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Here's my reason for this question: I'm fairly new to these sites and have had good and bad experiences. I've seen very useful answers to my questions and I think I have helped some people with my answers. I've also seen some pretty negative reactions which make me less willing to participate and occasionally seem hurtful.

So there are some things I wish I knew before I started. What do you wish you knew before you started contributing? In other words, What advice would you give new people joining a Stack Exchange site?

One piece of advice per answer please.

Bounty: I've seen how offering a bounty can generate more interest so I'd like to do the same here. I think new users could benefit from this list being considerably improved. Bounty awarded to Gan.

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If there are enough good answers maybe this could be added to an FAQ / introductory page. Any comments? –  Wikis Aug 16 '10 at 12:48

15 Answers 15

up vote 18 down vote accepted

I'll start the ball rolling with my own: Don't take personal criticism to heart. Instead, try to filter out the message that the contributer is saying and learn from it.

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Guess, it's not that funny... I'll delete it :( –  Peter Ajtai Sep 22 '10 at 1:09
    
@Peter - sorry Peter, I feel like a spoilsport! No hard feelings. =:-) –  Wikis Sep 22 '10 at 5:24
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No worries ;) –  Peter Ajtai Sep 22 '10 at 18:37

Here's another - learn that there are multiple (nowadays) sites each with their own specific subject. So avoid irritating others by taking the time to select the correct site before posting. (And if the site does not exist, visit Area 51).

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Do the homework before posting a question. This is because people generally respond better if they see that you have tried to find the solution first. So show how far you've got in investigating the problem in your question (which also helps people provide a relevant answer).

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Always favor EDITING instead of posting "updates" as new answers or questions. Edit, edit, edit!

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Is this to get it (keep it) in the active question list? –  Wikis Aug 14 '10 at 20:34
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What exactly do you mean by "updates" in this context, new posts? Because the adding of Update: style paragraphs is often the best way to keep people updated about a contribution's progress, isn't it? –  Pëkka Aug 15 '10 at 8:46
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@pekka I clarified –  Jeff Atwood Aug 15 '10 at 9:27
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Except if you edit your question 10 times it becomes community wiki so you don't earn any more rep! –  Wikis Sep 13 '10 at 19:45
  • Do only post answers if you're quite sure that it is correct.
  • Be nice
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4  
I disagree with the first one. Sometimes posting speculation can be useful. I've seen a number of badly formed questions answered that way. Just make sure it's clearly marked as speculation. –  David Thornley Aug 16 '10 at 13:52
    
@David - yeah, I agree with the spirit of what stacker is saying but, you're correct David. I've added ideas to solving an issue before and clearly marked them as only ideas. –  Wikis Sep 18 '10 at 20:45

I'd give the same advice for any forum/bulletin board/Q&A site.

Lurk.

Then once you've got a measure of the site start posting.

I realise that this doesn't really help those who come to the site with a problem, but it might make them think and spend at least a few minutes browsing and searching before posting.

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"Lurk" - I like that. =:-) –  Wikis Aug 16 '10 at 14:58
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+1 (if I could): This applies to everywhere on the internet. –  Callum Rogers Sep 19 '10 at 23:47

They say the only stupid question is the one not asked.

That is not true; What makes a question stupid is how you ask it. Make sure your question makes sense and can be followed. Make sure it has enough detail; without it you won't get the answer you are looking for.

I think the first question you post is always the hardest, but you can't be afraid to get it out there. You are going to f**k up eventually, it's just the internet, you will survive, get it out there and people we will be sure to let you know if you need to revise it. (The Edit button is your friend)

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I like the bit about just getting out there and not being afraid. That's broader advice than just for these sites - that's good advice for life! –  Wikis Aug 16 '10 at 15:01

My Number 1 advice to new people before/after joining Stack Exchange site:

  1. Read the FAQs (a must!)
  2. Read the About page

Seriously, the two links are the most important links before and after I started to join Stack Exchange site. It has enough info to help new users get started.

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thanks! I knew about the FAQ page but not the About page. Good one. –  Wikis Sep 18 '10 at 14:33
    
I awarded the bounty to you because I think your advice is a great place to start for beginners. (Also, the fact that you currently have less rep than others here helped tip the balance.) –  Wikis Sep 20 '10 at 11:39
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@Mark: wow, thanks! I'm all heated up now! :) (and i never thought having less rep would earn me more bounty :) –  Gan Sep 21 '10 at 1:13
    
it tipped the balance, you're very welcome! Thanks for the advice. –  Wikis Sep 21 '10 at 7:13

Listen to and respect members with significantly (say 500+) more rep than yourself, they know more about the site and how it works.

Ask questions on the Meta sites to learn more about how a specific site works or if you have questions are are not covered by the FAQ (that is, after you read the FAQ).

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You can earn over 200 rep on one day, i wouldn't call that significantly. –  Georg Fritzsche Sep 18 '10 at 18:49
    
agreed, after incorporating @Georg's comment. But it is true - having been here a while I know more than I did a couple of months ago when I started. –  Wikis Sep 18 '10 at 20:42
    
@Georg: see updated answer...that gives you several days to learn the site... –  studiohack Sep 18 '10 at 21:21
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500 can be done in two days ;) I'd go a bit higher, say 1000 or 2000? –  Georg Fritzsche Sep 19 '10 at 0:37
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@Georg - suggest we not spend too much time on the number. Absolute numbers don't make much sense in this context anyway, I think (that is, +500 is different if you have 1 rep or 10K rep). So relative numbers (2x rep) makes more sense. But either way, the point is clear: pay especially close attention to people - especially those with way more clout (in this case, rep). –  Wikis Sep 19 '10 at 20:22
    
I generally disagree with this statement. Rep is somewhat arbitrary. If a user has 70K+ then they're probably a solid resource, but there are lots of 10K users who generated most of that rep back when questions like "what's your favorite programming story" could generate +200 upvotes, or who happened to be the first to answer a question about a trivial jQuery function resulting in 1000+ upvotes, bit otherwise don't participate much. Obviously generally more rep=more experience, but I'd recommend that you just check out users' profiles if you want to find out how experienced they are. –  Ben D Oct 26 '13 at 23:44

Post the context of your question.

If you answer a question post the context of your answer.


I often see questions that say, something like

This doesn't work. It echoes "no" when it should be showing "yes"

echo ($a > $b ? "yes" : "no");

Then there's all sort of answers about how to solve this issue using type casting, and then after all the answers come in, it turns out there's some giant problem at the root of it all about how the variables $a and $b are being created, and it turns out the original question should have been.

I have this array of items and prices and I want to see if one item is more expensive than the other. I have coded this so far:

<?php
$prices = array("candy" => 1.50, "lettuce" => 0.50);
$a = "candy";
$b = "lettuce";
echo "Is $a more expensive than $b?:\n\n";
echo ($a > $b ? "yes" : "no");
?>

But it's printing "no" even though 1.50 > 0.50. What's going on?

When you're trying to get help, it's often tempting to just post the one line that is giving you the error, but the problem is often larger than that.

It often takes more time to figure out what actually is the meaningful context of a question, and it takes effort to figure out how to describe the whole story, but in the long run, the better able an asker is to explain all of what's going on, all of the inputs, what they mean, the desired output, why its all being done in the first place, etc., etc., the better answers they'll get.


The same idea applies to answers. Don't just solve the syntax error. If the user is getting an error because they are not dealing with things correctly (character encoding, type casting, etc) then mention that. Sometimes this is difficult because of the way the question is asked, but it's very valuable to provide a context for your answer if possible.

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a related issue: I've seen very abrupt answers which don't really help. Often an explanation is needed to help the questioner understand the root of the problem. –  Wikis Sep 19 '10 at 19:43

If fired upon, try not to fire back.

If someone insults you or seems extraordinarly rude, let moderators and more experienced users sort it out. Flag / report if you feel it necessary. Don't let yourself get drawn into a fight with a resident asshole, especially not as a newbie.

Also, always check first whether they have a point with what they say. They often have. That is difficult to acknowledge when feelings are hurt, but often wise.

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nicely put. Similar thoughts to my answers, but I especially like your succinct summary in the first sentence. –  Wikis Sep 20 '10 at 10:55

Read.

Read the FAQ. Read the About page. Read any articles linked to by those pages.

Search for and read any questions already posted about the issues that you're having (rather than posting a repeat of the question). Once you understand the community and are satisfied that your question has not been answered by the community, compose a question. Before posting it, read it again for clarity, ensuring that your statements are clear and that you're saying what you mean to say. Then FINALLY, READ IT AGAIN, ensuring that someone who is not living out of your head has been provided everything necessary to understand your question.

(It may help to read anything that is closed for "Noise" or "Not a real question". I find the 'how long would it take an average developer to build X' and the 'how many users can a webserver support' questions particularly amusing. Knowing what a bad question is can help you write a good one.)

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Contrary (or perhaps complementary) to the other answers, I would like to add, Just go for it. I mean, sure you can read and be careful and so on - and that's a good start. But eventually you've just got to jump in, make mistakes and learn. We've all done it.

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Show your work.

I already had the do your homework thing down before I got here, but I would oftentimes ask a question that was like another question but different in some critical way. After getting answers and comments that directed me to the questions I'd already looked at, I realized I have to put a link to the question I'm not asking to highlight that I've already seen it. (On some SE sites that still doesn't work; trying to find a way around it :c )

Links are your friends. They clarify your question, so the answerers don't have to waste their time giving you answers that are ultimately unhelpful.

The show your work thing also applies to answers. You'll get a lot of upvotes if you back up your claims with an outside source. Just make sure you answer the question, and only use the link as a supplement. If the link goes dead, your answer will still be viable. I personally go out of my way to downvote people who post bald links as answers.

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I have lots of thoughts on this one - I totally agree with most of the existing posts - but a few more:

  1. Whenever you're posting a question always keep this thought in the back of your head: "I'm asking charitable people to spend their time helping me out of the goodness of their hearts"... If you keep that in mind you'll make sure that you've (a) genuinely researched the question before coming to SO; (b) you'll provide a clear and comprehensive description of the problem and your attempts to solve it; and (c) you'll upvote users who help you and accept an answer if a working solution is posted.

  2. Don't feel intimidated by other users' knowledge. Programming is a vast field, and it can seem like there is a huge amount you don't know. This doesn't mean you don't have anything to offer.

  3. Don't assume that users with high reps know more than users with low reps, and don't become obsessed with reputation - reputation is a complicated metric and it often rewards users who got here early and/or who answer easy questions.

  4. Learn how/when to appropriately use comments vs edits vs answers.

  5. A has been mentioned plenty of times already, read the FAQ!

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