|Do you know where your variables are?|
When I have any sort of technical question that I need to find an answer to (“usually yesterday...”), there is basically one resource that I turn to: Internet message-threads. Either through Google or Google Groups, I look for a previous conversation which appears to have discussed the very same problem that I am having.
I do this because I consistently find that it is the best available source of the best available answers. But this implies that a thread is much more than “a way to get the answer you need now.” It is also a resource that will be tapped, many times in the future. Therefore, I suggest, a message thread should be created with that use in mind. Here are some thoughts that I have about how we can create “better threads.”
A complete, meaningful topic title: It is much faster for the computer to find a thread by its title than by its content. A good topic-line also attracts the attention of potential responders, leading to higher-quality answers.
Closure: If you found the answer, take the time to edit the thread to indicate that you did so. Take the time to briefly explain it “to the Gentle Reader from the Future,” who might be reading your thread a dozen years from now.
Include your Train of Thought: When someone first encounters your thread, they are probably not very far along in their discovery process and they might not have begun the resolution process. It is therefore very helpful to describe your ongoing train-of-thought. If you ran into a blind alley, describe it. If you followed a fruitless course and later abandoned it, follow-up to any previous postings that you may have made when you first embarked upon that course.
Express Complete Thoughts: If someone encounters your thread (or even, your singular response...) “five years from now,” will they have enough information to understand your complete thought, and will it be immediately useful to them? Try, reasonably, to make it so. Of course, not every thread will do that, nor does every thread need to do that, but it does help rather tremendously ... many years from now ... when a thread is self-contained and useful.
Write for Ten Thousand People: You never truly know just how many people around the world will read your words, verbatim. Take the time to write well. Take the time to write completely and usefully. There is absolutely nothing better in this world than the actual experiences of others. Make yours count... now, and in the future.
If You Have the Capability to Edit, Do So: Some forums don't allow you to change what you have written. Other forums (like this one...) do. Bear in mind, however, that once the first version of the post has been “syndicated” via RSS-feed to places like Google, your subsequent updates may or may not be reflected in their records. (Still, go ahead and do it, because people will generally follow links to their original source if it still exists.)