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How To Ask Questions

"We're (largely) volunteers. We take time out of busy lives to answer questions, and at times we're overwhelmed with them. So we filter ruthlessly. In particular, we throw away questions from people who appear to be losers in order to spend our question-answering time more efficiently, on winners.
If you find this attitude obnoxious, condescending, or arrogant, check your assumptions."

Excerpt from:

Many many years ago we ran a volunteer organisation that was trying to help people using computers (this was at the very dawn of the net, kids, long before the birth of HTTP). The attitude displayed above was not uncommon. What was remarkable though is that is was mostly spouted by the realy mediocre people, that were convinced they were somehow "special".
Most of the true wizards would meet any request, no matter how trivial, no matter that they had been asked 100 times before.
They did not complain about "lusers", didn't nag about efficiency or productivity. What they did do was help people out, and once in a while turn out some brilliant solution that eliminated the source of a whole series of recurring questions by improving the system, making it more intuitive, automated, user friendly.
I guess there is nothing new under the sun.

Just me (Sir to you)
Thursday, May 15, 2003

I was an MS MVP on Compuserve. When they moved to the internet I dropped out: because I couldn't answer all the questions anymore: there were too many of them.

Christopher Wells
Thursday, May 15, 2003

there is a difference between answering a question and spoon feeding. the true wizards you refer to are probably the same mediocre guys on a different question. read the archives of any bsd or linux mailling list and you'll see some big names are both nice and arrogant depending on the circumstance. Besides, most of the true wizards stop participating in the newbie (or unresearched) questions all together. I suggest any question you have should first be entered into google; your answer would show up 9/10 of the time.

Thursday, May 15, 2003

Indeed.  This missive is meant to solve the very real problem of there being many more people with questions than there are people with answers.  The problem is solved with technology.

If there's any arrogance at all, it's more on the part of the uninformed assuming they are entitled to a guru's personal time.  Frankly, the gurus have more of a right to be arrogant (and thankfully, the good gurus aren't anyway); after all, they have the knowledge.

Paul Brinkley
Thursday, May 15, 2003

The introduction of the referenced URL is self serving.  It adds nothing to the content except an edge of hostility.

Take off the introduction, and its not a bad document.  Its only other drawback is that it revels in its own obscurity.  Lest the split personality of Me/Sir pointed it out, I would never have known about it.

But then again, in about 3 days time, this message also will have passed onto its own level of obscurity and was likely meaningless at its inception.

Thanks for reading.

Nat Ersoz
Thursday, May 15, 2003

I've read ESR's Questions document before.

My take on it was this: It is not meant to excuse the behavior of arrogant help. I saw it as merely an explanation.

Not to long ago on a mailing list I am on, someone asked a dumb question that was covered clearly in the FAQ. The author posted the URL, question, paragraph, and sentance number so that the user could go and find it himself. Maybe he should have just cut and pasted the answer in, since he was obviously looking at the docs anyway. But I don't blame him.

I agree with this: the majority of people aren't gracious enough to spoon-feed perfectly framed answers to every dumb question. If someone asks me a question that's covered in my manual, I'll ignore it, or tell them to check the manual.

I should be nicer. I shouldn't promote to the arrogant attitude that much of what's freely available (forums, etc.) is abundant in.

But that's just tough: I'm an ass, and I do expect people to look for their own answers, at least to the point of reading my manuals, and maybe that aint right, but I am not going to change, and niether is anyone else.

*That's* what ESR's document is trying to explain. Is it representative of the same bad attitude many developers (myself included) have? Yes. Does it excuse it? No. But it can help to explain *why* it's there, and generate a little understanding, if nothing else; I don't expect sympathy.

Mike Swieton
Thursday, May 15, 2003

My attitude is that if it is a spoon feeding question, then I don't give them the answer.

I tell them where to find it. Sending someone with a google link with their question and the answer in the top five or so results is the way to go. Whatever your answer is, they will have more questions. Get them into a habit of googling first. This is more so in a volunteer organisation than in a business setting.

In the latter, I answer the question, and then kindly point out that should they require more information, the best/quickest method  should be to RTFM or RTFF, where these issues are covered in more detail.

Sometimes folk do not know enough about a problem domain to do an effective google search. Someone knew to a topic will not know the best keyword to use in a google search. Do not spoonfeed..... point them to a google search that gives them the right answer. A classic Platonic paradox.....

"Meno:: And how will you enquire, Socrates, into that which you do not know? What will you put forth as the subject of enquiry? And if you find what you want, how will you ever know that this is the thing which you did not know?

Socrates:: I know, Meno, what you mean; but just see what a tiresome dispute you are introducing. You argue that man cannot enquire either about that which he knows, or about that which he does not know; for if he knows, he has no need to enquire; and if not, he cannot; for he does not know the, very subject about which he is to enquire."

Thursday, May 15, 2003

If you don't know enough about the problem to ask a specific question, then what you need is a decent overview - not the answer to a question about a detail. Once you have this, you can learn more about the concept you're having trouble with, and eventually will know enough to ask a specific question.

Besides, if you don't even know what your question is, how meaningful will the answer be?

andrew m
Thursday, May 15, 2003

A brief glance at that document makes me think that it was written by people who don't want to be bothered by people asking the same questions over and over again.

"Volume is not precision"

Brevity is also the soul of wit. Nobody's going to read a 12 page dissertation on why you shouldn't write a 12 page dissertation.

"Describe the problem's symptoms, not your guesses"

Their problem seems to be people who ask stupid questions, yet they're taking their own guesses as to why and how to solve them.

This document sounds like it was written by programmers with extra time on their hands.

if problem != solved then {


In other news, whenever I deal with musicians who are learning, I try to play guitar left handed. It reminds me of how spastic I used to be, and how far I still have to go.

When dealing with newbies, a little patience goes a long way.
Friday, May 16, 2003

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