What Everybody Should Know About Asking for Help Online

by Michael James Williams on May 17, 2009 · 4 comments

in Articles

Table of contents for Debugging

  1. How to Get Rid of Bugs in Your Code
  2. How to Fix Bugs By Learning From the Experts
  3. What Everybody Should Know About Asking for Help Online
Magic spam bus
Creative Commons License photo credit: uberculture

So, you’ve narrowed the bug in your code down and searched all over the web for a solution, but you just can’t figure it out on your own. Sounds like it’s time to ask for help.

And where better than a forum?

The most common mistake made by forum newbies

Remember, a forum is just a place where people with common interests hang out. Think of it like a tennis club. Now imagine you’ve just played a few sets, and you’re standing around chatting with your fellow members and friends. Maybe you’re talking about the matches you’ve just played, or a game you saw on TV last weekend, or something entirely unrelated, like the weather.

Suddenly, some guy you’ve never seen before barges into the room!

“Hey guys, my backhand sucks, how do I fix it?”

That guy is not going to get a lot of help. It doesn’t matter that the room’s full of awesome players and coaches. It doesn’t matter that the guy has the best of intentions, and just wants to learn. He comes across as brash, impolite, and demanding, and no-one wants to give up their time for a person like that.

Bear this in mind, and you’ll be fine.

How to do it right

Now imagine that one of the regulars of the club brought up the problems he’s been having with his own backhand. “I’ve been practising for weeks,” he says, “but I just keep screwing up return volleys when I’m near the net. Anybody got any advice?”

Even though this is pretty much the same question, it’s going to get a lot more answers, because:

  1. It’s asked by a regular.
  2. It shows the person asking is willing to put in effort.
  3. It’s not demanding.

The same principles applies to forums (and emails, blogs, twitter…). Let’s look at each of these in turn.

Become a regular

I’ll assume for the moment that you don’t have any pressing issues that need help right now, today, but you can see the value of being able to ask for help in the future. How do you become a forum regular?

Well, the first thing you need to do, of course, is pick a forum. My personal favourite is Flash Game License. It’s the most friendly and helpful online community I’ve ever been a part of, and there are a ton of AS3 and Flash experts that are happy to share what they know. I also enjoy FrozenHaddock and Untold Entertainment’s forums. If none of these take your fancy, search for one you do like; there are dozens.

Spend some time lurking — reading posts without writing any — to get a feel for what kind of behaviour is expected. Does everyone have an avatar and signature? Do people write in perfect English, or can you get away with loose spelling and grammar? Are there a lot of chat or spam threads, or is the forum generally on topic?

Once you understand all this, start posting. If the forum has an “Introductions” thread, that’s a good place to start. The key here is to get into a habit of posting, rather than writing 50 and then stopping for a month. It helps to set yourself a regular target, like two posts a day, until you know you don’t need this any more.

Be sure to write useful posts, though! Adding “lol”, “XD”, “I agree” to the end of every other thread might get you a reputation, but probably not one you’d want. (On FGL you can give feedback on other members’ games; there’s also a chat room that can help you get to know people.)

Before long, you’ll be a part of the community yourself, and people will be happy to help you!

But I don’t have time for all that!

Okay, okay, so maybe you don’t have a couple of weeks to get to know people before asking your question. In this case, you need to make it clear that you know it would be best to have become a regular before asking, but you really need the help now so unfortunately you can’t.

Make sure you’ve read the rules, posted an introduction and set up an avatar and signature (if it’s expected) before posting. If you don’t do these simple tasks, it’ll be obvious that you don’t really care about the community itself, just how it can serve you.

Likewise, you should try to post (useful things!) in a few other threads while waiting for an answer, and thank anyone that tries to help you. It’s really annoying to help someone out and just have them disappear immediately afterwards.

Show that you’re not lazy

No-one wants to help a person that can’t even be bothered to try to fix their own problems. Chances are they’d insist on you explaining every single step of your solution, holding their hand all the way, and that’s no fun — especially when you’re not being paid!

You need to prove that you’re willing to put the effort in to fix this, you just haven’t been able to do so by yourself. If you followed the first and second parts of this series, this’ll be easy.

All you have to do is show that you’ve narrowed the problem down and looked for a solution yourself. So, instead of saying “I’ve got a problem with this class” and then pasting 250 lines of code, say “I’ve been getting an error #1009 somewhere in this particular function of this class. I think it’s on this line…”. To show that you’ve done your research, explain that you’ve tried [a common solution], but it didn’t work for [a particular reason].

(By the way, make sure you searched the forum as part of your research — it’s pretty embarrassing to find that the solution was given in another thread a few days ago!)

Don’t be demanding

All the goodwill you’ve built up by following the other tips in this post will vanish if you act as though the other forum members are obliged to help you. So, make sure you say please and thank you, and don’t get frustrated if no answers appear.

Also, don’t “bump” your thread — that is, don’t write a new post that just says “bump” in order to push your thread back to the top of the list. It’s rude. What you can do is add a new post that provides new details of the problem, thanks to tests you’ve done since your original post. You never know who’s keeping an eye on the thread, and this might just be what they need to know to solve your problem — or it might be the key to solving someone else’s problem.

Above all, give it time. Someone might come across a blog post, by chance, a week later, that explains how to fix this problem, and as long as you’ve been polite they’ll certainly let you know about it. And if you find the solution yourself, make sure you post it to the thread so that other people with the same problem can fix it later.

Emails, Twitter, blogs, and so on

The same rules apply to any other place you’d want to ask for help — both online and offline. There are subtle differences, but you can pick them up, just as you pick up the different ways people behave on different forums.

Anybody got any forums they want to recommend, or debugging tips they want to share?

{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

George Serradinho June 13, 2009 at 8:52 am

Hi,

your points are so valid. I agree with you that newbies never get answers straight away, you some how have to get respect first or show that you have tried.

Michael Williams June 13, 2009 at 2:15 pm

Thanks George!

Matthew Ammann June 22, 2009 at 11:11 pm

I found myself saying “that is SO true” to just about every point you brought up. I also couldn’t help but think of an old addage that my grandmother used to say: “You catch more flies with honey than you do with vinegar”. I also totally agree with what you said about the avatar and signature being important. I am a member of about a dozen forums spanning multiple interests across the web, and I know how annoying it is when someone asks for help but you can see that it’s their first post, or that they don’t have an avatar/signature, or, most annoying of all, that they have zero information about themselves filled out. I find that I am 10 times more likely to help if the person is polite and uses proper spelling and grammar. Qualities such as these are getting quite hard to find these days!

I’m going to bookmark this and probably put it into my signature in a couple of those forums :) Great post!

Michael Williams June 22, 2009 at 11:38 pm

Cheers Matthew! Yes it is a pity that politeness is uncommon, and downright strange that poor spelling is rampant, given that browsers have in-built spellcheckers these days.

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