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How to ask for help on IRC

· 3 min read

Hi. Hello? Anyone there? My server broke, can anyone help?

As a regular IRC user, I've seen this message many times. I've also seen the hateful responses these intrusions generate. IRC is an older communication form (relative to the Internet), mostly inhabited by those who've used it for decades, and are set in their ways.

IRC is also where you'll find large communities of people all interested in specific topics, usually tech-related. If you're an expert on MySQL, Ubuntu Linux, Python, etc, you're most likely found in #TOPIC on at least one IRC network.

Which is why there are newcomers everyday, logging on to seek the wisdom of these software gurus. If you're one of them, this post is for you; the IRC amateur who's venturing to Freenode or OFTC for the first time to ask for some much-needed help.

The 5 Rules of IRC

Rule 1: Get to the point

Don't say "hello" and wait for a response before asking your question. In real world conversations this is polite, but on IRC people want you to get to the point. Instead you say "Hello. I need help with X". Which brings me to...

Rule 2: Give us the Facts, Jack!

If you're having a problem and asking for help, the more relevant information you give, the easier it will be for people to help. It's important to also specify your end goal, not just where you think the problem is.

If you say "X stopped working, what's wrong?", you'll be met with scorn. Instead: "I'm working on X, version Y, specifically the Z setting, where I changed Blah to Bleh in an attempt to achieve RESULT. When I restarted the application, I got this exact error:" and then a link to your output. Which brings up...

Rule 3: No Terminal Output

Do not paste large output into IRC. There are so many better places to put large blocks of text, and countless link shorteners to make it easy. IRC is for the conversation, use something else to store the data. And speaking of conversation...

Rule 4: Stop Spamming the Enter Button

I spend my days mostly in #linode on OFTC, where my most often-used bot command is:

<alexf> !cr <linbot> IRC supports complete sentences. Less <CR> more content, please.

If you treat IRC like a text message conversation, I probably hate you sight unseen.  Take your time, write out your entire thought, and then hit enter.

Finally, and most importantly...

Rule 5: Be Patient

I see it all the time. Someone comes into the channel, breaks rules 1, 2, and probably 4, then leaves within one minute. Just because there are 400 people in the channel doesn't mean that anyone is paying attention right this moment.

If you follow rules 1 through 4 someone will probably help you, but you need to wait for them to notice. Any decent IRC client will "highlight" when your nickname is spoke, so make sure it's configured to alert you and then go about your business.

These are the rules, as I see them, to asking for help on IRC. Disagree? Have any rules to add? Let me know below.

EDIT 1: Modified #2 based on a suggestion from millisa on OFTC.