Don't ask your questions in private

By Chris Lamb

(If I've linked you to this page, it is my feeble attempt to provide a more convincing justification.)

I often receive instant messages or emails requesting help or guidance at work or on one of my various programming projects.

When asked why they asked privately, the responses vary; mostly along the lines of it simply being an accident, not knowing where else to ask, as well as not wishing to "disturb" others with their bespoke question. Some will be more candid and simply admit that they were afraid of looking unknowledgable in front of others.

It is always tempting to simply reply with the answer, especially as helping another human is inherently rewarding unless one is a psychopath. However, one can actually do more good overall by insisting the question is re-asked in a more public forum.

This is for many reasons. Most obviously, public questions are simply far more efficient as soon as more than one person asks that question — the response can be found in a search engine or linked to in the future. These time savings soon add up, meaning that simply more stuff can be done in any given day. After all, most questions are not as unique as people think.

Secondly, a private communication cannot be corrected or elaborated on if someone else notices it is incorrect or incomplete. Even this rather banal point is more subtle that it first appears — the lack of possible corrections deprives both the person asking and the person responding of the true and correct answer.

Lastly, conversations that happen in private are depriving others of the answer as well. Perhaps someone was curious but hadn't got around to asking? Maybe the answer—or even the question!—contains a clue to solving some other issue. None of this can happen if this is occurs behind closed doors.

(There are lots of subtler reasons too — in a large organisation or team, simply knowing what other people are curious about can be curiously valuable information.)

Note that this is not—as you might immediately suspect—simply a way of ensuring that one gets the public recognition or "kudos" from being seen helping others.

I wouldn't deny that technical communities work on a gift economy basis to some degree, but to attribute all acts of assistance as "selfish" and value-extracting would be to take the argument too far in the other direction. Saying that, the lure and appeal of public recognition should not be understated and can certainly provide an incentive to elaborate and provide a generally superior response.

More philosophically, there's also something fundamentally "honest" about airing issues in an appropriately public and transparent manner. I feel it promotes a culture of egoless conversations, of being able to admit one's mistakes and ultimately a healthy personal mindset.

So please, take care not only in the way you phrase and frame your question, but also consider wider context in which you are asking it. And don't take it too personally if I ask you to re-ask elsewhere...

Chris Lamb is a freelance software developer and the current Debian Project Leader. You can read other posts by me, see software I have written or read more about me. You can also follow me @lolamby.

Tags: Misc Personal

Planets: ALUG UWCS WUGLUG Debian

Thursday 4th December 2014

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