How to Ask Questions the Smart Way: A Study in the Rhetoric of Subservience
The type of rhetoric pervasive throughout HAQSWay, stylistically speaking, has its place. It is an integral part in establishing, and maintaining defined, hierarchical levels in a social system, or community (i.e. the oppression of women; blacks in America is propagated through subversive rhetoric, not unlike the HAQSWay Document.) HAQSWay serves as a viable example for analysis, or scholarly study of the rhetoric of subservience. On the other hand, it makes for an entertaining read, and provides insight into historical hacker culture.
Have you ever participated in a “public help” Forum in which one or many of the “Guru” or Senior Members have indicated in their signatures a link to How to Ask Questions the Smart Way? Chances are, if you’ve sought help via “the forums”, you have encountered this, or at least belong to a forum in which some such member or moderator exists. Let me save you the time you’re going to waste, should you decide to follow one of those signature URL’s. To be clear, I’m citing the popular HTML-based, typically PHP-powered web forums, known by name-brand as phpbb2, vBulletin, envision, simple-machines, to name a few of those in common circulation, from which Users are encouraged to read the HAQSWAY document.
Think before you Link!
Don’t be fooled: the text of “How to ask Questions the Smart Way”, as users are directed to read (as described above) does not issue the rules governing forum participation. It is not the mission of HAQSWay to address rules respective to web forums, as would be implied where new users are urged to first read the HAQSWay Document before further participating. The observant user will discover straight away that HAQSWay is irrelevant to the forum in which he or she wants to participate. To be clear, it is good practice to read the Rules of the Forum at registration, before participating. If you see “How to Ask Questions the Smart Way” written in a user’s signature, and you are tempted to investigate that information, you should instead find the Rules specific to the forum where you encountered that user with the off-site link in his signature.
Be confident in knowing that you needn’t be concerned with the technique of your inquiry, as long as you respect the wishes of the Forum administrator / creator, and follow the guidelines for Forum conduct. Look for those guidelines which are usually set forth in the Announcements section of these forums, or provided as a disclaimer upon registration. Those are the rules with which you should be concerned when wishing to abide by the etiquette and recommended conduct of each unique Forum– Rules which can certainly be quite dissimilar to the Rules of the next forum, and the next, and so on– after all, if every discussion Forum were dry and serious, or outlandish or humorous, then the needs of its members might not be satisfied in such a way that a cohesive “community” might be bound to foster growth and learning, and overall, good natured rapport.
Consider that the HAQSWay Document, a Text originally authored by Eric Raymond, a prominent member of the Hacker community (and now co-authored and edited by Rick Moen) — no doubt may have originally been written for an exclusive audience– to be read by fellow Hackers as a sort of inside joke, or cerebral stab at the conduct of casual users outside of their apparently exclusive community. If you keep that in mind above all else when reading it, then by all means have a go at it, and you’ll learn something about their preferred community conduct, and how you should expect to be treated.
A Deeper Look at the HAQSWay Document
It is no stretch to suggest that HAQSWay is nearly as irrelevant to contemporary web communication, as would be to instruct an e-mail user to look for e-mail addresses in a local telephone book. If the HAQSWay Document ever truly had an era of relevance, then surely the epoch has passed, as a new generation of users–- moreover, technology (i.e. Twitter)–- far surpass it, and render it unquestionably obsolete; references to it are archaic, and senseless at best.
The original Text addresses “List” subscribers; e-mail mailing-list participants. The Lists from 1990′s– and even Newsgroups– have little relevance to the WWW of 2010, or 1999 for that matter. In contrast to its continued presentation on the HTTP protocol, in HTML for Web Client software, urging the visitors to Public Forum web sites, HAQSWay provides a suggested method for sending electronic mail, HTML MIME-type vs the preferred plain-text. Very little of HAQSWay might be said to address modern Network communication practices. We tend to describe such a text as obsolete, archaic, irrelevant, or historical. Continue reading for more specific dissection of various issues of HAQSWay which are both culturally obtuse, and downright offensive.
The text seems to be directed toward “outsiders” who are attempting to participate in Hacker-specific mailing-lists– in which case, if this is the audience that the document most often reaches, then it makes perfect sense to have it in place as a reference so, as the Text states, “…Hackers blow off questions that are inappropriately targeted in order to try to protect their communications channels from being drowned in irrelevance…”. If this is the purpose of How to Ask Questions the Smart Way, then not only do i accept it, but i endorse the use of it. There should be a place for members of such distinguished communities as “the Hackers” to communicate without the signal to noise ratio being disturbed by poorly constructed inquiries originating from the static of under-studied computer users who’s purpose is not to contribute to the community by providing new, interesting, or well-educated substance, but instead to find the answers to their immediate problems. Hackers shouldn’t be expected to hand out Band-Aids® to “Newbies” while they are in the middle of performing brain-surgery on some advanced programming concept.
I find it difficult to believe, however, that the true Hacker community– those who communicate in mailing lists or newsgroups, would with much honesty truly consider their “communications channels” to be synonymous with the highly-styled HTML intensive, advertisement-ridden, Web-Based forums which invite “Newbies” by having “Newbie”-specific Forum-categories. It is paradoxical that that the authors of How to Ask Questions the Smart Way have any true interest in helping, when they are so focused on resentment, and exhibiting indignant “behavior” through their rhetoric that they have gone as far as to author this manifesto! If we are to believe that this “tutorial” on inquiry is indeed meant to be read by passers by, and registered members of these newer web-based community forums, then surely it must be considered humor, for if meant to be taken seriously, then only as seriously counter-intuitive.
Drawing Conclusions from a few HAQSWay Excerpts:
Enjoy– or the opposite– the following excerpt which illustrates the counter-intuitive rhetoric of subordination pervasive throughout HAQSWAY.
When asking your question, it is best to write as though you assume you are doing something wrong, even if you are privately pretty sure you have found an actual bug. If there really is a bug, you will hear about it in the answer. Play it so the maintainers will want to apologize to you if the bug is real, rather than so that you will owe them an apology if you have messed up.
The document seems to instruct to reader that the opposite is preferred, only a few lines beneath the preceding, stating as follows:
Some people who get that they shouldn’t behave rudely or arrogantly, demanding an answer, retreat to the opposite extreme of grovelling. “I know I’m just a pathetic newbie loser, but…”. This is distracting and unhelpful. It’s especially annoying when it’s coupled with vagueness about the actual problem.
Don’t waste your time, or ours, on crude primate politics. Instead, present the background facts and your question as clearly as you can. That is a better way to position yourself than by grovelling.
Fact or Fiction? Humorous? Serious? Terrorism?
Some of the main points of the HAQSWay document are the following:
You will find a few insightful suggestions, which in most cases, are there for two reasons
- it’s there to teach you how to phrase your inquiry in a logical, concise, and sensible manner, so that the person on the receiving end has a greater likelihood of understanding your question the way you meant for it to be interpreted.
- intended to help the receiver filter your inquiry
Overall, you’ll be introduced to a lot of Hacker-culture specific Etiquette, most of which has little to do with helping one another, and a lot to do with genuflecting to the superior knowledge and nature of the Hacker community– after all, you’re a “Newbie”, and you’ve dared venture into “their” domain.
- It is meant to teach you how to mind you manners as a subservient while engaging discourse on Hacker turf.
“How to Ask Questions the Smart Way”: an outline; and instruction manual for You; the Reader to engage in subservient behaviour which, although perhaps– once relevant to Internet technology newcomers– has seen its day and becomes increasingly less relevant because we have entered a new era of newcomers– a period in which even less technical knowledge is required to participate in so many technical discussion Forums.
The very title seems to predate the more contemporary way of thought which focuses not on PC Tech Etiquette and technological prerequisite, but instead challenges the Hackers and Internet Community leaders to develop for increased accessibility and equal treatment. I mention rhetoric because of the powerful nature of well formed rhetoric to disseminate meaning and to create a global viewpoint, after all the title of the document in focus here implies that if you have been assigned to read it, you’ve already been deemed as owning the opposite meaning– as in, [I already know] How to Ask Questions the Stupid/ Uneducated Way, so i’ve come here to leave only better educated on the topic of proper inquiry itself.
It’s worth noting that multiple versions of the HAQSWay Document exist in texts linked from countless web forums, and other URL’s, as the original text– authored by Eric Raymond– has been appropriated, and altered to fit specific contexts.
Damn You to be Subservient!
Follow the instructions of the HAQSWay Document, and doom yourself to subservience, per the desire of its author(s). Otherwise, save yourself the time, save your dignity, and go about your business w/out regard to archaic nonsense. (i.e. In studying modern geographical science, it is counter-productive to read texts written before the Earth was discovered to be spherical, not flat.)
Consider special-interest groups which maintain so-called Inside Jokes. While inside jokes aren’t expected to be known, necessarily, by those who are the butt of those jokes; to be understood by outsiders, and terminology or rhetoric is typically accepted as group-specific, hence the term, Inside Joke! Special Interest Group members, including groups whose goals are incongruent with that of a common, public viewpoint (i.e. radicals, terrorists, revolutionaries) are empowered by rhetoric, like inside-jokes; pleased that they have their own inner circle with which to share something secret. Secrets build camaraderie and, likely in most cases, an inside-joke or group-specific behaviour isn’t intended to be entertained by members outside of the communitytypically in which poking fun at the outsiders is harmless, good-nature humor, or an act of community bonding by way of sharing entertaining bits with the other Community members. It’s usually meant to stay within the community, and most likely, community outsiders won’t pick up on the humor, or will be confused to the point of disregarding the inside joke. Inside jokes aren’t expected to be understood, and terminology or rhetoric is typically accepted as group-specific, and the group members are pleased that they have their own inner circle with which to share in the joke– it builds camaraderie– and likely in most cases, an inside-joke, or group-specific behaviour isn’t intended to be entertained by members outside of that community.
The point here is that the Text of the “How to Ask Questions the Smart Way” document must be met with harsh criticism because of the attempt to perpetuate it as a reality; as a Rule of Etiquette which should be followed by individuals outside of the community whence it was conceived. One must question: “Is it a joke?”, or “Is it meant to be taken seriously?”.
If How to Ask Questions the Smart Way is indeed meant to be a global Forum etiquette, then I must resolve that it is hardly more than bogus guidance meant to strip the reader of his dignity. In a baseless manner, it suggests that the reader, out of the sheer [implied] ignorance that he or she must inherently possess, has committed, or is likely about to commit some wrong-doing agaist the author and those members of the author’s community. One who reads this Text must pay close attention to the meaning it conveys, and must certainly question the rationality of the self-justifying manner in which it urges the reader to modify his or her behavior, and the very reasoning behind the Text itself. If this is not an attempt to rationalize and justify Egomania, then I must surely be misreading the Text, and I welcome a more Educated explanation of its meaning, as I must simply be misunderstanding because of my inability to relate to this way of thought.
If I am not offended by How to Ask Questions the Smart Way, then why have I bothered to write such extensive commentary about it? Because, just as Mr. Raymond and Mr. Moen have expressed their Freedom of Speech, I give you my viewpoint on their rhetoric and i advise you to disregard the crass nature of its paradoxical, counter-intuitive, gratuitous expectations and and conduct yourself as you see fit based on the Forum Rules. I want you to trust in your own way of thought, and avoid misguidance. In my opinion, How to Ask Questions the Smart Way, if indeed it is meant to be taken seriously (one can only assume this is the case, considering the revision history), as a reference point for Forum Etiquette is merely an overblown excuse for indignant, rude, and basically, disrespectful conduct, not to mention irresponsible. If one must give reference to a Text such as How to Ask Questions the Smart Way as an excuse for rude, snide remarks, then that person is simply looking for a way to justify whatever behavior they wish to exhibit that day! To build a culture around the concept of an accepted level of indignant behavior is ludicrous. This is why I find it very difficult to endorse the HAQSWay Document, or even at best, to take it seriously at all. It is for this reason that I lobby that anyone who respects the Hacker community, Hackers themselves, and those would-be Hackers who in a rather monarchistic manner typically don their signatures with a link directing Newbies to How to Ask Questions the Smart Way, should cease referencing it because it no longer commands respect for the community, but rather, on the contrary, presents what is likely a misrepresentation. Taken out of context both textually, topically, and chronologically, it seems such a foolish outcry that any Psychology 101 student could most likely diagnose the personality deficiency at work when the document was originally authored. It’s frightening to bear witness to so many who follow such a creed denouncing those who are subjectively less educated. If it is that easy to create a global feeling of superiority and a need to subjugate the “other”, then perhaps this could be a learning experience for Democracy itself, and something it should indeed beware!
The Hacker community, or anyone who subscribes to the ideology behind “How to Ask Questions the Smart Way”, as a culture– Hacker or not– are certainly not the first to subscribe to ideology based on indignation, disrespect, and Egomania: The Rhetoric of Subservience. Consider other groups or cultures actively practicing similar beliefs, or those who subscribe to similar documents or cultural artifacts; texts or speeches which rally a belief based on superiority versus inferiority and the recommended conduct within that caste system.
I liken the crux of it to be not unlike “pledging a Fraternity” at any American University, or if you will, a “fashion show” for Geeks– “…if you don’t do it this way or that, then you’re certainly not allowed into our party!”. As a member of the Public community, I can not agree with what is written there (and neither should you, nor should you except it, unless of course you wish to be donned a Hacker yourself), and I can not agree with those who urge other members of a public arena to follow the rules set forth in a document which has its very foundation rooted in indignation. Of course, the author(s) of that document has (have) the ultimate freedom to write what they wish, and far be it from me to get in the way of someone who must have such a great need to pad his own Ego. As I am often disgusted by the pervasiveness of sheer notions of disrespect; indignant behaviours, as those perpetuated in the HAQSWAY document, I am compelled to express this contrary perspective.
With all due respect to the Hacker community at large, I want to make it clear that I acknowledge the communication channels cited in the HAQSWay document may be inundated with senseless babble, stupid questions, and all of the other reasonably annoying garbage which any given Hacker must likely deal with on a daily, if not an hourly basis. What the HAQSWay does not acknowledge, however, is that– in every walk of life– there are comparably similar circumstances, and similar annoyances imposed upon anyone who is a master at His or Her art, and who would probably much rather not have to deal with those annoyances. How do they avoid them, and why do they not author such documents as “How-to Ask Questions the Smart-Way” ? Because they either don’t subject themselves to it by offering to help, or by presenting themselves as a resource for help, or they get over it, apparently without much need to draw attention to themselves.
Everyone has gone to the ‘fridge once or twice and found that the milk-jug was empty. Sure, we’ve all been disappointed by that, but i don’t recall ever reading an extended “How-to” manual on the subject. Maybe that’s because there’s a simple line of common decency which anyone with an ounce of sense could realize that there’s no need for it. Instead of relying on HAQSWay to “teach” users how to deal with indignation, why not instead try a better approach to teaching them how to use the facility in a manner which will do everyone more good? Sure, there would no longer be a scapegoat for gratuitous flaming remarks, and the opportunity to Ego-boost may be lessened by a slight degree, but justice and equality might more easily prevail as it should.
The purpose of my text, here, is to encourage Users to pay close attention to the meaning behind what they are reading in HAQSWay, and then to consider how they wish to engage in discourse based on a closer examination of the Culture, and their own desire respective to acceptance by that culture (i.e. the imaginary group of people who HAQSWay attempts to address).
The text in question should be available for reading. If you aren’t familiar with it already, I advise it is a waste of time to go about reading it now. For the sake of knowledge, and understanding, however, I advise you read anything which interests you. I urge you to add your own commentary, here, should you have an opinion on the HAQSWay matter. Let us consider a radical inquiry: is it more a manifesto of terrorism, or solidarity?