Getting Help Online

February 27, 2013

Last night, while researching something related to Arduino (my newest/only hobby), I came across a forum thread that literally made me laugh out loud every time I read it. I tweeted it, which was subsequently retweeted many times over, and I started seeing various responses. The results were interesting. You should read the thread for yourself to see how you interpret it but to me, it reads like so…

The original poster (OP) is coming to the Arduino forums because he is having a problem getting something to work. The OP is trying to put two components together, but when he does, it doesn’t work. Using either component individually is fine, but not together. The OP suggests the issue may be with a PIN conflict. If you don’t know Arduino, that would mean the issue is with the code.

Note: I have no idea whether the OP is male or female. I was going to say “he or she” or “she or he” every time, but that’s so awkward. Then I was going to write “she” every time, which is something I do to combat years of the standard writing “he” every time. Then I thought that might be read as sexist as it might imply that it’s a woman because she’s having problems, and so I decided to go with “he”. These are complicated times we’re living in.

The person that replies (R) calls out the OP for not providing the code, when both the OP and the R think the problem is likely in the code.

The OP replies that he didn’t feel it necessary to provide the code. He further reveals that when the code for one of the components is removed, it works fine. This verifies that the problem is with the code, which the OP did not originally provide. Then, apparently the OP did put the code on Pastebin.

The person that replies (the same person) responds with “I don’t do pastebin”, just post the code here.

And here’s where the interpretation comes into play, because I think the OP then reacts like a complete lunatic. You’ll have to read that for yourself.

Now I think this thread is funny because of how unreasonable and hostile the OP is being. I mean: the OP is literally calling the replier names at the end! My favorite line is “Quite frankly, even asking me to post the code was a bit much.” That amuses because both people are under the impression that the problem is in the code. What’s the point of asking for help if you’re not going to provide the code? It boggles my mind.

There are three reasons I interpreted the thread this way. First, because the OP is asking for free help from strangers. Whenever you’re asking for a favor from someone, the onus is on you to make that favor as easy to perform as possible. This is even more true when asking for a favor from a complete stranger. Yes, the replier could have gone to look at the code at pastebin, but why make a person trying to help you out work harder? (And it’s theoretically possible that the replier is prevented from going to pastebin by a company firewall or some such.) Second, as I said, the problem can’t actually be solved without the code. Not providing the code starts as a newbie oversight and becomes an absurd stand to take. Third, I run my own support forums, so I have a bias towards people providing help. (To be clear, I don’t have problems like these in my forums at all, I’m just admitting to my bias.)

Other people, however, interpret the thread in just the opposite manner: why did the person replying have to be so rude? The person could have asked to see the code in a nicer way, could have clicked the pastebin link, or could have just ignored the thread.

My response is: had the OP just posted the code in the forums as the replier said, the OP could have had the free answer he was looking for.

Clearly, what we can all agree on is that both parties could have behaved better. I asked on Twitter who people thought was the unreasonable one, and the best answer I received (from @Beryllium9) was:

neither. I’m sure they both have real-world factors/experiences driving their behavior that aren’t communicated in their posts.

That’s the kind of thoughtful, well-reasoned response that one doesn’t see enough of online. I’m still curious as to how others interpret the forum thread, so please do share your thoughts on it.

How to Use Forums

In looking at the thread in the Arduino forums, I ended up also catching the Arduino forum’s “How to use these forums” post. This is the post that everyone should read before using the forums, but no one actually does. (I have a similar one for my forums, which people also rarely seem to read.)

The “how to use these forums” post is too long to reasonably expect people to read, but it has so much useful information for newbies getting help that it’s a shame people don’t read it (if that is the case). In fact, you should go ahead and read it yourself, because it will pay off. What I think gets lost in people’s desires to get quick help is that forum rules and guidelines like those actually will get you the fastest help. Always.

Here are the highlights to me:

4. Do some research before posting.

Yes, the answer you’re looking for can often be found within 15 minutes by searching Google.

6. Make a meaningful subject line.

Subject lines are significant, treat them as such. The subject line “Help” could be used by almost every thread on every forum in the world.

7. If you are posting code or error messages, use “code” tags

For #7, they suggest using the code tags for posting code or error messages. I agree with that, but I think it’s more important to emphasize the need to actually post any applicable code and complete error messages. This is the problem with the Arduino thread that started me thinking about all this.

11. Tips for getting the most out of your post

This item has so many good tips that it alone makes it worth reading the page. Many recommendations are specific to the Arduino, but these apply almost anywhere:

  • Describe your problem in detail.
  • Post a complete sketch (program code)!
  • Copy and paste code. Don’t retype “from memory” on your mobile phone, in the train.
  • If you get an error, post the error (copy and paste). Not just “I got an error”.
  • If you have debugging information in your sketch, post your debugging displays.
  • Describe what you expected to happen, and what actually happened. Not just “it doesn’t work”.

13. Forum etiquette

Ah…etiquette. Etiquette and the Internet seem to be at odds so often. I like these particular suggestions:

  • Don’t cross-post.
  • Don’t bump.
  • Be polite.

14. Once you have a response.

Finally, there’s an expected behavior once you’ve received a response, any response. This includes what people should do when the problem is finally solved. Good suggestions here, too, and the final piece of the “getting help” puzzle.


We live in an amazing time. The wealth of information that’s available to us all at every moment is astounding. Not just that available by searching Google, but the accessibility of other people around the world. I’ve been learning a couple of new things lately (Arduino and LaTeX), and I frequently feel like I did when I was first learning PHP: flustered, confused, desperate. I can’t imagine how I would go about learning these things without the immensity of the Internet at my fingertips. But that makes me even more grateful for those that offer free help to strangers, for the successful and easy usability of Google, and for open forums.

And sometimes, when looking around to solve a problem, I get a laugh at the ridiculousness of human behavior, too.