Technical Forums: What Not to Do

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The Written and Unwritten Rules

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Online technical forums can be a great resource to overcome a problem or answer a question in the context of school, hobby, profession, or research and can be a great supplement to learning a new skill. Be it a programming problem, math problem, tackling an algorithm, a new API, an unfamiliar protocol - all are valid areas which more than likely have a dedicated online forum in which to pose questions to experts in the field.

  1. Forum Rules
  2. Little Effort
  3. Lacking Information
  4. Text Talk
  5. Annoying Fonts
  6. Double Posting
  7. Cross Posting
  8. Dumping Homework
  9. Spoonfeeding
  10. Private Messaging
  11. Bumping Threads
  12. Erratic Punctuation
  13. Editing Threads
  14. Urgency
  15. Hijacking
  16. Zombies
  17. Thread Titles
  18. Research
  19. Code Context
  20. Copyright
  21. Self Promotion
  22. Being Rude

However, getting answers to questions on a technical forum has as much to do with how the question is asked as it does the question itself. There are many written and unwritten rules one should adhere to in order to get the most out of a forum - one is often relying on the unpaid time of volunteers. As a result, using forum resources requires doing the right things, often termed 'asking questions the right way'. Technical forums respondents often cut to the chase, and breaking the written or unwritten rules will often result in a blunt response. Steer clear of the written or unwritten rules and one can receive responses across the spectrum, from references to a favorite search engine, to cynical replies, to a back and forth question and answer session, to being banned from a forum. Below I outline several things that one should avoid doing in order to make the most of online technical forums.

  1. Forum Rules - Failure to read forum rules will often result in breaking the rules, resulting in a posting asking you once again to read them. All forums have some sort of rule or policy, often times you must agree upon these when joining. If not, many forums may have an announcement thread at the top of the forum stating the rules. Read these carefully, as they often contain information to best make use of the forum.

  2. Show No Effort - while you may have spent hours, days, or even weeks on a problem, failing to show any effort will not evoke much effort in return. Spend time on the problem and spend time on how you ask your question. Most importantly, technical forums should not be a replacement for proper research, work, and problem solving.

  3. Information Lacking - Missing information doesn't help much, and can end up using up the time of unpaid volunteers as they reply with the request for that information. Provide as much information as possible. What did you try? If it is a programming question, does it compile? Are their runtime problems?

  4. Chat or Text Talk - Technical forums are just that: technical. Shorthand text talk such as 'u' instead of 'you' or 'pls' instead of 'please' often makes posts unreadable, and in many fields of technology syntax is critical. Showing improper syntax can come across as lazy, and this reflects negatively to those you are asking help from. If on a forum whose main language is not your native language, politely state this and if possible use online translators to check your language.

  5. Annoying Fonts - While annoying is a relative term, it can be annoying when one breaks from the default fonts and styles of a forum. Huge fonts, all caps, and colors differing from the norm will typically not garner any more attention than without - in fact can detour from it. Oftentimes these can be perceived as urgency, and can sometimes even make a post harder to read.

  6. Double Posting - Double posting is the intentional posting of the same question in different locations on a forum. Doing so is considered a rude attempt to garner attention, and will often result in the removal of most posts, and a stiff warning.

  7. Cross Post - Crossposting is the posting of the same question on different forum websites. While often not technically against the rules, failure to provide links to each posts causes multiple discussions to evolve, each without knowledge to the other. In affect, this can often waste time of those wishing to help, and if discovered (which is often the case) getting yourself blacklisted from many peoples 'help list'.

  8. Dump Homework - dumping homework boils down to copying and pasting a homework assignment in the hopes someone will spoonfeed an answer (see below). This not only robs you of the problem solving experience, but most likely is against academic policies and can get one kicked out of school (and banned from a forum).

  9. Spoonfeeding - spoonfeeding is defined as handing over answers to those who have shown no effort. Programming is about problem solving, and handing over answers not only robs one of that essential experience, but is also in many cases considered cheating.

  10. Private Messaging - Sending requests via private messaging prevents problems from being broadcast publicly, thus preventing solutions from helping others now or in the future. Further, doing so suggests urgency as well as an expectation - traits often perceived as being rude.

  11. Bumping Threads - Bumping threads is the process of replying to your own thread to make it jump to the top of the list. Bumping threads can reflect urgency. Politely doing so after several days of inactivity is looked at much better than doing so after a few hours.

  12. Erratic Punctuation - Screaming (all upper case), consecutive question marks or exclamation points: they all point to urgency, and urgency is not something you wish to portray.

  13. Editing Threads - Editing a thread, especially any source code within a thread, breaks the flow of question/answer. This prevents one from learning from another's mistakes, as the mistake may no longer exist in the code. Reply to threads with any updated code as opposed to editing the code in previous posts. Further, editing threads to remove content once you've received help defeats the purpose of a public forum in that others then cannot learn from your problems in the future.

  14. Urgency - Saying your question is urgent typically has the opposite effect. Urgency is relative - every other question is urgent for the person asking. Implying your is that much more urgent implies its that much more important and is rude to everyone else. However, urgency can often be implied, for instance through punctuation, bumping threads, etc...

  15. Hijacking - Hijacking a thread means to reply to someone else's thread and steer the point away from the original thread. This includes posts such as 'I have the same problem'. Why not make your own thread? You will get that much more attention. If you must, reference the other through a link.

  16. Resurrecting Zombies - Resurrecting extremely old threads not only pulls attention away from new posts, but can also resurrect deprecated code and/or API's. Be mindful of dates when replying to threads.

  17. Thread Titles - Meaningless titles don't describe your problem to anyone, and in fact often get much less attention. Use a title to a post or thread stats what it is you are posting. 'Need help', 'what's wrong' are as meaningless as it can get, and won't attract much attention.

  18. Research - Research your question. Lack of any sign of research might evoke a reply such as 'is google broken again?', or a link to the infamous 'let me google that for you'.

  19. Code Context - Out of context code snippets can often give little indication to the problem at hand. Post an SSCCE to better let others get a sense of your code.

  20. Copyright Infrigement - Copying and pasting another websites content is copyright infringement. One may think doing so makes a statement about yourself, for instance you know your stuff, but technically speaking doing so is illegal. More than likely will result in removal of the content and quite possibly further action taken.

  21. Self Promotion - Posting links to tutorials is one thing, posting links to your own blog or webpage is something else entirely. Of course if the links are unique content that cannot be found elsewhere it will often be respected, but regurgitating the API javadocs or a tutorial done thousands of times over will not win any points with forum respondents, and sometimes could be considered spam, resulting in banishment from a forums.

  22. Being Rude - Last but certainly not least: with online forums, one is often asking unpaid volunteers for help. As a result, it should be a respected resource. Be polite, and thank those who help. Being rude is not a great way to receive help now or in the future. The seeming anonymity of forums can often make being rude easy: avoid this trap.

  23. Bad Examples

    • Title: help!!

      Text: Pls Friends I need more explanation about java Constructors

      What's wrong: vague thread title, punctuation, lack of what they've tried, shorthand (Pls instead of Please)

      What they got: links to Oracle tutorials, found much quicker in the top hits of a we search.

    • Title: loop in java

      Text: I want to learn loop in java please tell me about loop. I am thankful to you for this kindness.

      What's wrong: vague thread title, punctuation, lack of what they've tried, shorthand. On the upside the post is polite.

      What they got: Damn! Google is broken again.


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