Cultural Blog 8: Asking Questions

Here is something true: I have never posted a programming question to an online forum. I have also never asked someone in person for an answer. This is not because I’m smart. I’m far from it. It’s because I don’t give up the search. I know the answer exists somewhere out there, hiding in some deep, dark hole. I know that my question is not a unique little snowflake that has never been asked before. I just have to figure out how to find the answer.

Here’s is something else that’s true: Asking questions in almost any online community will likely get you eviscerated. This tends to happen even if you asked your question the right way and worded everything exactly as you should. The reason for this is simple: people are jerks. They worked hard to discover the answer for themselves and once they have it, they sure as hell aren’t going to share it with just any schmuck who doesn’t feel like doing the work.

Imagine a mountain. At the top of that mountain are some strawberries. You climb up that mountain, straining and sweating to get to the top. You finally make it and feel like the greatest person who ever lived. You collect some strawberries and make your way back down the mountain. As soon as you get to the bottom, some guy is sitting there waiting to beg some of your hard earned strawberries. What do you say to him? Hell no! F*** that guy! Those are my little strawberries of wisdom that I worked hard to get!

The difference between the strawberries and actual knowledge is that knowledge is limitless. By sharing your knowledge with someone else, you don’t suddenly have less knowledge. So, we’re back to the outcome that people are just jerks who want to make you suffer.

How do we avoid being torn a new one whenever we post questions online? For starters, avoid posting questions. This seems counterintuitive, but hear me out. There are several steps you should take before even thinking about posting in the cesspools known as online forums.

Search online. This step seems obvious, but I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve experienced this scenario: someone asks me a question that they’ve ‘been stuck on forever’. I search Google for their exact question. More often than not, the answer is right there on the screen. I’ve just done something they could have finished in 10 seconds or less. Search is the most powerful tool we have available to us, but we have to use it correctly.

This can’t just be one quick Google search. A question that really needs to be answered has to be worded every possible way. Use quotes, don’t use quotes, use different words, look up synonyms, start from a larger, more generic idea and work down to the more specific answer you’re looking for, use multiple sites and see which one sends you in the most useful direction.

Over time, you’ll learn to trust certain sites more than others. The funny part is, if you search correctly, you’ll find that some poor, unsuspecting soul has asked your exact question! Chances are, this unfortunate question poster was insulted and tormented and told that his question was already asked and answered 3 years ago on some page that’s no longer publicly accessible and how dare this person post such a stupid question without researching properly?!

Right underneath all that vitriol, someone nicely provides an answer. Beneath that, someone else tells the nice guy that his answer is wrong, inefficient, or outdated. He doesn’t provide any additional information.

It goes on like this. The point is, now you have your answer and you didn’t have to contribute to the downfall of our society.

Search offline. Take this one with a giant boulder of salt. If you’re like me, you’re a nice guy who genuinely wants to help people, or at least help send them in the right direction so they can feel like they accomplished something when they find the answer for themselves. However, not everyone is like that. Asking your friends, family, coworkers, etc., about any particular subject may result in multiple answers, all of which may be wrong. If you decide not to use one particular answer, you’ve now offended that person and they will never offer you advice again. Not really. They’ll jump at any opportunity to provide unsolicited suggestions whenever possible.

The key here is to phrase your question as if you already know the answer. ‘Hey, I had a really interesting time with problem X, what did you end up doing here?’ Sneaky, but effective. Also, you’re not obligated to use an answer if you decide it doesn’t work for you.

If you’re lucky enough to know someone a lot smarter than you in your field of questioning, try not to take too much advantage of their knowledge. Unless they offer it. Then suck their knowledge dry. Make them regret ever wanting to help you. Not really, but if you can find someone who’s willing to coach you, never pass it up.

So, we’ve looked online, we’ve looked offline. We’re still no closer to answering our question. This means one of several possibilities:

A. You’re much smarter than everyone else and no one knows the answer to such an intelligent question
B. Your internet is not working and you’ve been searching through your computer’s recycle bin again
C. You’re not asking the right question or you’re not asking the question the right way

I can’t help you with the first two. Even the last one, at this point, might be too difficult to fix. Maybe you should ask that question on your internet forum of choice. Just remember. Sticks and stones.

My name is Edwin Unger, and I’m a web developer in training.