the last, with no reply, and they might respond. If you overwhelm them with information in any one post, you'll get dropped like a hot potato.

Thanks for reading, and good luck.

  • natxete

    why do you post questions in web-fora? I mean, by all means, do that if you want, but if you really want to get to the source in OSS projects, join the mailing-list of the project. There you get to ask the developper(s) and if you indeed ask after doing some research and reading the documentation, then you mostly get good answers.

    my 2©

  • Matt

    @natxete

    I think because forums are the path of least resistance. In most cases, mailing lists are the more direct route. As you said, you can usually talk to the developers, and even in my original post, I said "Unless you're on a listserve where the authors are frequent posters, you're out of luck.".

    The forum is more likely to be your initial resource from a Google search, and more people use them than mailing lists in a lot of cases. In any event, there are more forums than mailing lists.

    I agree, for detailed information, mailing lists are the better solution, though one of the mailing lists I subscribed to (likewise-open) just closed the list to open a forum. Take from that what you will.

  • RainyRat

    I can't remember where I saw it, but one pearl of Internet wisdom that's served me well is to phrase your "question" as a statement that can be disagreed with, rather than as a question to be answered, since the urge to correct is stronger than the urge to be informative/helpful. (And Randall Munroe agrees with me - see http://xkcd.com/386/).

  • Matt

    @RainyRat

    Nice! Deliciously like trolling, but for a purpose.