by Ted Walther

This document was written for the freenode branch of the #LinuxOS IRC channel in June 29, 2002, before it became apparent to the author that it was no longer a help channel. In fact, #LinuxOS stopped pretending to be a help channel sometime in 1999. Nevertheless, the philosophy presented here represents years of experience on the IRC help channels. It is time-tested and has proved its worth. A condensed form of this document was posted to Kuro5hin early in 2001.

#LinuxOS is an IRC channel that has been supporting the Linux Revolution since 1996. We provide online Linux support, for free. We are all unpaid volunteers who do this as our way of contributing to the Free Software movement. As unpaid volunteers, our time is limited by our jobs and real world commitments. So that we can give the most help to the most people, we recommend that anyone who joins the channel use the 16 point behavioral strategy at the bottom of this page. There will be no attempt to enforce use of this strategy, but if you do use it, you will be helping us provide the most help to the most people.

Almost all the rules boil down to: THOU SHALT NOT SPAM. Netizens hate few things more than they hate SPAM. Spamming someone is rude, impolite, shows you don't care about the other person, soaks up their time and attention which they would rather put towards other uses, and generally raises their blood pressure and stress level.

When you go on IRC for help, it is important to remember that the other people are unpaid volunteers. Most of us are hobbyists providing information and help as a labor of love. As such, you get what you pay for; the level of ability present in the channel can vary wildly, from raw newbies to experts with years of experience. But if you don't respect peoples sensibilities, on IRC, as in real life, they are unlikely to help you, even if they can.

There is a final thing to remember when getting help on IRC: while people are willing to help, they don't want to do your work for you. Most people have no desire to do free work for someone who is too lazy to do it for himself. Most of the rules that aren't anti-spam, are rules that help reassure potential helpers that you genuinely want help, and not just free labor. Following them works to your benefit.

People are freely giving of their time. They have no obligation to give you anything. Common courtesy says not to exhaust someones generosity; there will be many people after you that need help too. It's bad juju to poison the well after you've taken a nice long drink at it.

The 16 Point Behavioral Strategy

1. Don't ask to ask a question. Just ask the question.

Help and support channels are FOR asking questions. If you can't ask a question in a help or support channel, where CAN you ask? That being the case, asking to ask the question is SPAM.

2. Phrase your question so it can be answered in as few words as possible.

When you ask someone a question, you should phrase it so the helpers have to explain as little as possible. Ideally you will be able to ask your question in such a way that a helper can answer "yes" or "no". That's not always possible; second best is to phrase it in such a way that they can point you to an appropriate URL or man page. By following this rule, it is more likely that when you have a question requiring a detailed answer, the helpers will have the energy and goodwill to provide it.

3. Don't ask a question you haven't researched first.

We aren't your mom. You'll have to pick up your own dirty laundry, but we're willing to teach you to use the washing machine. The important thing here is not that you be a superman who does everything by himself; if you were superman, you wouldn't be coming to a help channel for help. The important thing is that you be seen to be making an honest attempt to do it yourself.

4. Tell us up front what research you have already done.

If you just ask your question, we will assume you haven't done any research. As you may have guessed by now, a "do my work for me" attitude isn't looked on favorably. When you let us know what research you've already done, and that you have reached the limit of your skill level, we will help you from there.

5. Don't repeat yourself. We heard you the first time.

Odds are, if noone answered, it's because noone knows the answer. However, if a significant number of people unidle or join the channel, you may repeat your question, but you need to rephrase it to fit into the current flow of conversation. An unaltered repetition of your previous statement is SPAM.

6. Don't make us repeat ourselves for no reason. Read your scrollback.

If you think your question wasn't answered, wait 10 minutes, scroll up, and read EVERYTHING. Many times you will be surprised to find that your question was answered, but you were so busy adding more details, or focussed on the type of answer that you expected, that you didn't follow up on the answer that was given.

7. Set autoaway off. We don't care that you've been idle for 5 minutes.

Peoples IRC clients often are set to turn on the autoaway feature after 5 minutes. So many people go idle for more than 5 minutes at a time that this feature causes a lot of SPAM unless disabled. When autoaway gets set, a message about it is sent to the entire channel.

8. Set autorejoin off. Coming back immediately angers the /kicker and usually leads to a /ban

A grace period of 1 or 2 minutes for things to cool down is usually sufficient. However, autorejoin is still a bad idea. If you go idle, and get kicked, and then rejoin, the people that were mad at you may get even madder when they think you are purposely ignoring them, and worse, that you are logging what is going on in their channel.

9. Do NOT use bold colons, mIRC colors, blinky text, or ANSI codes.

These things mess up the screens of many IRC clients and thus are an egregious form of SPAM.

10. Do NOT automessage anyone.

Automessages are SPAM and have no place on a help channel. We don't want to know about your great warez and mp3 collection, or about your hot new channel or website. The only exception is if the channel has an official bot, it may provide pointers to information about the channel when you first join. Even this is considered tacky though, and few channels do it.

11. Put an idiot on /ignore as soon as you discern he is an idiot.
12. Say nothing to an idiot, or about an idiot in his presence.
13. Someone who is ignorant but pretends to have knowledge is an idiot.

Yes, there are idiots in the help channels. Responding to them in any way only encourages them to further harass you. Ops can be idiots too. Cutting remarks and general bitching about the situation won't change it, and will probably alienate the people who would otherwise work behind the scenes on your behalf, if it doesn't get you kicked and banned.

14. Don't whine, beg, or guilt trip.

This one should be self explanatory. When you put pressure on volunteers to force them to do or give to you this or that, the joy of giving goes away. When the joy of giving goes away, so does the giving, and the help channel suddenly becomes unhelpful.

15. Don't IRC as root. Every IRC client has exploitable holes.

If you are connecting to IRC as root, who knows what other things you are doing as root? You are most likely a raw newbie who is equivalent to a five year old child running around with an elephant gun pointed at his feet. We'd love to help you learn to aim and shoot, but first we need to make sure you don't blow your foot off; the mess would take much more work to clean up than just making you re-aim your gun.

16. Don't initiate DCC connections without the other users consent.

This is sort of like having sex... If you know the other person well enough, you can decide whether you can get away with initiating it without asking. Usually unsolicited DCC connections are attempts to hack your IRC client.

Happy Hacking!

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