Melissa Kaplan's
Herp Care Collection
Last updated January 1, 2014

The Art of Getting Help

Requesting Help by Email, Email Discussion Lists, Newsgroups, and Message Boards

©1996 Melissa Kaplan
©1994 Phil Agre


Melissa Kaplan
Phil Agre



Art of Getting Help
Melissa Kaplan

Things to Keep In Mind
Those of us who respond to posts in the newsgroups or mailing lists do so out of the desire to help not just the person asking the question but others who may have the same question as well. The reason why many of us have put up websites is to make available to as large an audience as possible varying amounts of information. That being said, there are a few things to keep in mind before asking questions.

We don't get paid for this.
We aren't required to answer questions. We actually try to have lives outside of the 'net (although it may look as if we are failing miserably at that particular aspect of our lives! ;)

Part of learning is knowing how to find the information.
That means making use of libraries and book stores. It does not mean finding a person who may know quite a bit and asking, no, too often demanding "Tell me everything you know about [species/topic]". Adding to the annoyance factor, and increasing the likelihood of receiving no (polite) response whatsoever, is when the inquirer gives a ridiculously short dead line, "I need to turn in my report by Friday!!!" with the letter or post written 3-4 days before the due date of the report.

Utilize human resources wisely.
If you want suggestions on books, ask, or check the articles posted at websites to see if they contain references or sources, or even if there is a list of books (as I maintain at my website) that might be good starting places. Do not give responders absurd deadlines. Plan ahead and do your work when you should - don't expect strangers to come through and do your work for you when you've dawdled to the last minute. Ask the people online to flesh out the information you get from books, periodicals and personal interviews by asking specific questions whose answers are not covered in your research findings.

While there are lots of "vanity" homepages out there, there are in increasing number of content-rich sites. I consider mine to be one of the latter. I cannot tell you how frustrating and annoying it is to have someone who has web access-and who in fact got my address or number from my website-writes or calls me asking for information that is available at my website, often in great detail. The worst example was a fellow who called me 7-8 times over the course of a week. His first call was on a Saturday before 7 A.M. He never, in any of his calls, identified himself, nor asked if he was disturbing me nor if it was convenient for me to talk. He just blurted out his questions. Now, I repeatedly directed him to my website for the answers for most of what he asked. He had the nerve to get irritated with me when I told him that it was not possible for me to give him detailed description of a sail fin and water dragon by phone and that he was best off looking them-and their photos-up in a reptile atlas.

Be as specific as possible in your queries.
Another truly bad use of email and newsgroups are posts stating "I found a lizard in my backyard. What is it?" The net is world-wide (clue: that's why it's called the world wide web!). Not all email or Reply To: addresses come through clearly. It is often impossible to tell what country someone lives in let alone what geographic area (the lizards in my back yard in California are not likely to be the lizards in your backyard in North Dakota, or Nova Scotia, or New England, or England). Vague posts like these only create needless email or other posts as others try to find out where the person lives and to get a description. Even with a description, such a post or letter is usually worthless without knowing where the person lives. What I always suggest, especially if the person is a parent, is that they take their child down to the library, bookstore or science/nature store, and look at the field guide for their area for the type of animal it is, explaining that they have color plates, detailed descriptions and range maps, and that this is a great opportunity to do an activity together and to teach the child an important learning skill: how to embark on and actually do research.

Communicate clearly.
No one is going to grade you on syntax and spelling, but good gracious!--take some time and review your post or letter! A few typos here and there are fine. Too many letters and posts, however, come through disjointed, so poorly spelled and organized that it is a struggle to identify the main thoughts or questions. And I am not talking about people for whom English is a second (or third or fourth) language. Your teacher can send it back with a low grade and tell you to do it over. People on the Net may just hit their delete button.

Be courteous.
Use "please" and "thank you." When you get a response to a request, email a "thank you". The Net is only as friendly and nice as we make it.

Don't be annoying.
Do not copy the entire response back when you have another question or are sending a thanks. Many people pay online connect charges and many are paying long distance charges. It can get incredibly expensive to have a 200-line letter or article copied with the only thing new being a "Thanks for your help!" buried at the very bottom or top. Keep your .sig files to 4-5 lines for the same reason.


When Not To Use Email, Newsgroups And Message Boards

Your paper is due tomorrow (or next week)
You've procrastinated, you've dillied and dallied, you had far more important things to do over the past week(s or months) than the assignment that is due tomorrow morning.

Newsflash: it is your fault for waiting so long. Don't waste energy and get mad if no one answers you in time to save your grade or if the response you get don't spoon feed you the information you want or need. Using the 'net may give you access to resources that you cannot find locally, but it isn't necessarily the fastest way to get information, and you still have to process it and do something with it once you get it. Teachers tend to frown on those students who buy ready-made papers off the Internet.

My pet/child/spouse/other is not suddenly paralyzed/just ate poison/isn't breathing/is bleeding!
Using the net in an emergency is also not an effective use of resources - or time. If your reptile is lethargic and hasn't eaten in weeks and has lost massive amounts of weight and is barely breathing, don't post a note asking what could be wrong and what should you do. Get to the vet! Don't post a question about the toxicity of certain substances after your animal has eaten some - get to the vet or contact the poison hotline (look in the Emergency Numbers listing of your telephone book or call Information) or the National Animal Poison Control Center. If the stricken individual is a human, call 911 (or whatever the emergency number to summon police, fire and emergency medical assistance is in your area). In the case of poisoning, contact your local, county or or state poison hotline: you'll find it in your phone book. Given all the recordings and delays that are now a regular part of calling Information or the Operator, all of your local emergency and hot line numbers should be kept easily accessible by every phone in your home.

Below is an article from The Network Observer that addresses 'Netiquette from a college professor's point of view.

The Art of Getting Help
Phil Agre, editor
The Network Observer, Volume 1 Number 2, February 1994
Department of Communication, University of California, San Diego

The following article offers some guidelines about using Internet discussion groups to ask for assistance with research projects and the like; the protocols are also suggested when emailing someone whose name you have come across for information. For a much longer paper that describes how to use the net to build a professional community, send email to with archive send network in the Subject line.

In the Risks Digest 15.57, Dan Yurman complained about a worrisome new net phenomenon, the practice by college students of using subject matter listservs as sources of first resort for information they should be looking up in their university library. He tells the tale of a college course in which students were directed to do research for term papers on environmental issues using messages posted to Listserv groups. The result was a flood of basic questions being directed to a group of specialists in ecology.

The basic problem, in Dan's view, was that "neither the TA nor the students had any idea who was at the other end of the line. All they saw was a computer that should be giving them answers." That may well be true, but I would like to suggest that his tale raises an issue of much broader importance: teaching students how to get help -- both off the Internet and on it. My own experience as a college teacher is that most students have little understanding of how to get help. Many cannot seek help, for example by showing up for a professor's office hours, without feeling as though they are subordinating themselves to someone. The reasons for this feeling might well be found in the workings of educational institutions.

My own issue here is what to do about it, and how the Internet might (or might not) help.

We should start by telling ourselves three obvious things: that needing and getting help are normal parts of any project that isn't totally spoon-fed; that getting help is a skill; and that nobody is born with this skill. What are the basic principles of getting help? They might all sound obvious to you, but they're definitely not obvious to beginners -- maybe you can store them where beginners can find them.

Be able to explain your project. If you can't explain the basic ideas and goals of your project in language that any given person can understand, then back up and figure out what you're trying to do.

Know what your question is. Just because you feel like you need help, that doesn't mean you know what it is you want. If you need help formulating your question, get help with that first.

Try the obvious sources first. Never ask a person, or at least a person you don't know well, any questions until you've tried the obvious references - encyclopedias, almanacs, card catalogs, phone books, and so forth. Failing to doing so regularly causes great offense.

Make friends with a librarian. Librarians have chosen to be librarians because they are dedicated to helping people find information. If you're feeling uncertain about how to find information, go to a library and ask questions. You'll get much better and more patient answers than you'll ever get on the net. If you don't know what to say, say this: "Hi. I'm working on a project about X and I'm trying to find information about Y. Who can help me figure out how to do this?"

Ask the right person. Figure out whether your question is basic or advanced, and don't ask an expert unless it's advanced. It's okay to ask librarians how to find basic information.

Provide some context. Unless your question is quite straightforwardly factual in nature, it probably won't make sense to anyone unless you explain something about your project first.

Don't get hung up on the Internet. Think of the Internet as simply one part of a larger ecology of information sources and communication media. Don't look for your answer on the Internet just because the Internet is fashionable or easy. The Internet, at least as it stands today, is very good at some things and very bad at other things.

Do some homework. Let's say you do wish to get information by sending a message to a discussion group (Listserv group, Usenet news group, etc) on the net. If at all possible, subscribe to that group for a little while first in order to get a sense for it. How heavy is the load? How polite is the general tone of interaction? Does the list maintainer have a FAQ (Frequently Asked Questions) file available? (Do you figure your question might be frequently asked?)

Take some care. Keep in mind that the people aren't obligated to help you; they're busy and have lives just like you. So don't just dash off a brief note. Write in complete sentences and check your spelling. Avoid idioms that people in other countries might not understand. Don't attempt any ironic humor; it doesn't travel well in e-mail. Start out by introducing yourself in a sentence or two. And wrap up with a polite formula such as "Any suggestions would be much appreciated."

Make yourself useful. If your question might be of general interest, offer to assemble the answers you receive and pass them along to whoever else is interested. You might even consider maintaining a file of useful information on the subject and advertising its availability to others in your situation.

Ask who to ask. Consider including a statement such as, "If nobody knows the answer, perhaps you can tell me who else might know it." Indeed, it's often a good idea to formulate your question this way in the first place. That is, instead of "Can anybody tell me X?", try "Can anybody tell me how to find out X?"

Use the Reply-To: field. Keep in mind that e-mail discussion groups are often destroyed by too much random chatter. You can help minimize the amount of random chatter that your request generates by including a Reply-To: field in the header of your message, indicating that replies should be directed to your own e-mail address and not to the whole group.

Sign the message. Include your name and e-mail address in the message, in case it isn't obvious from the header.

Say thank you. Send a brief message of thanks to each person who replies constructively to your request. Do not simply include a generic "Thank you in advance" in your request -- you risk making the net more impersonal.

Let it take time. You won't necessarily get an answer right away. You won't necessarily get an answer at all. It might take a while before you learn how to use the net. That's life.

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