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How Not to Ask for Help Online

By Lane Wagner on May 20, 2022

I’ve spent an unhealthy amount of time online over the course of my life, and in the last couple years I’ve been managing a Discord server for people who are learning computer science . Like all online communities, we have ban, kick, and moderation policies so that we’re not overrun with spammers and other non-contributors. However, I’m not perfect, and I have realized recently that we get a decent number of members who at first glance seemed like a spammer, but it turns out they just have no idea how to communicate online in a way that’s useful to themselves and others.

Let’s go over a few rules of thumb that I believe will take you from apparent scammer to valued community member. Also, I’ll try to keep these tips platform agnostic, but you might notice that they’re more tailored toward channels like Discord, Twitter, Slack, and Reddit because that’s where I spend most of my time. Use common sense to extrapolate how these principles might apply to other corners of the web.

Don’t be selfish - provide value and build relationships

This is the most important point I’m going to make. While not the most egregious sin you can commit, it might be the most common. I’m always disappointed when someone hops into a community and immediately starts demanding help while offering nothing in return. Here are a few things you can do before you start asking for help:

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Don’t beat around the bush with pleasantries

One of my biggest pet peeves is when people DM or @ me with a message that just says “hi”. I love chatting, but I don’t know what to do with this. I don’t know you, and I don’t know what you want to chat about, so why should I engage at all? If you’re going to chat someone up, say something substantive. Ask a question, share a story, comment on the conversation, but don’t expect responses from a meaningless greeting.

Don’t be weird about it

This goes hand-in-hand with the annoying “hi” message. The only thing worse than a DM that just says “hi” is one that says “hello my great friend”. Why you gotta be so weird? I don’t know you, we aren’t friends yet. I love when people are nice and welcoming, don’t get me wrong, but don’t be super weird about it.

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Don’t look like a robot, scammer, or low-effort troll

Your picture doesn’t have to be your actual face, but by at least adding something, you’re showing that you’ve put forth at least a tiny amount of effort and want to be in the community. As far as usernames go, reddog204745433 is a great example of a username that looks like it was generated by a bot. Just use something semi-reasonable. The take aways are:

Don’t be vague. Ask specific questions, and provide as much context as possible

People join our community about learning to code and ask “How do I learn to code?”. This drives me insane. We have a “getting started” section, links to resources, a FAQ, and a ton of other resources to get people started. Questions like this just show that you’re not willing to put in any effort on your own and want others to do all your work for you. No one wants to help someone like that.

Many people get a deep satisfaction from helping others online, but only if the people they are helping are willing to put in the effort to make use of the help. There’s nothing worse than writing a well-thought-out response to someone’s question to be met with radio silence.

Signal that you’ve done what you can alone before reaching out for assistance. For example, instead of asking:

How do I learn to code?

You can say something like:

Hey all! I’ve been doing some Google searches and checked the “intro” section of this community but I’m still struggling with figuring out the best path forward for myself. I checked out <insert_resource> but don’t think it applies to me for <insert_reason_here>. I have <insert_specific_goal>, does anyone have any other ideas of what I can try next?

Don’t send notifications to people you don’t know

I’ve seen the following story a lot.

  1. Someone jumps into a public chat and immediately asks a question.
  2. No one answers that question within the first 5 minutes.
  3. The asker starts DMing or @ mentioning community members in an effort to get more attention.

If you aren’t getting help, it’s probably not anyone else’s fault. These are the questions you should be asking yourself:

Let me know if you have other tips

I want to have more meaningful conversations online, so let me know if you think I missed anything important. I’m @wagslane on Twitter.

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