Monday, April 20, 2009

The Death of Email Questions

One of my policies is not to answer questions from people about SQL Server in email. That includes emails to me, the webmaster, or in private messages. It’s not that I want to be a jerk, but I have a couple reasons.

  1. I’m busy, and if you need custom help, you ought to pay for consulting. One on one answering is time consuming, and it leads, or has for me, to a regular amount of “you’re my expert now” follow ups.
  2. It’s inefficient. I rarely have people ask questions that are unique. If you have the question, likely others have it as well. Let them see your issue, and more importantly, the answer.

I have a standard signature that I paste into email questions, either directly to me, via Private Message on the site, or the webmaster inbox. It directs people to the forums politely, letting them know email isn’t the appropriate place.

Not everyone feels this way, and I know some people on the site will take questions in email, or direct a people to email for more detailed follow up. I get that, and if you want to do it, that’s fine. However it’s not something I think is widespread, and I think fewer and fewer people use email.


I think some of it is the overload of email, especially SPAM, that makes people shy away from more. However I think that both me and the MVP program in the Microsoft space are partially to blame as well. The MVP program looks at contributions from people to the community, and a lot of the awardees depend on regularly answering questions in forums like SQLServerCentral and MSDN to prove they are helping the community. That means that every question they answer in email is one less point they get to the community at large.

Why me? I have been giving a presentation on branding over the last year, encouraging people to build a bit of a brand for themselves. I don’t address this, but reading between the lines, if you want to build a brand for prospective employers to see, you don’t want your work to be private, as in private email conversations.

Is it a problem? After all, I don’t answer things in email. I’m not sure. For me it is, since I can’t handle a large volume of questions in email, and I’m trying to continue to promote and build my community. In doing that, I push people to the community and public asking (and answering) of questions.

However there’s a drawback. Not everyone wants to post publically. There are people that don’t want to post something since they think they’re showcasing their ignorance. Or they’re private people. Or they just don’t trust advice they get from some anonymous person on the web. I have friends that IM or email me directly with SQL questions. They want “the Steve Jones answer", which might not necessarily be the best thing.

I get that, and I try to push them to post, saying I’ll answer in a forum. Or that they aren’t stupid for posting.

I don’t know how things will evolve. The advent of social networking, with real time questions and answers on Twitter, semi-private networks like Linked In and Facebook, means that there’s a push to be more social and more open online. That’s not for everyone, and I worry that those people who are more private as losing out.

Not because they don’t participate, but because less people are willing to help them.

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