On Forums, Searching and The Same Questions
I’m on quite a few web-based discussion forums (3 regularly: AF, AR, RR; umpteen others irregularly). I started one (not one of those linked there). I moderate one which is simultaneously an honour and a gigantic pain. They’re all car-related, but that’s a bit beside the point. They all have different styles and accepted ways of behaving which can take a while to understand. Particularly on AR, there is a general feeling that repeating a question or reposting a link is BAD. Newbies and long term members alike are flamed and dish flames out. Geoff puts it a more eloquently than most:
[I]f there’s one thing I’ve noticed, it’s that a lot of people don’t really look hard when seeking answers, or they don’t look at all. Why is that? Do search buttons need to be bigger? Do people even know what a search button even is?
And on a specific forum which:
was once a font of knowledge, now seems to have fallen into the forum trap of too many threads asking the same questions.
I don’t think asking the same questions is bad. Everyone is a newbie at some stage and everyone has to go through a similar process of becoming part of the community and building a familiarity with the community’s body of knowledge.
On the other hand, being afraid to ask what might be the same question is BAD. Most newbies know that they don’t know. How else can they learn but by asking questions? Getting flamed for a repost or asking the same question closes the community to newbies when, it seems to me, that the community is strengthened by more newbies coming on board and progressing from newbie to knowledgeable.
On many forums, the search functionality is quite poor by current, google-influenced, standards. You can’t throw words at a typical forum search and find something along the lines of what you’re looking for. Unfortunately, most people don’t understand this phenomena, which has been covered in great detail by many smart people.
Telling people to “search, this has been covered before” doesn’t really help. It’s a slightly more polite RTFM. A newbie who’s told to search now has two problems. (a) The thing they asked about and (b) figuring out the search functionality. This is like being thrown in the deep end twice.
Those of us who are old hands at forums have learnt to search the hard way. Some of us have backgrounds that make seeing the underlying mechanism of the search a bit easier (eg spending several years learning SQL). This doesn’t mean that newbies should have to go through the same learning process or have database design backgrounds.
But back to newbies and asking (dumb) questions. Kathy Sierra said:
[W]ithout users asking questions, the community evaporates.
She also says that along with a “There Are No Dumb Questions culture” you also need a “There are No Dumb Answers policy”. This can be pretty scary on some forums (*cough* AR *cough*) where there’s a lot of mythology about a lot of things, a lot of “noise” or chatter, and a feeling sometimes of yelling into the void. This is why Sierra also suggests that people with more information gently correct wrong answers.
Obviously, even with No Dumb Questions what you really want is for people to ask smart questions. Asking smart questions is hard. Learning to ask smart questions is not something that everyone is good at. Javaranch (Kathy Sierra’s favourite example) has a great How to Ask Questions page and a corresponding How to Answer Questions page.
Something else interesting is that sometimes asking the same questions results in new answers. Or, asking the same questions in a slightly different way results in new answers.
On some forums (*cough* AR *cough*) you can sometimes piss a lot of people off asking the same questions. I have seen threads escalate from innocent questions to actual threats of violence in short order. Why can’t people be nice? I don’t have an answer to that one.
The take-home message here is that There Are No Dumb Questions Only Bad Answers.
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