Got a problem? The Internet means you never need to struggle alone. For every topic you can imagine, there are online communities – forums, groups, chat boards, message boards, whatever you want to call them – full of people who can (maybe) answer your questions. This is truly an amazing resource; don’t let it go to waste! (And while I’m specifically talking here about getting help with tech questions,  this page really applies to any forum on any topic – work, hobbies, life, love, everything.)

But wait – aren’t online communities just places to get yelled at by grumpy tech nerds who’ll accuse you of asking stupid questions? The truth is that online forums can be like that. People on forums can’t see each other, and typically don’t even use their real names, which can cause some normally-decent people to forget that they’re dealing with other human beings. On top of that, more than a few forum participants have likely spent too many hours in front of the computer, way past bedtime. On some forums, it’s not hard to get yourself “flamed” (that is, yelled at rudely).

But it’s also not hard to avoid such bad experiences. Following a few simple rules will catch you far friendlier fish!

Simple rules for getting friendly help from online communities

  1. Find the right spot – the right website, the right forum within that site, and so on. If you approach a forum where professional engineers discuss programming languages for semiconductor design software, and you pop up to ask why your printer spits out purple-tinged Christmas photos, you deserve a little grief. Find a forum that’s right for your topic and your level of expertise.
  2. Check out the landscape. Don’t jump immediately into a forum that you’ve just found. (I know, this can be tough advice to follow when you have an emergency on hand…) Read some recent posts to see what the participants are talking about, and to make reasonably sure you’re in the right place (see above). Also, a long-running forum develops its own culture; you don’t have to immerse yourself in it, but if you can emulate the forum’s overall writing style and etiquette, you’ll increase your chance of a good response. (A quick example: You’ll notice that few people on a forum type using ALL CAPS – and when someone does, there’s typically a quick barrage of “Stop shouting!” messages in reply. That should clearly tell you how not to type your message.)
  3. Check whether your question is already answered. One common way to annoy forum participants is to ask a question that’s been answered a thousand times before. If there’s a search function to search through past forum posts, use it first. Also look for a FAQ (Frequently Answered Questions) page. You don’t have to search forever; you just have to make a bit of effort. You should get a fine reaction from people if you start your message with something like this: “I tried a search on this forum and looked through three pages of results, but I didn’t see a question quite matching mine. I apologize if this has been asked before. Here’s my problem…”
  4. Provide information. Asking “I can’t print my emails. What do I do?” will get you nowhere. What do you mean by “can’t print”? What exactly is the printer doing or not doing? What operating system, printer model, and so on are you using? What error messages, if any, are popping up? (Throughout it all, remember to think applications: What application is causing the problem? What application is tossing up an error message?)
  5. Show some effort. Want to know the most common unfriendly response that’s given to questions in forums? It’s “RTFM”, an acronym for Read The Fine Manual (note: interpretations of that “F” may vary). That means “Go read the documentation before bugging us”. A bit rude, perhaps – but fortunately, if you do read up on things first, you should get a far more positive response. Technical wizzes are, first and foremost, people who eagerly learn things on their own – and they like people who make an effort to do the same.
    So show your effort: “I checked the manufacturer’s web page for product support, and following the advice there, I reinstalled the printer software. Then, following the printer’s manual, I ran a color print test, and that looked fine. But still, my email application gives me the error message I described. So I decided to try printing from my word processor application, WordBang 2014, and here’s what happened…” Me, I’ve yet to see a tech geek who doesn’t smile kindly on a soul like that.
  6. Follow up. Not just to say thanks for the help, but also to report back on what happened. Did the advice that you received help you out? If not, what solved the problem? Or if it isn’t solved, what ideas will you try next? Reporting back is more than just etiquette. Forum members typically consider it fun to teach things to people who actually learn. Showing that you learn is a great way to get a friendly response to your next question.

What do you say

What sort of experiences have you had in seeking help from online forums? What advice would you give help-seekers?

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