<center> # Why I ask stupid questions on the internet *Originally published 2019-09-05 on [docs.sweeting.me](https://docs.sweeting.me/s/blog).* Why I often ask "stupid" or easy questions online and in person. </center> --- I often ask stupid or easy questions publicly on Reddit/HN/Twitter that can be Googled trivially. Why? It's not because I'm a pedantic fool or too lazy to Google, in fact, I have usually already found some answers to my questions before I post them. ### I ask simple questions because: 1. **If I had to ask, I know other people probably have the same question**, and it's nice to have the question & answer in the same comment thread for posterity and so other people can learn the same way I did. This also has the added bonus of making the question and answer findable together via Google, so the next person searching the same question doesn't have to click all over the place to find the simple answer. Stack Overflow is often over-moderated to the point where easy questions get ridiculed and locked without any obvious solutions ever being posted, leading to situations where you Google a question and find 3 results that all say "Jeez this question is so easy, you should've Googled before asking this question", and yet there are no answers in sight. We can fight this by posting the easy questions *with* their solutions next to them so that future people doesn't end up in the same situation. 2. **The person I'm asking probably has more context than I do about the subject**, and they might have a particularly insightful answer to my stupid question, or be able to point me to a better resource than I'd be able to find on my own. In the case of Twitter, Reddit, or HN, asking a simple question publicly often elicits debates and wonderful, thoughtful responses from people who provide more context and historical insight than Google ever could. Usually just posting the question is enough, but for added effect you can comment on your own post with incorrect answers, because the old adage is true: "if you want to to get a correct answer on the internet, post something wrong and wait for people to jump in and correct you". 3. **I often make incorrect assumtions**, and I'd rather double-check in any situation where I might have assumed something incorrect. Even if I've Google'd it and found my assumption is wrong, maybe other people jumped to the same conclusion and would appreciate reading the claryfing answers to my dumb questions. It's also possible that the answer from Google is wrong, and an expert might jump in to clarify and correct a common misconception. 4. **It signals that a certain piece of information is non-obvious**. For example imagine a project has no download link on the homepage, but it's findable via Google 4 links deep into their site, I probably already found the link by Googling, but by posting "how do I download this thing" the creators are able to see that it's not obvious and they might improve their docs because of it. Good websites and docs should make the simple questions obvious, but creators are lazy and wont improve them unless they see evidence of confused people asking questions. ### Don't be afraid to ask easy questions in real life. This is even something I take offline and do in real life. If I'm in a group situation trying to comprehend something difficult and people are looking bewildered, I try to ask the clarifying questions that other people might be too shy to ask, even if I may think I already know the answer. More often than not, at least one or two other people probably had the same question, and in many cases I get an answer I wasn't expecting! I also enjoy when people do this to me when I'm the one explaining something; having feedback from an audience about what is non-obvious is extremely valuable when you're presenting a complex topic to a group of people with mixed levels of understanding. Just like it's good signal to see people in an audience nodding in agreement when an explanation is clear, it's equally good signal to get simple questions that I forgot to cover or glossed over too quickly. Questions indicate I made a bad assumption about level of understanding in one area, and help me correct course before people get lost. ### Answer easy questions with grace, don't ridicule people for asking. Teachers often like to say "no questions are stupid" and I tend to agree. Even easy questions provide valuable signal just by being asked, and the answers are often enlightening to more than just the person asking. Don't ridicule people for asking easy questions, especially if you're in any position of power (e.g. if you're a Stack Overflow moderator or conference MC). If there's time pressure, you can always direct people to ask you the question in a different context (e.g. "Join me on IRC and I can explain in more detail" or "That's a great question, come talk to me in the hall afterwards and I'd be happy to give you a more detailed answer"). The [Recurse Center](https://www.recurse.com) has an excellent social rule that sums this up: > ***[No feigning surprise](https://www.recurse.com/social-rules#no-feigning-surprise)*** > > Dan: What’s the command line? > > Carol: Wait, you’ve never used the command line? > > Feigned surprise is when you act surprised when someone doesn’t know something. Responding with surprise in this situation makes people feel bad for not knowing things and less likely to ask questions in the future, which makes it harder for them to learn. > > No feigning surprise isn’t a great name. When someone acts surprised when you don’t know something, it doesn’t matter whether they’re pretending to be surprised or actually surprised. The effect is the same: the next time you have a question, you’re more likely to keep your mouth shut. An accurate name for this rule would be no acting surprised when someone doesn’t know something, but it’s a mouthful, and at this point, the current name has stuck. Julia Evans also goes into this in more detail in her blog post ["No Feigning Surprise"](https://jvns.ca/blog/2017/04/27/no-feigning-surprise/) ([HN comments](https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=14225033)). ### Don't waste people's time intentionally. *Questions should still **chosen thoughtfully,** especially when simple. Too many tangential or pedantic questions will just derail attention from a main topic without adding value.* Have some common sense, but if in doubt, don't be afraid to ask. --- ### My Personal Rules for Arguing - no agentic "shoulds". stick to [E-Prime](https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/E-Prime) language with an explicit subject. `"something should be done"` -> `*this* person should do *this* thing` - no blaming others for my emotional response to something. I can always remove myself from a situation if my negative response is too great. - always lead with questions, try to frame every challenge as question that could be answered in a way that increases shared understanding/context instead of reducing it. - positive feedback provides vastly more information density than negative feedback. If I go through a wrong door, don't just tell me I chose the wrong door (after all there are 1000s of doors to *not* go through), tell me about the 5 or 6 that I *should* go through. https://monadical.com/principles.html --- ### Related Reading - https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=28942189 - https://terrytao.wordpress.com/career-advice/ask-yourself-dumb-questions-and-answer-them/ - https://jvns.ca/blog/2017/04/27/no-feigning-surprise/ - https://www.recurse.com/social-rules#no-feigning-surprise - http://www.catb.org/~esr/faqs/smart-questions.html