Hacker Questions, Human Questions

On cultures of asking questions

I have identified two cultures of how people ask questions.

Hacker Questioning

Hacker, or more specifically, “esr” question culture is laid out in ESR’s How To Ask Questions The Smart Way

This culture is predominant in free software and generally on the internet I think. The main point is that you must research the question yourself before daring to ask it.

Implied Principles:

  • Don’t waste my time by asking what you can find out yourself.
  • My time is more important than yours.
  • Your learning does not benefit me.
  • Questions are all about knowledge.

Human Questioning

I don’t know what to call this but the word human came to mind as it is sort of the natural way people do it, and it is part of human relationships. In this culture, it is expected and valued that you ask questions even if the answers have been written somewhere already. It realises that questions are not just about the knowledge content in an answer, but about relationships. Asking a question is an opportunity to communicate with someone personally. The question does not just ask, it can tell someone:

  • I am here.
  • Things I know and don’t know.
  • I want to communicate with you.
  • I think you know something I don’t.
  • I respect you as a teacher.
  • I’m trying to take part in this community.
  • I want to know what you think, rather than what someone else might have written about the subject.

This may take more time for the questioned and save it for the questioner, which is why some people don’t like it. This is especially true if there are few with the knowledge and many asking, as is the case for a free software project which has a few developers and many users. In this case hacker questioning maybe the only practicable way for most people. It does come with a cost for the questioned though. They might miss good questions, and lose potential contributors and relationships.

Human questioning probably makes more sense in smaller communities with ongoing relationships. In a group, saving the questioner time saves the group as a whole time. On an anonymous internet there can be a practically infinite pool of questioners who disappear with apparently no return to the group.