Opinion: If you don't like answering questions, leave the forums

Over the years, I have long periods where I avoid Q&A forums. Lately, I've been spending a bit of time back in some forums. And once again, I've seen the sorts of behavior that make me think about leaving again.

Here's a simple message: If you don't like answering questions in Q&A forums, then don't. Leave. You might think it's all about you and your attempts to gain reputation in the forums. It's not.

It's about the people who need help.

There are a few personality types that I really want to call out:

The "you didn't search well enough before asking the question" type.

These people will berate others for asking questions that have been asked before. Get over it. People will ask the same questions again and again. Not every one of them is a search whiz. And who cares anyway? Just answer their question and let them get on with their lives. If you don't want to do that, just stop doing it.

Worse, I've seen examples lately where questions are closed as duplicates, and the person who jumped into to close it quickly, has totally misunderstood that it's really not actually a duplicate.

The "you're doing a dumb thing; I'm really clever but you should go back to school" type.

These people are more intent on trying to make themselves look clever, belittling the questioner, and basically telling them they're stupid for what they're trying to do. Yet in 99% of cases, they don't give them an answer to their question, or point them in the right direction. Just give the questioner a break; do a bit extra work in showing them what they should be doing.

The "I'm so bored with answering questions that I really can't be bothered" type.

These people will often have compiled a massive FAQ, and the answer to every question is that people will find the answer (somewhere) in the FAQ. If you have the answers so easily at hand, just copy and paste it in, to help the questioner. Don't make them play Where's Wally to find the answer.

Look, if you aren't spending time in the forums with a genuine desire to help people, thank you for your previous efforts but might be time for you to just take a break.

And one for the forum people too: Is it really necessary to remove human interaction and warmth from the responses? When I finish a response with something like "Hope this helps" as I normally would when talking to a human, invariably one of the rules enforcers edits my post and removes that comment. Really? I can see why many people find the forums pretty toxic.



12 thoughts on “Opinion: If you don't like answering questions, leave the forums”

  1. Oh, I agree so much with the last paragraph. StackOverflow has been bombing me with triage requests and approvals lately. So many of them are nit-picking grammar "improvements", that have achieved nothing at all.

    1. Hi Ron,

      I don't understand why they insist on removing any "human" interaction or expressions.



  2. I disagree with the second point, at least partially. If the OP is clearly doing something wrong, they should be told. Sure, it should be said tactfully, without belittling them, but it should still be said. If they ask "how can I parse HTML using regular expressions", giving them a regex that would maybe work sometimes won't help them see what's wrong with this approach, and isn't doing them a service in the long run. And of course, they should be pointed to the right direction. Just answering "don't do that, it's dumb" isn't helpful, obviously.

    1. Agreed. But there are many ways to let the person know that they're heading down the wrong path. The ones that I have the most issue with are the ones that belittle the OP and then don't give them clear directions on where to head and how.



  3. Greg, this is a really interesting piece. Let me share my experience as a helper.

    On my product's forum, where I was once an active helper, we would get many questions from wannabe developers would simply ask us requirements-specific questions. Something like "I want to read some records from Excel file and save it in receivables table. What is the best way to do this?" If I answered like "There are many ways to achieve this. Have you ever tried something before posting this question? Or what's your level of understanding w.r.t. this concept?" in order to narrow down to an answerable problem, they'd either go mute or expose themselves as lazy-to-learn.

    These people take the helpers' time and expertise for granted. And they profit in whichever way they could. I used to take some of these questions as a challenge to learn/solve. As a developer/consultant, I would easily get excited by these questions. Over a period of time, I realised that these people are not there to learn and share. They're simply there to profit.

    There are sour grapes on both sides. How/whether we keep our sanity among them is the big question.

    1. Hi Vaidy, I hear what you're saying, but in the end, what does it really matter why they're asking the question? What's it matter if they're there simply to profit?

      If they want to ask it, and someone else wants to answer it, where's the problem? Helpers do not have to answer the questions, so there's really no concept of taking their time and expertise for granted. Don't like a question? Don't answer it. Don't like a particular OP? Ignore him/her.

      My concern is that this tends to all become about the helpers, not the people trying to ask questions.

      Even in the example that you gave about reading the records, why ask them if they've tried something before posting the question? It comes across as a bit condescending, even though I know that's not how it's intended. It is though, how it would be received.
      They're frustrated and they've asked what the best way to do it is. Why not just say "I don't know your situation, but when I've done similar, I've done this…" ?

      I think if you get frustrated with the OPs, just walk away, at least for a while.

      I worry that when a lot of people come to forums, there are all these rules that the helpers abide by and enforce, and that just aren't understood by the newcomers. They'll just see it all as toxic instead of helpful.

      Even as a helper, the rules are a pain. When I finish a post with "I hope that helps", because I genuinely hope it does, and that's what I'd say in person, what possible value is there in an "editor" or "moderator" coming and editing that comment out of my response? Yet that's what happens. Clearly someone is being encouraged to (or likely rewarded for) making the places less friendly.

      1. Here's another example of what I'm talking about. In this post: https://stackoverflow.com/questions/59494033/sql-script-not-running-in-ssms-does-in-postgresql the guy is clearly migrating code from PostgreSQL to SQL Server. He says so. He's asked for help and he's said "The script runs in POSTGRESQL without any issues. I can see from the console that SSMS doesn't like the WITH clause after the LEFT JOIN, but I don't know why".

        What responses did he get?

        Here's part of the first response: "Why would you expect a query written for PostgreSQL to work in SQL Server, when they are completely different RDBMS. You have a WITH declared in the middle of your statement; that isn't allowed in T-SQL. You declare a CTE as the start of the statement." And that response is then followed up by a link to: "Under what circumstances may I add "urgent" or other similar phrases to my question, in order to obtain faster answers?"

        Compare that to the next one: "Just more the CTE to the beginning", and followed up with a rewritten query.

        Which helper is really trying to help, and which one is too worried about answering tons of questions in a hurry and enforcing rules?

        1. I just answered another question on StackOverflow. I started the response with "Hi Marc", and the system auto-edited that out. Why oh why do these places have to be so unfriendly?

  4. I'm guilty of this "you didn't search well enough before asking the question"
    But I find it hard not to be. If someone can't do the very simple thing of searching, do we really want them in our industry? Do we want builders who can't build?

    Certainly, we all start at the bottom not knowing anything. But, it's difficult to work out whose simply being lazy and want someone to write the code for them, from those who are willing to learn.

    1. Hi Mitch, understood, but the aim of the site isn't to weed out people that aren't great at what they're doing.

      They may have just heard about the site, gone there, asked a question, and then get shot down. They won't be back.

      In the time that I can give them a hard time about not searching enough, most likely I could have just answered the question. In many cases, it's a similar amount of effort. And the important thing is that no-one is forcing anyone to turn up and answer questions. People seem to feel compelled to answer them, and then feel frustrated if the questioner could have found the answer another way.

      There are lots of people who are happy to endlessly answer the same questions. And they would likely feel good about doing so. If they get frustrated, they can just walk away. Someone else will likely step up.

    2. It also says a lot about the people running the site when you can't have phrases like "Hi Mark", or anything that's any type of pleasantry.

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