This article is based on material authored by members of the news.newusers.questions Moderation Board and nnq-workers mailing list, particularly by Jon Bell (until 2005) and Thor Kottelin (since 2007).

How to help us help you

When you ask a question in a newsgroup, such as in news.newusers.questions, you need to keep in mind that people access the Internet and read news using a mind-boggling variety of hardware and software. If you ask a question of the form "How do I..?" and don't tell us what kind of setup you have, you are unlikely to receive an answer that is correct for you.

Example setups

Here are some of the different ways that people access the Internet, and what you may need to tell us in each case, to improve your chances of getting a useful answer:

1. PC with online service

You may be using a personal computer with proprietary software to connect via modem to a commercial online service such as Netcom Netcruiser, CompuServe, America Online or Prodigy.

In this case you should not ask specific questions here about how to use your software. You are much more likely to get a useful answer in a local help area or newsgroup.

2. PC with ISP connection

You may be using a personal computer which is directly connected to an Internet service provider (ISP), or to a company's or school's local network, in such a way that your computer is "on the Internet" and has its own IP address. You may have separate programs for e.g. email, news, and web browsing, on your own computer's hard disk.

In this case, you should tell us what kind of computer you have and the specific software (including version number) that you are trying to use. Example: "How do I add signatures to my posts, using Netscape 1.2 on a Power Macintosh 6100?".

3. "Dumb" terminal, multi-user computer, command prompt

You may be using a "dumb," text-only terminal which is connected to a big multi-user computer system. After you log in, giving a password, you run various network programs by typing commands at a prompt like $ or % or >.

In this case you need to tell us what kind of a computer you're using, in particular what operating system it's running (UNIX, VMS, whatever). You also need to tell us the name of the program you're trying to use, and its version number if possible. Example: "I'm trying to read news with trn 3.6 on a Data General UNIX box."

3a. UNIX hosts

If you're on a UNIX machine, you may win bonus points if you tell us which shell you're using. Usually a $ prompt indicates the Bourne shell, and a % prompt the C shell).

4. "Dumb" terminal, multi-user computer, menu system

You may be using a "dumb," text-only terminal connected to a big multi-user computer system (as in #3) which hides all the nasty UNIX or VMS (or whatever) stuff behind a bunch of nice "user-friendly" menus. You may be able to figure out that you're actually using standard, "off the shelf" programs in disguise, in which case you should tell us what they are.

Otherwise, you'd better talk to your local computer support people, because such menu systems tend to vary wildly from one place to another. In fact, many menu systems are locally written, so the only people who really know anything about them are the people who run your computer system!

5. PC, modem, multi-user computer

You may be using a personal computer, a modem, and generic communications software, to "dial up" a big, multi-user computer system. Once you've connected to the other computer, your own computer acts mostly like a "dumb" terminal, except that you can (in principle) transfer files back and forth between the two computers.

In this case, if you think your problem is confined to the other computer, you need to tell us the same stuff that is appropriate to #3 or #4.

If, however, you're having problems with the interaction between the two computers (for example, difficulties with terminal emulation or with file transfers), you also need to tell us what kind of personal computer you have, which communications software you're using, and maybe even what kind of modem you have (and maybe the phase of the moon, for good measure... :-)).

6. Freenet

A special case is the Freenet system, which is sort of a combination of #4 and #5. Users typically dial up from their personal computers, and interact with the system using a menu system.

Only a person who knows something about Freenets can help another Freenet user with Freenet-specific questions, so you really should ask "locally." There should be a help menu right off the top-level menu.

7. Bulletin board systems

You may be using a bulletin board system (BBS) which gives you access to email and newsgroups, and possibly more.

In this case, you'd probably better direct software-specific questions to your sysop or local help area. If you can't do that, tell us what kind of BBS you're using, and keep your fingers crossed.

8. Other setups

There are probably other permutations of hardware and software, but we think these are the most common ones. If we've left out something, let us know!

Further reading

Eric Steven Raymond and Rick Moen have compiled an extensive page on how to ask questions the smart way. They are asking that links to that document be complemented by a note to the effect that they are not a help desk for anyone's project. As you may have guessed by now, their advice is written in a partly sardonic tone. However, since it also contains a huge amount of useful information, and is available in many languages, we recommend it.

Good luck!

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