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5 Tips For Getting Your Tech Questions Answered

One of the most frustrating aspects of using information and communications technology (ICT) is the frequency with which things don’t work, where “things” equals just about any hardware or software tool that you could possibly name. Monitors start flickering, files won’t open, obscure error messages crowd your screen, hard drives make funny noises… you name it. One of the most rewarding aspects of using ICT is the access it provides to an enormous network of people who might be able to help you. Twitter can be an extremely effective way of getting your questions answered, but it also teaches us some important lessons about the right ways to ask questions.

In one of my classes this semester, students are learning to use a variety of software tools to create online resources. Like all of us, they are frequently running into problems or roadblocks. This is often how one learns: trial and error. Our class has developed a system using Twitter to ask questions about such problems: we use the hashtag #help318 when we have a question that needs to be answered. Everyone in the class (not just me) keeps an eye on the hashtag and tries to help out whenever possible. This system has been pretty successful so far.

For those of us not in a relatively small group such as a class, however, there’s a Twitter hashtag to use: #lazyweb. (I’ve created a short Storify with some random examples of people using #lazyweb.) If you Tweet a question and include this hashtag, you are somewhat more likely to get an answer to your question, since there are people on Twitter who monitor Tweets with this hashtag to see what kinds of questions are being asked. Using #lazyweb (or any hashtag, really) is a strategy for capturing the attention of Twitter users outside of your list of followers.

Of course, Twitter is not the only way to ask for help. However, if you use Twitter to ask a question, you have to keep in mind that a medium giving you only 140 characters at a time requires you to be very, very good at formulating your question.

Based on my own experience asking and answering questions through this medium, I’ve come up with 5 tips on asking for help on Twitter in a way that will increase your chances of getting an answer you can use. These tips are applicable to any medium of communication, however.

  1. Be as specific as possible: What, exactly, is the problem you’re experiencing? If you’re creating a web page and you have a validation problem, which document is the one giving you trouble? Share the link to the document, if possible. If it’s a software problem, what is the error message you’re getting? What operating system are you using?
  2. Avoid ambiguous use of “it”: Don’t Tweet something like “It keeps saying my header isn’t valid!” or “It won’t let me send the email!” We can’t help you because we don’t know what “it” is. The browser? Your text editor? The W3C Validator? Your desktop email client? A web-based email system? (See 1. above: “Be specific.”)
  3. Include a link: If a particular page or file is giving you trouble, share a link to that page or file so we can look at it, too. Otherwise, we’re just guessing about what your problem might be.
  4. Use a link shortener: You don’t want your link eating up the 140 characters in your Tweet, so use a service like Google URL shortener. (In my experience, the built-in Twitter link shortener is inconsistent, but your mileage may vary.) If you don’t like Google’s there are several other shorteners to choose from.
  5. Include a picture: If you are getting an error message of some kind, or if your web page looks funny, or if you’re not sure what kind of port you’re looking at, including a screen capture or a picture along with your Tweeted question will allow others to see what you’re talking about. (Here at ProfHacker we’ve covered a number of different screenshot tools.)

Obviously, these are just my suggestions, things that have worked for me. Do you have any suggestions of your own? If so, please leave them in the comments below!

[Creative Commons-licensed flickr photo by Milos Milosevic]

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