How to Get Help Online (2013)



Inexperienced people often have trouble finding solutions to their (usually technical) problems online. This essay aims to give some guidelines for how to effectively find help online.

First of all - due diligence

The first thing to do when running into a problem, is try to find the answer yourself. You can try consulting the documentation of the program , especially its “FAQ” - the so-called “Frequently Asked Questions” document (assuming it exists), followed by visiting its wiki (= its world-editable site - assuming there is one) and if that fails, use a web search engine. Some recommended search engines are:

  1. DuckDuckGo

  2. Google Web Search

  3. Google Groups.

It is still possible that you still will not find your answer. In this case, you should ask for advice using the following mediums.

IRC - Internet Relay Chat

IRC stands for Internet Relay Chat, and it is a distributed, real-time, form of communication. IRC was common from relatively early in the history of the Internet, and is still popular. IRC servers form networks of servers, where each network is separated from the other networks and don’t share traffic with one another. The servers of each network share the same chat-rooms, user profiles and messages. Each network has different rules and conventions and a different culture. This allows chat-rooms (called “channels” in IRC jargon) with the same name to exist in different networks.

Some popular IRC clients include the cross-platform Chatzilla (which is open source, part of the Mozilla project, and can be installed as an add-on for the Firefox browser), HexChat, a cross-platform and open source IRC client for all UNIX systems including Linux and Mac OS X, and for Microsoft Windows, and the Windows-based mIRC (which is shareware and not open-source). By downloading one, you can log in to an IRC network and start chatting, and often IRC networks provide a web interface that does not require downloading a client.

IRC is a great way to get answers to questions quickly and easily. Just note that some networks are not recommended for asking questions on, due to intolerance for beginner questions, or general lack of friendliness.

Some recommended IRC networks are:

  1. Freenode - provides discussion facilities for the open source communities and for related communities.

  2. OFTC - smaller than Freenode and less popular, but some projects prefer it for their chats, and it is also a friendly IRC network.

Note that one common mistake that newcomers to IRC do is to private-message a user that helps them (using the /msg command) instead of keeping the discussion on the channel. To reply to someone, type (or complete using the tab key) their nickname, add ":" or "," and say what you want to reply.

It may be a problem to find a useful channel on IRC, so you are recommended to search for one in the project’s page, or use the network’s recommend channel search command (such as the /list command or Freenode’s /msg alis help). It is possible there will still be some unfriendly people in the channel, so I recommend you don’t let them get to you, and handle them with tact.

The Stack Exchange Network (Stack Overflow etc.)

If you were unable to find an answer to your question on IRC, then you can try either Stack Exchange (also see its Wikipedia page) or the project’s mailing lists or forums (or both). It is popular, and has a reputation (upvote/downvote) system for encouraging people to contribute. By registering to the network, you can post questions and get answers.

Note that you should choose a site in the Stack Exchange network where your question is on-topic, and then wait. The first (and still one of the most popular) sites in the network, Stack Overflow, is primarily intended for questions about programming so don't post non-programming questions there.

What can be done is to post a post to a Stack Exchange site, and then link to it on IRC or forums, so people can acquire reputation by replying to it.

Mailing Lists and Web Forums

If the Stack Exchange forums don’t provide you with the answers you need, you can try searching for appropriate electronic mailing lists or alternatively web forums where you can get help. Try searching for such forums on a web search engine, or on forum hubs, such as Google Groups or Yahoo Groups, or ask on IRC if someone can recommend one.

How to Ask Your Question

Eric S. Raymond and Rick Moen have written the document “How to Ask Questions The Smart Way” which is a recommended read before you post your question.

Good Luck

Good luck in getting your questions answered.


This work is copyright © 2013 by Shlomi Fish and licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Non Commercial licence version 3.0 (or any later version). See my interpretation of it.


Thanks and Acknowledgements

  • Don Marti - for providing some useful feedback about an early version of this article, after I requested comments by posting to the “linux-elitists” mailing list.

  • A. (an Instant Messaging and IRC friend of mine) - for encouraging me to try to feature the article on Slashdot, after a chat, during which we concluded that IRC was an incredibly useful Internet medium for getting help, yet many people were oblivious to it.

  • U. - for referring me to wikiHow as a potentially more effective way for writing tutorials. He showed me its “How to Get Help with Linux (14 Steps)” feature, which we both agreed was currently poorly written. I contemplated writing a similar feature to mine in wikiHow style, but decided to publish this feature in its current format as it is.

  • Alan Haggai Alavi - for going over the article, and pointing out some potential spelling and grammar errors.