Why Ask Questions in Public?

God put me on earth to accomplish a certain number of things.
Right now I am so far behind I will never die.

Bill Watterson, Calvin and Hobbes

If you reached this page by following the link in my signature, thank you for taking a few moments to read through this explanation. I and others who answer technical questions in Usenet newsgroups or mailing lists are very grateful.

I, like many other people with technical expertise in some topic, regularly read various Usenet newsgroups and mailing lists and try to answer questions for which I know the answer. However, I am also extremely busy with a large number of projects, often including improving the very software that people are asking questions about, and I've found that taking some time to help other people sometimes has the regrettable tendency to add to my total level of pending work. This is sometimes hard for me to deal with, and I'd like to ask for your help in solving this problem.

The problem generally takes the following form: Someone posts a question about something I know something about. I respond in the newsgroup or on the mailing list with some suggestions or possibly some questions. In response, the person mails me directly (rather than responding in the newsgroup or mailing list) with the answers and with other questions. Occasionally the problem takes another, related form: I post about a topic, someone who has a question about that topic reads my posts and thinks I sound knowledgable, and they send me e-mail asking me questions.

I understand why people do this. Often they view newsgroups and mailing lists as giant, impersonal places and want to get out of them as soon as they can, and as soon as they find someone who can answer their questions, they latch on to that person and want to interact with them directly. I'm sure that they don't understand that this behavior causes problems for the person of whom they're asking questions.

Unfortunately, it does cause problems at least for me. I receive several hundred e-mail messages a day, including messages that are critical to my job and must be responded to quickly. It's already difficult for me to keep up with all of them, and these additional questions add to the load. Please remember that I'm not being paid to give technical support, and I may have only had a few moments inbetween other projects to post the public message you saw. Now, once you've sent me e-mail, I feel some obligation to answer it, it adds to the (often long) list of unanswered messages in my inbox that I feel guilty about, and in general it tends to add stress to my life.

Even worse, by mailing me directly rather than answering your question in public you have robbed yourself of many other valuable resources: all of the other readers of the newsgroup or mailing list. I'm almost never the sole technical expert on whatever topic you need help with, but by mailing me directly you've put all of the onus of answering your question on me personally. You haven't given those of us who can answer your question the opportunity to share the load among us and provide better (and peer-reviewed!) answers.

By asking questions in private, you've also robbed those people who come after you with the same question of benefiting from the answer that you receive. Newsgroups are archived, and frequently mailing lists are as well. Many people search those archives for answers to their questions before they ask. The more questions and answers we can get into those archives, the more the general searchable base of knowledge grows for everyone else working in the same area.

So please, unless you have a question that only I can answer for some reason, ask it in public on a newsgroup or mailing list. I'm more likely to be in a question-answering mood when I encounter your question, you're giving more people the chance to help you, you're helping all the people who come after you that have the same question, and you won't be contributing to the problem that many of us have in keeping up with our private e-mail. You're even likely to get a better answer, and could spark a discussion of your problem that would give far more information than you would have gotten out of any one individual.

Thank you for making it easier to help you with your problem.

PS: If your question is a bug report, all of us who answer and attempt to resolve bug reports would also appreciate it if you would read and follow How to Report Bugs Effectively. This too will make it easier for us to help you. You may also want to read Why Questions Go Unanswered.

This article was originally written by Russ Allbery and put into the public domain. If you find it useful, feel free to refer people to it or copy it and make your own version of it.