Avi :)

How to not look stupid when asking questions


Back in the day, when you had to be fairly intelligent to be able to use the internet, and lucky to have a connection (I'm talking back when 28.8 was fast), you would join a forum or a mailing list to get advice, and that was about it. Because there were so few people about, each forum very quickly became a small community, there'd be up to 100 people on a forum, for example. During this time, the basis of 'netiquette' formed. When you joined the forum, you respected everyone on it - it was right and normal to assume that since they'd been there longer, they knew more than you (yes, this logic is flawed, but that's how it was). Most importantly, before asking a question you would research your arse off. You'd read documentation, you'd Alta Vista your question, you'd search the forum for answers, and then, and only then, would you post your question. You'd include details of what you've looked at and why it wasn't helpful. You would work to not annoy anyone until you stopped being a newbie, and became a respected member yourself. Until that point, you could expect abuse for asking 'obvious' questions and giving wrong answers. You had to live through that (ideally through avoiding asking 'obvious' questions, and certainly by avoiding giving wrong answers). There was no definite cut-off where you knew you'd stopped being a newbie and had become a respected member, though, but as you stopped asking so many questions, and started answering them, you could tell when the respect was formed.

Now, every man and his dog has a 2mb connection, and kids with no manners are allowed to pollute the internet. The idea of netiquette has disappeared from their minds - they've had unlimited access to the internet since they were 12, and it's become far easier to use. They've noticed the complete anonymity, so they don't care what anyone thinks of them, and they use web forums to inflate their egos. This is bad..

I've written this in an attempt to provide a brief outline of how you should and shouldn't act on forums. It's not absolutely universal, but it's general enough to be applied to most forums. Any omissions/corrections/suggestions, email me. Finding my address is, for now, left as an excercise for the reader.

When you join a forum

The first thing you should do upon joining a forum is to check the FAQ and the rules. Usually these will be either linked to from the main page, or in the most general sub-forum. The FAQ will most likely tell you what you can and can't do so far as formatting and linking goes. The rules will tell you what you can and can't do so far as content goes.

Next, you want to watch this flash animation, replacing all references to 'steam forums' with whichever forum you've just joined.

You then want to read some of the posts of the forum. This will give you an idea of the atmosphere of the forum, and let you know which sub-forum (if any) your question belongs in.

If there is a sub-forum to do so, or it is commonplace, introduce yourself on the forum. On some forums this is frowned upon, so use your judgement. If in doubt, no-one will mind if you don't.

If you don't have an urgent question, it is well worth 'lurking' as much as possible. Read loads of topics on anything that looks interesting, you'll learn more about how the forum works, what's permitted and, most importantly, about whatever it is you joined the forum to ask questions about.

Don't complain about attitude problems or how the forum is laid out. Or anything else, for that matter. It is not your forum. Not yet, anyway.

Asking a question

Before you ask

Before you ask a question, do some research to try to find an answer. A forum isn't necessarily a last resort, but it's hardly a first port of call. Before you ask: - Check any relevant manuals (paper ones, and .pdfs etc, on the manufacturer's site) - Search the web - Search any forums (use the site:www.domain.com/forum syntax in Google if necessary) - Experiment

If you find another post on a forum that's asking the same question, use that info first. If the answers don't help, post in the older thread rather than starting a new one.

When you have done these things, and you post your question, mention that in the question. Also, say what results you found and why they were not helpful.

Think through what you're going to ask. The easier the question is to read, the more likely you are to get an answer. Give as much information as you can about where and when you have the problem. Give details of what you've tried, and what these things did or didn't do.

If there are any locked topics, have a look at them and see why they were locked (the moderators normally post a note saying what was wrong with it).


Put as much information as the forum will let you in the title. It doesn't need to be grammatically perfect, but it must be understandable. Use of the words 'urgent', 'please help' etc. will most likely result in your post being ignored.

Don't flag it as 'urgent' or 'very important'. Even if it is to you, it isn't to anyone else.

Using caps and/or non alphanumeric characters will have similar results.

It should be possible to be half-way to answering your question just by reading the title.


This should be easy to read and in proper English. Re-read it when you've finished, to make sure it makes sense. If your question isn't important enough to you for you to make the minimal effort to word your question properly, why should it be important enough to anyone else for them to work out what the answer is.

Cut out any background information that isn't necessary, but put in all the useful information you have. If you're not sure whether something is useful or not, put it at the bottom.

Say what went wrong, and when. Describe what you've tried, and the results of that.

Describe the symptoms of the problem as accurately as possible, and don't make guesses as to what might be causing the problem. The closer the information you give the forum is to the raw information you see, the more likely you are to get a relevant answer.

Ask accurate questions. Asking "i need some information about __" will not get you a useful answer. You need to specify what information you want and, if necessary, why. If your question can be answered with a 'yes' or 'no', you will likely get that answer.

If your question involves a long link, either use a 'forum code' (it will be in the FAQ if there is one) or use www.tinyurl.com to shorten it. On some forums, long links do all sorts of bad things to the forum layout.

If it involves a large body of text and you do not have access to somewhere else to store it, make use of pastebin which has good support for posting edits. It is often considered polite to post the bit that turned out to be the problem, and its accompanying solution, when you say the problem's been solved, so that all the material is on the forum for easy reference.

Don't ask people to e-mail you their answers - they won't. Instead, make the forum e-mail you when there is a reply (usually called 'subscribe to thread' or similar).

Don't use all caps, don't flood the post with smileys.

Using the reply

If you get the answer 'RTFM', chances are the responder feels you could have found your answer if only you'd bothered to Read The Fucking Manual. Similarly, if you get the response 'STFW', you should Search The Fucking Web (this is often censored to 'Google is your friend').

In general, in this instance, the person responding has the web-page, or manual, open in front of them as they type. Their answer is therefore an implication that the information is very easy to find. Go find it.

A 'yes' or 'no' answer means you've worded your question badly.

If you don't get an answer, it does not mean you are being ignored, it means that no-one who has looked at your question has answered it. This could be because thy don't know the answer, or because they don't understand the question. 'bumping' the question (where you post in the thread purely to put it at the top of the thread list) is not a good way to solve this problem. Re-read the original post, and see if you can re-write it in an easier-to-understand form.

If you don't understand the answer, don't immediately ask for more help. Use the same techniques you used before asking the original question to get clarification - look in manuals and online for mentions of processes described in the answer.

If that doesn't help, ask for clarification, but say that you've looked already, and say what you found.

There is a difference between a forum and a chatroom, treat the forum as such. Don't use it for inane banter; if you want to change the subject, start a new thread.

It is not worth expressing your opinion if you cannot back it up reliably - the thread will degenerate into a flame war, and then no-one is happy.

Remember that everyone else is as entitled to their opinion as you are to yours. Don't dismiss them out of hand.

Forums are places for discussion, not playground spats.


Being subjected to abuse

If you get abuse, or 'flamed' on a forum, in general, you've done something wrong.

Asking a decent question will almost never result in a flaming. Asking a bad question, or a good question badly worded or spelt, almost certainly will. Regular forum-users tire of having to decipher bad English, so will enjoy the chance to relieve some pent-up anger.

Posting inane comments purely to boost your post-count (on forums with this feature) will annoy people. Many forums will ban you for it. When you join a forum, you've got to bear in mind that the members are most likely perfectly happy with the forum as it is. The onus is therefore on you to act in such a way as to make them feel you are a valuable addition to their forum. Don't expect the forum to adapt to how you want it to work/be, it is up to you to make yourself suit it.

In general, the best response to abuse or flaming is to ignore it. If you can't see anything wrong with your post, and they don't say what's wrong in their replies, just leave it and try another forum.

Some common forum abbreviations

Use these sparingly, if at all. You'll never get bonus points for using them, you may well loose points though. This is here as a dictionary, not as advice:

In addition, asterisks, slashes and underscores are sometimes used to add emphasis to a word. Historically, asterisks denote bold, underscores underline and slashes italics.

"I don't think that's fatal

"You do not want to try that"

"Why didn't you do that /before/ it broke?"

Where to search the web

Google - Incredibly popular search engine, but few people use the advanced search features. Wikipedia and Wiktionary - Two incredibly useful resources. Being wiki based, their definitions and explanations reflect the current usage of terms. Answers.com - A mirror of, amongs other things, Wikipedia and Wiktionary. Dictionary.com and Thesaurus.com - Dictionary and thesaurus that reference online versions of the 'official' texts.

Why this is here

Inspired by How To Ask Questions The Smart Way by Eric Steven Raymond and Rick Moen, made necessary by the users of the MBUK.com forum which is now partly UKMB and partly Bike Radar, written by Avi. Proof read repeatedly by Sami, who also suggested content.

Copyright (c) 2006 Avi Greenbury. This text released under the GNU Free Documentation License because i'm nice like that. If you copy it, you need to attribute this to me, and link back to it.

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