Comment lines: John Pape: Five ways to sabotage your chance of getting help from community forums

The IBM® developerWorks® community forums provide a great opportunity for getting help from other users and technology experts. When participating in a forum, a certain level of forum etiquette is expected and should be observed. Here are five common ways that posters diminish their chances of getting quality help from the forum community, and what you can do to avoid these pitfalls. This content is part of the IBM WebSphere Developer Technical Journal.

John Pape, WebSphere Application Server SWAT Team, IBM

Author photoJohn Pape currently works with the WebSphere SWAT Team and focuses on crit-sit support for clients who utilize WebSphere Application Server, WebSphere Portal Server, and WebSphere Extended Deployment. This role requires attention to detail as well and maintaining a “think-out-of-the-box” innovative mindset, all the while assuring IBM customers get the best support possible! John also has a development background in Domino/Lotus Notes, Microsoft C#, Java, C++, Perl, and python. John is a social media champion within IBM and an avid Linux user.



04 March 2009

The dos and don’ts of forum posting

The IBM developerWorks forums are a key component of the developerWorks community. The forums span topics on many IBM products and technologies and include tons of problem solving information to help you answer a wide range of questions. While forums are a great way to obtain help for specific things, the amount and kind of help you get from forum participants depends to some degree on how you request the help you seek.

For example, if I were to list the “dos” of forum posting, I would say: do be specific about the information you need, and do be courteous when you ask for it. You might think these are obvious tips and you certainly already do them – or at least you probably think you do. It’s the "don'ts" that might be a little more telling. Let’s take a look at a handful of the pitfalls that tend to undermine posters who seek help on a forum.

1. "Any clues?"

Don't: Be stingy with details.

Post 1
Hi guys, I’m getting an OutOfMemoryError on WAS 6.1.0.19. My initial heap setting is
1536 and the maximum heap setting is 1536. The OS is AIX 5.3 and the box has 8GB
of RAM.  Any idea?

Clearly the poster has an issue and is legitimately looking for assistance. Just as clear, however, is the realization that there is almost no way that anyone could help this poster without first replying back one or more times to get more information on the problem. Artifacts such as logs, Java™ stack traces, and so on, might be required to even begin to point someone in the right direction for a problem like this.

This post will probably go unanswered -- not because no one wants to help, but because the folks reading the thread realize that too much extra time will be needed just to solicit information up front -- before the reader can determine if he can even help in the first place.

Do: Give more clues. If you’re posting a question or problem, be very clear about what the problem is and paste or attach any data you have (like log snippets) to the posting. Always try to provide everything you can at the outset. This data might not mean much to you, but it might mean something to the experts browsing your post. The more relevant information you include, the better chance there is for something important to catch a reader’s eye.

2. "I need to know about..."

Don't: Be lazy.

Post 2
Hello, I’m wanting to install an application on WebSphere. Can anyone explain to me 
the EXACT steps required to accomplish this?

This poster is probably new to WebSphere® Application Server and is lacking some basic administrative skills, which is perfectly understandable. The problem with this post is that this information could be obtained easier in whole or in part by just searching for the phrase “installing applications on WebSphere” in any search engine.

Some questions could be answered quicker or easier if the poster simply took the time to look for it. This type of post -- which is partly inappropriate (because the answer is easily and readily available elsewhere) and partly lazy (because it seems like the poster hasn’t bothered to proactively search for it) -- is likely to go without responses.

Do: Due diligence. Make a reasonable attempt to procure the answers you need prior to creating a post requesting help. Explaining that you have searched elsewhere will go a long way in getting quality assistance from the community. Remember, most of the folks viewing forums want to help somebody fix something, and a well-written post where the author has already made a reasonable attempt at solving the problem is more likely to spark an interest.

3. "Help, URGENT!!"

Don’t: Substitute forums for traditional support.

Post 3
Hello, 
I am seeing error XXX and YYY in my WebSphere 6.1.0.19 environment. I have searched the
Internet and found several workarounds that did not work for me due to my application
requirements. Please help!! This is stopping our production roll-out that is already 
2 days behind!!!

We have all seen this type of post and can relate to an urgent need for some sort of help. But while a forum is a good place to try to get your questions answered, it is not equivalent to a traditional support platform. If you have acute issues that are impacting your business, it is not usually in your best interest to expect someone from a forum to jump on the problem and help you troubleshoot – at least, not as a first line of defense. This poster should open a service request (PMR) with IBM Support to get the assistance he expects to resolve the problem at hand. While it is completely possible to get quick, quality help from a forum, you should not expect that this will always be the case; after all, most forum participants are not providing assistance full time.

Do: Seek support when you truly need it. The forum is not an official support channel, so if you have an urgent need for assistance, open a service request with IBM Support. If you’ve already opened a service request, make a note of it in your post to save others the effort of telling you to open a service request. Then, to maximize reuse, post your solution on the forum as best you can so others can benefit from what you have learned.

4. "Please reply to me@myemail.net."

Don’t: Shut others out.

Post 4
Hi Bob, 
I’m having the same problem as you, can you please send me information on what
you did to resolve your problem.  me@myemail.net. Thanks!!!

Few things are more frustrating in a forum than when you find a thread that seems to match your issue, only to find that the solution was e-mailed to the person with the problem. Forums exist for open communication. Discussing things in a forum is analogous to having a conversation in an open discussion hall. Everyone there is witness to the discussion transpiring and can contribute as they see fit. This type of collaboration creates synergy in the community and is vital for the success of the forums. No one wins if the forum provides a perfect description of a problem but then shuts readers out of the solution.

Do: Keep it out in the open. If you know the solution, post it. If you come into a forum seeking help, be ready to interact openly on the forum medium, and don’t ask that the solution be sent to you privately; keep it in the forum where others can benefit.

5. "Hey, what’s your problem, man?"

Don’t: Heat things up.

Post 5
Bob, 
I appreciate your trying to answer my post but you need to take a deep breath and try
to focus on helping out here and not flaming me for me lack of experience on this topic.
Posters like you are the reason people don’t post here more often! Thanks for the
attempt at help but I think I’ll seek help elsewhere from now on!

While this kind of post doesn’t show up that much, it’s a major buzzkill when it does. Because forums are text-based, it’s not always easy to cue in on inflections in wording, or to identify seriousness or sarcasm. Using local or geographic idioms and slang can cause problems as well. A phrase like, “My server kicked the bucket last night...” or a term like "buzzkill" could make it difficult for others to understand your problem well enough to try and help.

Do: Chill. Don’t take things personally. We all have good and bad days. For every occasional flash of genius, everyone occasionally draws a blank. Just try to stay on point and remember that visitors to forums are looking for technical help, not heightened drama. Focus on the problem at hand, state your problem or reply in plain language using simple and concise terminology. Even though a forum is rich with technical material, try to refrain from ambiguous jargon. As Charles F Kettering said, "A well stated problem is a problem half-solved."

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