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“Play nice, children.”

by Ben Goren


A great deal of human interaction is all about protocol and etiquette. It’s not just a matter of which fork to use first at a fancy dinner: whether you address your boss as “Mrs. Smith” or “Barbara” or “Barbie” is determined by etiquette. These things aren’t fixed, either. When you’re in a board meeting, it’s almost certainly “Mrs. Smith.” At the water cooler, it could be “Barbara,” and “Barbie” at the company picnic.

Well-mannered and respected people often don’t think much about these kinds of things: it’s become automatic to them. Inconsiderate boors also don’t tend to think of them—they simply ignore courtesy. Fortunately, most of the latter tend to do so from ignorance, rather than malice, and ignorance is curable.

Every culture has its own rules. What is right an proper in one culture is often horribly rude in another. In some cultures, it’s customary to greet people by exchanging kisses. In other cultures, an attempt to kiss somebody could quickly result in an exchange of blows. Eating with your hands in a three-star French restaurant will get you tossed on the street, but you’ll be laughed out of the park if you’re caught using a knife and fork at a Southwestern American picnic.

Most people would study at least a bit of a foreign country before traveling there. They’d know whether they should shake people’s hands or kiss them on the cheek. They’d also know that food should be eaten with their hands, but that they should never lick their fingers. However, a great number of people don’t take similar precautions when they venture onto the Internet. Just like any geographic region of the world, the Internet, and various sub-portions of the Internet, has its own rules. Failure to obey those rules will mark you as a rude foreigner just as surely as if you demanded a bacon cheeseburger in a Kosher delicatessen.

One particularly misunderstood corner of the ’Net is that of the email discussion groups that offer help on technical matters. Here, therefore, are some guidelines to follow if you don’t want to be considered a clod.

Be polite.

If you’re coming to a bunch of strangers asking for help, it won’t do you a bunch of good to start by saying, “Your program is a pile of steaming cow manure!” Even if the program is a pile of steaming cow manure, hold your nose if you want those responsible for the plop to help you clean it up.

Some of those who take this attitude are used to dealing with paid technical support. They’ll buy some Widgets from Acme, Inc., and discover that the only way they can get Acme to help them when the Widgets break is to threaten and insult Acme’s employees. Part of the threat usually involves withholding of funds (“I’ll never buy anything from Acme again!”) or legal action. This simply won’t work against a group of volunteers: you’re not paying them in the first place, and there’s no company or other organization you could sue. The biggest threat you have is that you’ll stop using whatever it is you’re asking help with—and that’s exactly what people on these kinds of groups really, really wish that this sort of person would do.

Use your best English.

Before I get started with this topic, I should acknowledge that the Internet is international. Some parts use languages other than English. If necessary, substitute other languages for English below.

I may be a bit of an old fogey for saying so, but it’s my firm belief that anything that deserves being written deserves being written well. Yes, there are many parts of the ’Net where poor grammar, sloppy punctuation, and creative spelling are the norm. But when it comes to technical matters, bad writing suffers a fatal flaw: it’s imprecise. If it’s too hard for people to decipher what you wrote, they’ll be much less inclined to take the next step to do anything about it. If your note says (or implies) one thing when the opposite is true, you’ll make a lot of people angry. It’s your job to make it easy for everybody who might help you.

But never, ever criticize anybody for their writing skills. Nobody is perfect. I take a bit of pride in my own writing, but I wouldn’t be too astounded to discover a mistrake or two in this very piece. Attacking somebody who can’t write is the ’Net’s equivalent of saying his mother smells bad.

Do your homework.

It’s often said that one’s favorite deity helps those who helps themselves. The truth in that statement depends on the faith of the reader, but what is true is that regulars on most groups are much more interested in helping people who have first exhausted their own resources. For one, those’re usually the questions that’re more interesting, the puzzles that’re more challenging to solve. If it looks like it could be a hard problem, it also shows that there can be active cooperation with the person with the problem—a vital requirement to solving anything difficult. If it’s an easy problem but the person asking it tried hard and is still stumped, nearly everybody will have sympathy. Everybody knows what it’s like to have given something your all, only to fail until somebody else gave a helping hand.

If, on the other hand, it’s an easy problem that could have been answered with a minimum amount of effort…well, it’s just a waste of everybody’s time. The person who asked the question could have gotten the answer in a fraction of the time it’ll take to get a reply from the group. The note adds to the omnipresent clutter and noise in the electronic world, wasting a minute of time from hundreds of people. And it often gets people’s hackles up, which sometimes results in heated arguments, further wasting people’s time and energy.

But the biggest reason for doing your homework before you post is that you’ll almost always find the answer yourself. People—you included—learn much better when they come to the answer through their own means; having somebody dictate the solution won’t really make it stick. There’s an excellent chance that you’ll also discover something else useful along the way. Even if not, you’ll get better skilled at research. One can never be too good at answering questions.

Research comes in many varieties. Most long-standing discussion forums have compendiums of frequently asked questions; checking for and reading such is an absolute requirement! If there’s official documentation for whatever’s giving you trouble, read all of it before asking a question—including the sections you don’t think apply to you. If you’re having trouble with the interaction of two or more things, research all of them. For example, if you were having difficulty with Acme Widgets in a Foobar Thingie, include resources for both Widgets and Thingies in your investigation. Even though it’s a Thingie you’re using the Widget in, the problem may be particular to the Widget and not the Thingie. The Thingie people might have no clue what you’re talking about while the Widget people deal with it all the time. In all quests, Google is your friend (as is any other general-purpose research tool).

Be thorough.

There’s no way that people will know that you’ve done your homework if you don’t tell them. By giving the group all the information you’ve already gathered, you save them the trouble of going down the same fruitless paths. Few things are more frustrating than answering somebody’s question, only to get a reply, “I didn’t tell you, but I already did that.”

Consider a case where you’re having trouble installing OpenBSD on a computer. If you look through the list archives, you’ll see a number of notes that look something like this:

From: John Doe
To: misc@openbsd.org
Subject: Help!
Date: Mon, 1 Apr 2002 22:04:37 -0500

Help me I cant get openbsd 30 on my dell, its okay on 28

While accurate and essentially decipherable, it’s an impossible request. There’re so many things that could go worng that the mind boggles just contemplating where to start. Compare, instead the following:

To: misc@openbsd.org
Subject: 2.8 sees hard drive; 3.0 doesn’t
From: Ben Goren
Date: Mon, 4 Mar 2002 14:30:50 -0700

I  have  a  pair  of Dell  OptiPlex  GL  5113
computers  that have  been  working great  as
firewalls with 2.8 for  quite a while, now. I
want to upgrade them to 3.0

On  one  of them,  none  of  the 3.0  install
floppies  recognize  the hard  drive. On  the
other,  all  is  fine. I’ve tried  all  three
images on  the CD, plus the  floppy30.fs from
the latest snapshot and a “make release” of
-stable  done  on  the  28th;  if  there’s  a
different  result  among  the five  disks,  I
can’t see it.

Suggestions most welcome; dmesges below.

Specs for  the Dell  OptiPlex GL 5113  can be
found here:




[many lines of log files appeared here.]

If you read the messages in the resulting thread you’ll see that my problem was quickly solved in a quite cordial manner. If you read the responses to notes like the first one, you might well see some insults traded and more than one wounded ego. Same problem, different question, dramatically different results.

While you don’t want to be overly excessively verbose in your use of choice wordage, it’s generally better to include too much information rather than too little. It’s a lot easier to skim through the uninteresting bits than to ask for more.

I provide some OpenBSD-specific elaboration on this topic in my Meta-FAQ.

Trim your replies.

When you reply to notes on a group (or in private mail, for that matter), you should quote relevant portions of the original message in your own. Most email programs will quote the entire message for you automatically; it’s your duty to delete those portions of the message that have no bearing on your reply. Quoting the original message preserves the context of the discussion—on a busy group, it can often be difficult to mentally keep straight just what’s going on. Quoting too much of the note wasts computer resources and forces readers to re-read (or at least skim) through irrelevant information in an attempt to figure out what it has to do with your reply.

To be pedantically thorough, you can indicate where you cut a note with either [. . .] or . Omissions are expected, though; therefore, ellipses are understood. One should to refer to the original (which is usually easy to find in an archive) if context is needed.

Avoid top-posting.

“Top-posting” refers to the practice of writing one’s reply above the quoted original. On very rare occasions it may be appropriate; most of the time, it breaks the continuity of the discussion. By selectively quoting and replying to a note, you can create the semblance of a conversation—a very natural form of communication for humans. Top-posting is the electronic equivalent of reading a play backwards. Behold as I turn the Bard’s prophetic words into cheap comedy:

Caesar: He is a dreamer; let us leave him: pass.

Soothsayer: Beware the ides of March.

Caesar: What say’st thou to me now? speak once again.

Cassius: Fellow, come from the throng; look upon Caesar.

Caesar: Set him before me; let me see his face.

Brutus: A soothsayer bids you beware the ides of March.

Caesar: What man is that?

Soothsayer: Beware the ides of March.

Caesar: Who is it in the press that calls on me?
I hear a tongue, shriller than all the music,
Cry ’Caesar!’ Speak; Caesar is turn’d to hear.

Casca: Bid every noise be still: peace yet again!

Caesar: Ha! who calls?

Soothsayer: Caesar!

Observe local regulations.

Some groups will have their own peculiarities. Usually, these are noted in the same place as the information on how to subscribe. Some may require that email be formatted in a particular manner or that certain topics never be broached. Breaking these rules is like wearing work boots in a household where shoes are left at the front door or asking the whereabouts of the family’s black sheep.

Every discussion group has its own flavor, a style that you can only get from reading. Before you chime in, spend a good amount of time reading messages from the group. The best way to do this is to subscribe and “lurk,” or read without participating, for at least week or two. If you’re in a bit more of a hurry, see if there are archives of past (and especially recent) discussions. Read as much of it as you can. In addition to the official rules, lurking can give you insight into, for example, how well off-topic tangents are appreciated or whether discussion is curt or cuddly.

Keep your skin thick.

Barbs and personal attacks are more common on some groups than on others. On any group, don’t be too quick to defend your honor.

For many thousands of years, humans have spent most of their time communicating face-to-face. There are many factors to communication other than words. Tone of voice, facial expressions, and posture all carry deep meaning. The difference between satire and insult is often subtle, even if it’s instantly recognizable in person.

With writing—and never forget that the Internet is almost exclusively a written medium—communication is stripped of everything but words. A skillful author can write effective satire, but skillful writing is hard: not many have the skill, and many who do don’t always take the time to do it right.

On relaxed and friendly groups, try your hardest to interpret messages in the most positive possible light. If there’s any possible way that the author could have meant to give something a non-negative interpretation, assume that that was indeed the case.

On a more down-to-Earth, cut-the-nonsense group, first check to see if there’s any way that the criticism was warranted. If it was, take your lumps and learn from the lesson.

In no case should you attack the instigator—that won’t ever do anything good. Defending yourself usually isn’t a good idea, either. If the other person was out of line, chances are excellent that somebody else will call him out on it.

Don’t do drive-by postings.

A line seen far too often on discussion groups is, “Please reply to foo@bar.com since I’m not subscribed.” Doing so is rude. I explain why in my OpenBSD Meta-FAQ.

Don’t make proclamations or demands.

Don’t try to tell any group what is important to them or what they should do. Unless you yourself founded the group or are otherwise officially responsible for it, you’re in no position to do so. If you think that the group should make a change of direction, first do lots of research, especially into the group’s positions on the matter. If the topic has come up before, drop it—the group isn’t going to change their position and they’re not interested in re-hashing old arguments. If it’s a new topic, tread lightly. Contact one or more of the senior members of the group privately and ask them if they think it’d be appropriate for discussion. (If you don’t know who the senior members of the group are, you’re in no position to proceed.) Shape your words in the form of a request or suggestion, and write the post as well as you possibly can. Avoid criticizing the group, even if the criticism is warranted—you won’t gain many converts by telling people they’re wrong or stupid. Don’t be too quick to defend your position; if it has merit, others will carry that burden for you.

Let the poor horse rest in peace.

Periodically, every group will experience a spasm of deceased equine flagellation. People will dig in their heels and re-hash every minor aspect of some hot topic in a most excruciating manner. Often, this is accompanied by a spiraling degradation in manners that may end with an invocation of Godwin’s Law, but not all urination contests make it that far.

Robert’s Rules of Order generally prohibits members of a legislative body from addressing the same topic more than once without some procedural effort. It’s also considered bad form to re-state a point that’s already been made. If somebody says something—even something horribly untrue—that has already been adequately rebutted, keep your fingers off the keys. Repeating arguments makes them tired and adds fuel to an already hot flame. The only cure is silence.

And now, I’ll follow my own advice and shut up.