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RFC: How to Write a Great Thread

by sundialsvc4 (Abbot)
on Mar 04, 2009 at 23:36 UTC ( #748357=perlmeditation: print w/replies, xml ) Need Help??

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.)

Opinion yours?

Replies are listed 'Best First'.
Re: RFC: How to Write a Great Thread
by Your Mother (Chancellor) on Mar 05, 2009 at 00:05 UTC

    Great! Also, drive courteously and eat your vegetables.

    :) I think you see the problem. Everything you describe and call for is great but human beings--generalizing here, of course--can't typically be bothered to do the right thing when it requires effort or forethought unless there is a catchy slogan or something behind it. I hereby nominate you for lead of the ITLP. If the peer pressure isn't working and you find you need enforcers, I have an airsoft pistol and dead-eye.

      Also, keep moistened towelettes (like diaper wipes) in the car, as butter on the steering wheel can be a safety problem.

      - tye        

Re: RFC: How to Write a Great Thread
by zentara (Archbishop) on Mar 05, 2009 at 11:53 UTC
    ++, a great reminder to us all. The problem now with Google is "information overload" can get too many hits back on a query. So to be helpful to those in the future looking for answers, think of the best "keywords" you can put into your title. For instance.... don't title something..."need help with mapping arrays"......choose something like "perl array map" for a title. This limits the search to Perl arrays.... or hopefully, Google's AI program will correctly limit the search.

    Someome here( I forgot you again O great monk), has a tagline "99% of the code you need has already been written"...... and most answers here at Perlmonks could simply be "just google for previous responses".

    I'm not really a human, but I play one on earth My Petition to the Great Cosmic Conciousness

      The problem with keywords is that what you think of the problem is might not be what everyone else thinks of it as.

      For a while now, I've been trying to figure out how I can do 'server push' with an AJAX request. Finally, a couple of weeks ago, I found that there's a whole website that talks about the general concept, but they call it 'Comet'.

      If you're looking for documents about AJAX from _before_ it was called AJAX (and I'm not talking about sports teams, cars, or cleaning products), they're not going to have that keyword associated. Once in a while, terms used to explain concepts diverge or converge, or just differ between communities.

      When you're dealing with search systems, you typically measure its performance in terms of 'precision' (you only get back relevant results; bad precision == information overload) and 'recall' (you get back _all_ of the relevant results). Adding too many keywords (especially if the keyword is polysemous) helps with recall and the whole 'search engine optimization' efforts to boost your ranking, but it harms precision if you're only peripherally related to the extra keywords that you insert.

      I'd love for search engines to come up with a 'context' concept, so I can search for 'apple' in a food context, or 'map' in a perl context. (these aren't the best examples ... the issue comes in ranking ... I'd NOT want the context to be used for sorting of the results ... so 'map' is the important criteria and 'perl' is only used to filter down the list to remove non-perl contexts) ... I just wish I could remember some of the times when I've actually run into this problem.

      (sorry ... my library school classes on classification theory and cataloging are slowly floating to the top ... and this morning's meeting on how to define certain concepts used in classification for a metadata standard)

        ++, got me thinking. Searching with a "context" is a good idea.....but how to define context from a word in random phrases? "apple of my eye", "apple tree", "Apple Computers", "road apple", etc. :-)

        Google is probably working on it now.

        I'm not really a human, but I play one on earth My Petition to the Great Cosmic Conciousness
      No. Don't write for search engines, write for the other readers. It's the tools that should help us, not us that should help the tools. (And search engines improve over time - the titles don't).

      That said, putting perl in the title of a perlmonks thread is redundant anyway - both from a search engine perspective and from the reader's perspective. SoPW posts are perl centric by default.

        putting perl in the title of a perlmonks thread is redundant anyway

        Not when it comes to searching google. If I google search for "great threads", I get pthreads, win32 threads, PhP crap, even clothing ads. But, if I just add "perl great threads", the results are narrowed quite a bit.

        I'm not really a human, but I play one on earth My Petition to the Great Cosmic Conciousness
Re: RFC: How to Write a Great Thread
by JavaFan (Canon) on Mar 05, 2009 at 01:22 UTC
    I do this because I consistently find that it is the best available source of the best available answers.
    I usually have no problem finding lots of threads with people having the same problem.

    Unfortunally, most of the time, the question isn't answered ("me toos" are common), or answered in such a way that it's useless to me. (Great that it can be solved in Foonix by running the frobnob, but I don't run Foonix, and my OS doesn't do frobnobs)

    Sometimes though, there's a useful answer.

      I especially hate it when I find a dozen unresolved threads (although, mostly dups from multiple web archives of a mailing list), then finally find the one that has the exact same symptoms I'm seeing, same OS, etc ... and the last message in the thread is 'Nevermind, I fixed it', with absolutely no explanation as to what they did, or what was wrong.

        Yes, that is especially frustrating but it is even more so when, after you have done your job of researching exhausitvely, you start a new thread. You explain your problem in detail, your specific environment, what you have tried, what your hunches are, and what threads you have already searched as dead ends. Someone doesn't bother to read your entire thread, does a quick google and finds "it is already solved" in the thread that just says "Nevermind, I fixed it" and they admonish you and point you to that thread. You reply that you already looked at that thread, that you said you looked at it in your root thread and that it doesn't answer the question. You don't get any response - not from the person that made the response (because they now realize they were to impatient when trying to point out your ignorance) and not from anyone else because said person is so respected by that group they assume it is you who is in fact the ignorant one.

        Now THAT is frustrating.

        Cheers - L~R

        Hear, hear!

        And you didn't even know bears could type.

Re: RFC: How to Write a Great Thread
by Anonymous Monk on Mar 05, 2009 at 15:46 UTC

    A "just Google for it" answer is, of course, dismissive and useless, because the Gentle Reader From the Future is left right where he started ... as was the original responder in the past.

    I'm hoping that this thread will be expanded and improved-upon because we are all so very familiar with the problem, and so dependent on the information-resource. My intent here was to expand upon the “how to ask a question” threads, by framing “a thread” as being something that has long-lasting future value. My premise is that “good threads are written and developed with that in mind.”

    I look forward to the contributions and comments of fellow Monks. Take this and run with it.

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