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How to get useful help on IRC

IRC (Internet Relay Chat) is a real-time chat where you can talk to other people from around the planet. Although many channels deal with small talk about the weather, girl/boy/SO friends and politics, there are IRC networks and channels that are dedicated to provide support for software or an operating system., for example, exists to support Free Software projects. If you need urgent help or just don't want to use a mailing list, you are welcome on IRC. IRC has been there for ages and has evolved over time. It may appear a hot tub of completely crazy people at first. This article is meant to help you understand how IRC works socially and how to get the most out of it.

Don't ask to ask

It's bad manners if someone enters a channel and asks "May I ask a question?" or "Can anyone help me?". Although that may be polite in normal human interaction, it does not work that way on IRC. Just ask your question right away.

Be precise

There is nothing worse than "My printer doesn't work." or "My mail server doesn't work.". How are others supposed to help you when you don't give them any information? Make sure you include at least this information:

If all this information is included you will have a high chance of getting a useful reply.

Tell what you are doing

Others only know what you tell them. If you change things silently nobody will know about it. The worst thing you can do is say: "I changed something. Now I have another problem." This will get you ignored in no time. If you expect help you need to work with the supporters.

Do not flood the channel - use a pastebin

Sometimes you need to show others more than one line. Perhaps parts of your configuration files or a log file. Never just copy and paste larger amounts of text right into the channel. Always use a pastebin. Pastebins are public services (web sites) where you can paste your text and everybody can access them as a URL. Just paste your contents there and send the URL into the channel. That should allow everybody who's interested to take a look. Just don't paste it without any comment. Rather say: "Emails seem to get lost since I installed program foobar. Please take a look:"

The Debian pastebin is:

If the Debian pastebin is unavailable, other people in the channel may be able to suggest another one that you can use.

Some networks have dedicated #flood channels you're to use. Read the server messages when you connect and they may mention something like this.

Wait for the answer

It happens very often that a newbie enters a channel, asks a question, then waits a minute and if nobody answers he/she quits. Later, lots of people see the question in their backlog, but are unable to answer because that person is not present anymore. This situation is very frustrating.

Keep in mind that most people who are logged on IRC in a given channel are NOT reading the channel at that very moment. So if you want to get an answer be prepared to wait for a while. Sometimes a useful answer can come after a few hours!

On a related note, check your logs. The answer may have been passed to you when you went for a nature break, or a smoke.

Read the /topic

Your IRC client will likely show you the "topic" of a channel when you enter it. You should find some useful information about how this channel is supposed to work. Often the topic even lists URLs for FAQs and documentation. Asking something that is clearly answered in the topic is very stupid. If there are FAQ URLs listed in the topic first look there to see if your question is already answered.

Do not be demanding

Do not expect a single person to stay online until your problem is fixed. IRC is a stateless medium. Anyone can quit at any time. People stay there because they like staying there. Nobody is paid for helping you. Instead it's a behavior that will likely get you kicked out of the channel.

And a related matter:

Do not /msg people without asking

You can either talk to others in a channel publicly or /msg them privately. However the latter is considered rude. Don't occupy a single person for your purpose. Others may as well be interested in a solution to your problem, too.

Unintended rudeness

Sometimes you may feel that others are rude. You may get a response like "Reinstall the package. Restart the service. Read the /usr/share/doc/mysoftware/README." Although this is a very brief reply, it is likely not meant to be rude. IRC is often like human interaction without all the friendly bits. Other people have probably answered your question a dozen of times that day and they just want to help you solve the problem - not become close friends with you. Don't be offended by it. They generally don't intend to offend you.

Do not repeat yourself

Asking the same question every minute is annoying. If anyone in the channel isn't paying attention then they will neither read you the second and third time. And those who came back from lunch or sleep will likely see in their "lastlog" what has happened lately. This is too demanding. They may even choose to /ignore you.

Speak English

In most channels the language spoken is English. There are some channels like #debian-fr which are specifically for French. But everywhere else you must not write anything but English. It doesn't matter if your English is bad. Most people in the world speak something other than English, too. And if you find another person that speaks your language do not start to talk in your local language. Nobody else can follow you and it's considered rude.

Don't be lazy - read the documentation

If people tell you to read the documentation then you should do so. Never say: "I'm too lazy. Come on. You all know what I need to do. Just tell me what I need to do." This will get you ignored for all eternity. However you can expect to be told where to find the documentation. But if you get an URL... get it and read it. If the documentation is too technical or you don't understand what it's saying then say: "I have read chapter 3.1 of the URL you gave me and I understand how virtual domains work in general. But how would I use both virtual and non-virtual domains together?"

Stay if you can

Using IRC is a matter of give and take. At the beginning you will surely have question after question. Just ask them and be grateful if you get attention and replies. Others do not expect more than a "Thank you." for their help.

If you can, please consider staying online in the channel. The more knowledge you gain the more you can help other people. And you probably get to know people you like to hang out with - even if it's just virtually.

Answer the questions that you get asked

It may sometimes be hard to follow all the conversation on IRC. But if people are trying to help you and need to ask you a few questions, please try to answer them all. If you get asked three questions and only answer one, or keep asking the same question time and again (showing that you don't read what you get asked) you risk being ignored. Show some initiative and your problem will likely be fixed within a few minutes.

Tell others about the solution

It doesn't help anyone if you just say "Nevermind, found it." and quit the channel. Please tell the others what the solution to your problem was so everybody can learn from it. You will not look stupid.

Not everybody is an expert

When getting responses be careful about who you trust. Some people just want to feel important and reply to you although they have no more clue than you do. Some people are even jokers who want to be funny by telling you how to erase your harddisk.

See also:

-- ChristophHaas 2005-10-14 21:19:12 (original at