How to answer a question on the Internet

Lots of people get answers to their questions on the Internet these days. A corollary of necessity to this is that lots of people answer other peoples’ questions on the Internet.

Just the same, many people do it incorrectly.

Here’s the first and only truly important rule: don’t start with why the asker of the question shouldn’t do what they’re doing.

A much better game plan for answering is to answer their question. This may seem obvious but I don’t see this too often. When you’re done answering their question, you may suggest a better option.

I’ll run down some reasons why people don’t do this:

  • “There’s a better way that I prefer to accomplish what you’re trying to do.” Okay, thank you, but go away. People who do this generally believe that they’re smarter than the person who asked the question. Perhaps they are. Then again, perhaps they aren’t and they just think they are. As a long-time consultant, I learned to ask about constraints before answering questions. If your boss told you that you must do it that way, people telling you to do it a different way is pointless.
  • “I think that what you’re doing is a bad idea.” Once again, thank you and go away. You may also notice that I didn’t ask if it was a good idea to do it this way.
  • “That question has been answered somewhere else.” Fantastic, but where? If it’s all over the Internet, the task of finding an answer to the question and linking to it in your answer should be very easy, so do that. If it’s a difficult answer to find, I’d say it’s pretty clear why someone’s asking the question again.
  • “I don’t think you should be doing what you’re doing.” If the asker of the question is trying to do something that’s clearly out of bounds of what society accepts, report them to the correct authority. If it’s not, save your opinion for someone who cares because this person most assuredly doesn’t.
  • “Someone else thinks that you shouldn’t do that.” Thank you and are you sure that I’m not the, “someone else,” to whom you’re referring? I once saw a question answered in this way with a bibliography of sources explaining why it’s a bad idea. The question poster was one of the authors of one of the sources. Doing this is a declaration that you’re competent at compiling sources of people who you think are smarter than the asker, or know something the asker doesn’t. You’re way out of your league, telling someone you know nothing about, that some other people whom you know nothing about, are smarter than they are.
  • “I don’t know the answer to your question so I’ll just answer another instead.” I get this a lot from technical support, especially the first-touched tiers. My response is usually thanks with a request that they refer back to my original question, re-read it thoroughly, then try again.
  • “I don’t like your question.” Wonderful, but I don’t care so go away. Probably if you think the question is stupid, either you’re an elitist snob, you don’t understand the question, or both.
  • “I don’t want to answer your question.” Excellent, join the masses on the Internet who feel the same, you’re not special. You’re acting like a moron because you took the time to say that. The easiest way to not answer someone’s question on the Internet is by, well… simply not answering it.

Before answering a question, think about whether you truly know the answer to the question. If you don’t, move on. If you do, answer it as it stands, then if you feel as if you have an opinion to add, do so in a way that expresses clearly that it’s your opinion. If you’re trying to change someone’s mind, this will give you the highest chance of accomplishing your goal.

 

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Why no Facebook?

Facebook started out as a super-useful online tool to satisfy a particular need. Way back when, it was the online version of something that existed offline: a way to find people who were all part of a specific community. The, “people,” was students and the, “community,” was at a particular school (Harvard).

This isn’t FB anymore. It has become something else:

  • Facebook is unmanageable. Through no fault of the creators, owners or staff of FB, it has become a gigantic, unmanageable jumbled mess of people. This is much to FB’s credit: so many people use it that they are no longer able to reasonably manage day-to-day community operations.
  • Facebook is authoritarian. To compensate for their inevitable overload, FB decided to become authoritarian. Authoritarian figures in a community — FB is the de facto community manager since they created the vehicle for the community to collaborate — need to earn respect, which FB never managed to do in so many of the communities that it now serves.
  • Facebook is generic. One-size-fits-all works sometimes and doesn’t work others. It doesn’t work for communities. While FB is a reasonable tool for collaboration in every community, it’s not a fantastic tool for collaboration in almost any community.
  • Facebook lumbers. Once again, through no fault of the staff who works on it, FB has become too big to serve its constituents. It started out nimble but FB can no longer keep up with technology. FB’s staff has made a heroic effort of trying and they’ve paved so many new roads in the world of online technology but at this point they’re rearranging chairs on a sinking ship.

Here’s a key case to outline what’s happened: imagine Wally, 23 years old who just graduated from his state school with a degree in South American literature. Wally wants to post some pictures of his friends out at the pub last night. While logged in, he joins a group of folks in his area who get together once a month to discuss literature. While reading some recent posts, he disagrees with a political opinion and writes a comment to the author. Wally’s next stop on the Internet is an online application for a grad program.

FB did its job: it hooked up Wally with this literature group that he would otherwise have had no access to. Unfortunately, it’s got no way to separate political discussion from a literature group (it is generic). The community of literature folks can’t bar the political discussion from literature discussions (it is unmanageable). Wally can’t separate his work profile from his personal profile because there’s no technology to do this, or even decide who sees what (it lumbers). When his grad school sees his drunken pub pictures and his differing political opinion, FB will silently deem that they’ve done their part correctly (it is authoritarian) and Wally’s application will be denied. No grad school for Wally.

This sort of scenario has happened too many times to count with consequences that are too severe. FB’s official stance is that they’re just the medium and they decide the rules. I’ve seen this happen too many times in too many ways, so I’ve decided to stop using FB.

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To The US Media:

Please stop. Donald Trump is the president of these United States of America.

I understand that you didn’t elect him. I also understand that you don’t want him to be the President. This was very clear on election day. We elected him. You (collectively) do not get a vote. You tried to elect him but we saw through your plan. We did our thing anyway. I didn’t elect him. The people of these United States of America elected him. The election is over.

Please spare me the popular-vote argument, that’s not how we do things here. Both candidates knew the rules of the game. Both candidates played the game. One won, the other lost. Former Secretary (et. al.) Clinton was fairly gracious about losing. You are not acting as graciously as she has.

Perhaps Donald Trump is racist, or sexist, or many other things that you don’t like. Everyone is racist. Everyone is sexist. We’re all a little xenophobic. That’s part of the human condition. The last guy, President Obama, was racist and sexist. Each one of you is sexist and racist. I’m sexist and racist. You do not have the right to judge, regardless what higher power you do or don’t believe in.

We knew he was a rich guy before we elected him. Many of us have seen the hotels, casinos and skyscrapers with his name in big, lit letters at the top. A rich guy is going to bring his rich friends and family with him. We knew that too. We didn’t expect any different. Sorry you don’t like Rex Tillerson. He is the Secretary of State now. Part of why we elected Donald Trump to be the President is because we knew he would make rich guy decisions and hire other rich people to help make other decisions. You keep complaining about his decision-making ability. It makes you seem petty. Pettiness is unbecoming.

I don’t like all the things that President Trump has done since he was inaugurated. I’m sure he’ll do more things I don’t like. I didn’t like all the things that President Obama did while he was the President. I probably won’t like many of the things that the next President does. It may four years from now. It may be eight years from now. I’m not the President of these United States of America. I’m sure President Trump makes difficult decisions every day and he makes the ones that he thinks are correct. This is just like President Obama did and just like the next President will do. I’ve learned that if you constantly pick on someone, they will eventually ignore you. Sometimes they even take vengeance against you. I try to avoid those situations because it’s never fun to be the one under attack.

I admire the investigative skills of many journalists. They don’t lead to the same information that President Trump has. I’m sure he knows way more than you’re finding out. I’m sure President Obama knew more things about more things than you ever found out. The President of these United States of America always knows more than the rest of us. It’s why we call him the most powerful man — maybe woman, one day, and hopefully even soon — in the world. Your investigative skills don’t lead to information that’s as good as the President gets. It’s not a slight on you, the President has more resources at his disposal than you do.

We hired him to make the decisions he was going to make in the way he makes them. We didn’t hire him to make the decisions in the way that Hillary Clinton would have made them. We were given that choice. We hired the other one. While we’re on the subject, yes, we hired him. No, we don’t want to fire him. (Remember that you invented that show.) We reserve the right to change our mind later, maybe. We did with Bill Clinton. Maybe we will later with President Trump. I have no doubt that he’s well aware of this every day. He surely conducts his business with this knowledge. It’s not a threat. It’s just one of those things in life like death and taxes.

President Donald Trump has a Twitter account. He uses it in much the same way that we all — if we have Twitter accounts — use it. President Obama spent a lot of time on late-night TV shows. President Franklin Roosevelt made many radio addresses. If someone is smart enough to become the President of these United States of America, they’re smart enough to figure out which media channels to tap into. I would imagine that President Trump may be avoiding you because it’s clear that you don’t like him. Twitter isn’t moderated. On that note, I’ve read your tweets (and other social media posts) as well. You aren’t in the position to judge the quality of his tweets.

So Madonna doesn’t like President Trump. She probably hasn’t liked a single Republican or conservative President in her life. We hire to sing fairly often. She’s good at that. She’s not as good at politics, which is why we never hired her to be the President of these United States of America, or anything like that. Sometimes, we hire people like her to do politics, like Jesse Ventura, Arnold Schwarzenegger or Ronald Reagan. She is separated by distance from them. I’m not surprised that Chelsea Clinton doesn’t like President Trump either. She’s the daughter of the person who lost an election to Donald Trump and the only President who we chose to fire recently. I can’t imagine how someone in her position could like President Trump any more than Dan Quinn would like Bill Belichick or Tom Brady. We aren’t very impressed that you highlight the opinions of people like Madonna or Chelsea Clinton more than you highlight what the President of these United States of America has done. It makes it seem like you’re asleep at the wheel.

I used to read the news a lot. I grew up reading The New York Times. Back then, it contained, “all the news that’s fit to print.” Now it contains the news that fits the agenda of the names listed on the masthead. I used to read The Atlantic often too. Back then, it was unbiased and contained stories from many viewpoints. I used to love reading The Wall Street Journal. They refuse to let go of printing page after page of prices and volumes in a time when there’s much more up-to-date information available at the swipe of a fingertip. Everyone wants to charge me rising prices for content that rises to a lower standard. I used to pay for good writing. Now I just get Twitter for free. I’m not the only one who feels this way. There are many sayings about looking in the mirror before criticizing others. In the eyes of your readers, is your reporting of better quality and worth than those whom you criticize?

 

With respect and continuing admiration,

Stephan

 

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