In the world of hackers, the kind of answers you get to your technical questions depends as much on the way you ask the questions as on the difficulty of developing the answer. This guide will teach you how to ask questions in a way more likely to get you a satisfactory answer.
Now that use of open source has become widespread, you can often get as good answers from other, more experienced users as from hackers. This is a Good Thing; users tend to be just a little bit more tolerant of the kind of failures newbies often have. Still, treating experienced users like hackers in the ways we recommend here will generally be the most effective way to get useful answers out of them, too.
The first thing to understand is that hackers actually like hard problems and good, thought-provoking questions about them. If we didn’t, we wouldn’t be here. If you give us an interesting question to chew on we’ll be grateful to you; good questions are a stimulus and a gift. Good questions help us develop our understanding, and often reveal problems we might not have noticed or thought about otherwise. Among hackers, “Good question!” is a strong and sincere compliment.
Despite this, hackers have a reputation for meeting simple questions with what looks like hostility or arrogance. It sometimes looks like we’re reflexively rude to newbies and the ignorant. But this isn’t really true.
What we are, unapologetically, is hostile to people who seem to be unwilling to think or to do their own homework before asking questions. People like that are time sinks — they take without giving back, and they waste time we could have spent on another question more interesting and another person more worthy of an answer. We call people like this “losers” (and for historical reasons we sometimes spell it “lusers”).
We realize that there are many people who just want to use the software we write, and who have no interest in learning technical details. For most people, a computer is merely a tool, a means to an end; they have more important things to do and lives to live. We acknowledge that, and don’t expect everyone to take an interest in the technical matters that fascinate us. Nevertheless, our style of answering questions is tuned for people who do take such an interest and are willing to be active participants in problem-solving. That’s not going to change. Nor should it; if it did, we would become less effective at the things we do best.
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. We’re not asking you to genuflect to us — in fact, most of us would love nothing more than to deal with you as an equal and welcome you into our culture, if you put in the effort required to make that possible. But it’s simply not efficient for us to try to help people who are not willing to help themselves. It’s OK to be ignorant; it’s not OK to play stupid.
So, while it isn’t necessary to already be technically competent to get attention from us, it is necessary to demonstrate the kind of attitude that leads to competence — alert, thoughtful, observant, willing to be an active partner in developing a solution. If you can’t live with this sort of discrimination, we suggest you pay somebody for a commercial support contract instead of asking hackers to personally donate help to you.
If you decide to come to us for help, you don’t want to be one of the losers. You don’t want to seem like one, either. The best way to get a rapid and responsive answer is to ask it like a person with smarts, confidence, and clues who just happens to need help on one particular problem.
Before You Ask
When You Ask
Choose your forum carefully
Web and IRC forums
As a second step, use project mailing lists
Use meaningful, specific subject headers
Make it easy to reply
Write in clear, grammatical, correctly-spelled language
Send questions in accessible, standard formats
Be precise and informative about your problem
Volume is not precision
Don’t rush to claim that you have found a bug
Grovelling is not a substitute for doing your homework
Describe the problem’s symptoms, not your guesses
Describe your problem’s symptoms in chronological order
Describe the goal, not the step
Don’t ask people to reply by private e-mail
Be explicit about your question
When asking about code
Don’t post homework questions
Prune pointless queries
Don’t flag your question as “Urgent”, even if it is for you
Courtesy never hurts, and sometimes helps
Follow up with a brief note on the solution
How To Interpret Answers
RTFM and STFW: How To Tell You’ve Seriously Screwed Up
If you don’t understand…
Dealing with rudeness
On Not Reacting Like A Loser
Questions Not To Ask
Good and Bad Questions
If You Can’t Get An Answer
How To Answer Questions in a Helpful Way