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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