Why didn’t you search before asking the question? Or, how to fix the online photography community

Some weeks ago a recent film photographer interviewee of mine reminded me of a problem that feels old as film photography itself: the negative way in which certain genuine requests for information are handled. You can read my sign-off in the link below for some initial thoughts on this but in case you don’t want to break your flow, here’s the comment made by Ejatu Shaw in interview #214:

“There’s a slightly elitist air to film photography which can often put people off, especially when it comes to what gear/cameras/film stocks are deemed respectable. The technical side of things also. I’ve often been ridiculed when asking around about f stops, how to shoot with flash, or how to scan my film etc. There’s this general assumption that you should just already know how to do everything and it isn’t cool – we were all beginners at some point.”


Ejatu’s comments got me thinking why certain questions are ridiculed, what those kinds of responses say about the online communities they’re posted in and what (if anything) can be done about them. For clarity, I use the terms, groups, forums and community/ies interchangeably below. When I say “community” I do not mean the entire community, just subsets of groups or collectives on social media platforms and internet forums. Here’s what I cover:

Please also be aware that while I this article focuses on film/traditional photography, the topics I discuss here can be applied as easily to digital photography or pretty much anything else. If there’s a community built around a topic, this article provides specific actionable points you can use to improve it.


A universally frustrating response

I’d like to think that every single one of you reading this can relate to Ejatu’s frustration in some way or another, especially those of you who’ve recently come to or come back to film photography. It’s not the first time I’ve heard or directly experienced such a sentiment and there’s one specific reply that bugs me the most. You know the kind I’m talking about:

“You should have search the group before asking this. This question gets asked at least X times a week.”

It gets my back up and is a subject Hamish Gill and I recently bought up in our Hypersensitive Photographers podcast.


Look, I get it. Multiple questions around the same (simple?) subjects can get frustrating for regular members/readers/contributors but there are better ways to deal with them than the example above. To my mind, every time someone ridicules, deflects or is just plain rude in reply beginner or frequently asked questions, an opportunity to share, engage and encourage is lost. Worse still, the community is damaged. Responses like the one above are the antithesis of community and serve a no purpose other than diminishing the reason every single such group/forum was created to do: share knowledge and nurture community.

All this got me thinking. Who or what is to blame and what, if anything, can be done to fix it. Is it the fault of the person searching for help? Is it’s the person/people posting the negative replies? Could it be the very nature of the groups and forums the questions are posted in? Here’s a controversial thought in two parts.

Part one: it’s everyone’s fault apart from the person asking the question.
Part two: as a member of one or many of these online communities it’s your responsibility — our responsibility — to fix it.

How can you help improve the community

Focusing your effort on three pretty simple points is all it takes and they’re nearly as easy to do as they are to say:

1) Reduce friction
Make useful information easier to find and digest.

2) Engage, engage, engage
Create discussions which help improve the community. Ask questions, ask for feedback, encourage engagement.

3) Set and maintain tone
The way you engage helps define the language other people use and thus the wider community.

In further detail:


Reduce friction: being able to surface information is crucial

Think about it. If different people keep asking the same questions it means the answers are not easily surfaced in the group or forum. By this I mean that the information may exist — especially if people are crying out to the poster to “search first and ask later” — but it’s likely to be buried in threads that a) take time to discover and b) require an awareness of the right keywords to use.

Remember: terminology is not something beginners in any field are familiar with. In addition, people requesting help may not be using English as their first language. If you can name every single part and function of every single camera you own in exquisite detail and talk in highly specific terms about them you’re likely the community’s 0.1%. The same goes for film stocks and development/printing – EI vs ISO, anyone? The rest of us rely on being able to surface information online either through existing resources or discussion.

The information is there. Make it easier to find. Here’s how.

Po-tay-toh, po-tah-toh…

Back in March 2019 I was involved in a long thread on a Facebook group I run called Film Photography Chat. The thread was started by David Allen and talking about the trichromie technique. I tried to find the thread again some weeks later and realised that not one single comment or reply had used the term I was searching for, “trichrome” (note the missing “i”).

David’s an American living in France and understandably, he used the French term in his post, not the internationalised version, let alone the version I had searched for. Three ways to describe the same thing. Funnily, Wikipedia redirects Trichromie to Trichromy when you switch from French to English.

Anyway, the solution to my search problem? I recently found the post and added the related terms as a comment and the thread can now be found using any of them.

Better online community organisation

You can use the “add a comment” approach in any Facebook group you are a member of. If you’re creating a new post yourself, you also have the option to add a post topic, which can make it easier for group administrators and moderators to collect and bundle posts in the future.

Adding wider context via comments is one approach. Another, more comprehensive one is the creation of documentation that will help everyone, from beginners and those with frequently asked questions to experienced photographers looking for a quick check. You can create and store files, documents and/or pin/sticky threads on pretty much every single modern internet forum and Facebook group. If you’re a member and you notice your forum/group doesn’t have a quick reference guide, FAQ or similar section/document/stickied thread, create one yourself.


If you need help because you’re not a mod/admin of the group, get in touch with someone who is and ask. Trust me, requests to help are rarely ignored and if they are, that’s probably more worrying signal. I’m not going to sugar-coat it, organising/housekeeping in an existing community is a resource-intensive task. You’re going to need to mobilise others and obtain their assistance as well as put in some hard work yourself. The rewards will be worth it.

Start by collecting links to a few threads that you think will be useful. If you’re on an internet forum, ask a mod to pin/sticky the thread. If you’re on Facebook, check for “Files” or “Units” in the group’s sidebar to see if there’s something already there. See the screenshot below. As you can see, I’m in the process of cleaning my own house as I write about how you can clean yours.

If you can’t find anything, get in touch with a mod. You can find them under the “Members” tab. Send tell them what you’re up to and ask for their help. You could use something like this in a DM:

Hi, I’m collecting links to threads from the group I think will be useful to new members and beginners. Can you help me create a document I can add the information to?

If it’s easier, I can send you the text to paste into one yourself.

It doesn’t have to be War and Peace and to be fair, it shouldn’t be. Keep it simple.

Internet forums will be slightly different but the process of finding these kinds of resources and creating them without mod/admin rights is the same. Search for them. If you can’t find them, get in touch with an admin/mod. Sadly for Twitter users, these kinds of feature don’t exist there but there’s still a way you can do something: Lists. From your desktop/laptop, click on the Lists menu item and tap the new list icon. Give your list a name, description and set the privacy. Once you’ve created the list you can add other useful Twitter accounts to it and post its link in a tweet. Not ideal but it’s better than nothing.

Engage, engage, engage: do your bit

This is the fun bit. Just do what comes naturally. Create posts and discussions which help improve the community, ask questions, give answers, ask for feedback. Get people talking and you’ll be encouraging both engagement and new members.


I fully understand the allure of lurking and I’ll admit that there are several groups I’m a member of where that’s all I do save for the occasional like or comment. That said, I’m a member/owner of another half a dozen that I do actively participate in, both on the posting/discussion side and helping to maintain group quality.

Speaking to those “search first and ask later” types of comments, it’s worth remembering that people discover these groups/forums through search/recommendation and very rarely post a question based on the first link they click on in search results. The vast majority of the time, people posting simple or rudimentary questions will have done so after already searching for an answer. They will have come to said group/forum to ask the question because they have not been able to find an answer. Yes, laziness can sometimes be a factor but it’s more the exception than the rule in my opinion.

What can you do about those kinds of questions?

This goes back to improving how information can be surfaced and how you engage. If your group already has an FAQ or similar link/document, post a link to it. You could ask the poster a follow-up question or post a link to a 3rd party website. You could even just give them the answer (shock!)

What I’m trying to say is that there are more agreeable (and beneficial) ways of saying “search first and ask later“. For example: “Here’s a link to XYZ article. There’s loads of information in the group, try searching for ABC term.” Some of you reading this may consider the above to be unnecessary sugar or “not saying it like it is“. It’s simple human decency.

Analogy time:

Example 1: You’re in a local shopping mall heading over to buy a new TV, clothes, shoes, whatever. Another customer comes up to you and asks if you know where they can buy a power tool. You know the answer but annoyingly it’s the second time someone has asked you for help since you arrived. You tell them to “go check the directory first, then come back and ask me” instead of giving them an answer – even though you know where they need to go.

Example 2: You’re in a shopping mall in a strange town. You need to buy a new power cord. The mall felt like your best chance after checking out a few other stores but you’re not 100% sure what you need – a straight-up extension, multi-socket, something with surge protection, all of the above plus a UPS…? You need some help. You walk up to the first friendly-looking person you see and ask them where you can find the power tools because they must also sell extension leads, right? They gruffly tell you to look at the mall directory and then go back to find them if they can’t find an answer.

For the sake of everyone, I implore you to try and deal with discussion online using the same basic respect and mental toolkit you would employ in real life. It’s easier than you think to not be an ass online. No-one like an ass. Don’t be an ass.


Speaking of asses…

Set and maintain tone: bullies and gatekeepers

Anyone who follows EMULSIVE on Twitter or listens to my (awful) podcast with 35mmc’s Hamish Gill will know we’ve got a strong disregard for bullies and gatekeeping. You might feel like you’ve never come across anything of the sort in the groups/forums you frequent and if that’s the case, I congratulate you on either being lucky in the circles you travel in or – more likely I’m afraid – not the typical recipient of this kind of treatment.

Maintaining group quality is just as important as engagement. If you see something wrong or not quite right do something about it. If you’re not the confrontational type, report it to the admins (there’s normally a button to do just that). I’m the type of person that will more often than not initially confront negativity and trolls. It’s not healthy but there are certain things I simply can’t let go of, regardless of how much I try. Negative responses to genuine requests for help ultimately contribute towards:

  • Alienating the poster making it less likely they’ll ask again or engage in your group.
  • Increased group tension.
  • A reinforced belief that the film photography community is solely populated by arrogant, pompous and grumpy old men who wouldn’t know a Tic Tac from the dried garden peas stuck in their unkempt beards.
  • Reducing future interaction from new and experienced photographers alike by reinforcing a mentality of “no stupid questions”.
  • Diminishing the value of the forum (in the Roman sense, not specifically internet forums) the question is being posted in.

It’s death by a thousand cuts. The overall quality of the community diminishes and without a change of attitude, you are left with one or a combination of the following:

  • Low to zero true interaction.
  • A handful of diehard posters/commenters.
  • An echo chamber where new topics are rarely visited and the same conversations happen in cycles.

You can see these “zombie communities” and forums all over the internet, from Flickr to Facebook to internet forums and beyond. I won’t name names but you can easily find them for yourself; look for forums with adverts covering activities from 5-10 years ago or Facebook groups with a few thousand members but zero discussion.

I know of several online communities where even experienced, active members of the group preface their questions/requests for information with statements like, “I know I should know this but…” and “Sorry for the super-noob question but…” Ask yourself if having to justify a request for information with a caveat like that is a healthy thing. It doesn’t sound healthy to me.

Avoid bullies and trolls – by engaging you just amplify their message, so remove them from the conversation by ignoring them. If you have to engage, do so carefully. It’s easy to lash out (as I have done myself so many times).

Recap/takeaways

It feels like I’ve gone on for long enough, even though I’ve barely scratched the surface. Writing this has helped me to realise gaps in the online communities I spend time in as well as those I have created. Some takeaways for you:


  • If you are in an online group/forum/community and you see simple/beginner questions, help.
  • Point the user in the direction of a thread you know answers the question.
  • Better still point them in the direction of community-curated FAQ content.
  • If no documentation exists, help to create it.
  • ENGAGE and offer your assistance.
  • Do not be an ass.
  • Remember, you were there once. Thousands of people stand behind you in that very same position. Think about the support you received or would like to have received and go from there.

If you see a glut of the same questions being asked, speak to the group admins and do something about it to help. If you can’t be a mentor, you can still support the process and reach out to admins/moderators to ask their help to create a “beginners” of FAQ of some sort.

As a simple member of an online group, forum or community, you might think of yourself as another cog in the wheel but what you do — even the smallest of acts — helps to define the whole thing. One person can make a difference and that person can be you.

I hope you found this useful and that you’ll consider taking some of my suggestions here into the online groups and communities you frequent. I know I’m not a lone voice shouting in concern for the health and quality of our online communities. Every single positive voice and action helps.

There’s no such thing as a perfect community. It takes hard work and time but we can share the load and help elevate the conversation. I hope you’ll join me in doing that.

~ EM

Ps. This is obviously not a cure-all and does not address absolutely every pain point our community has – how could it when there’s no such thing as a “completely fixed” community? What I hope is that through this jumble of thoughts, others will consider the (small) things they can do to help elevate discussion and interaction around them. We need to realise that the responsibility to make our community better lies with all of us and pass that same mentality on to new members.

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EM
EMhttps://emulsive.org
I'm EM, founder, overlord and editor-in-chief here at EMULSIVE.org, as well as all-round benevolent gestalt entity. Contrary to popular belief, I am not an AI.

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9 COMMENTS

  1. This is something that regularly irritates me – the search functions for forums and Reddit leave a LOT to be desired, and often, you can search for an hour and STILL not fine anything to do with what you were looking for. Even the ‘see this first’ pinned threads can be full of irrelevant stuff. Son, I’m in my damn lunch hour, don’t get at me for spending almost all of it searching with the right terms and not finding the right answer because the search function is a polished turd.

    ‘Do not be an ass’ is such an important point!

  2. I totally agree with this and I will always be happy to help and respond again and again to some questions.
    But on the other side, some trolls/time waster are more and more difficult to identify. Also, for some questions I really don’t understand why people are not using Google to get a much more quicker answer. “How do I remove the grid on my Canon 700d?“ I mean using people to do research for you is not really something I find nice. But it works, always someone willing to do it, so it won’t stop!

  3. I love this article. I might also add that since the film photography re-emergence, there are new people getting interested every day, as you’ve mentioned. SO, you can bet 150th person asking why the shutter on their A-1 squeaks – if they get a positive response – will be the FIRST person to reply next time the question is asked. It will help them feel like part of the community and give them re-enforcement that they are “getting somewhere” with their hobby, and it will give the poor, tired veterans a chance to rest their poor, tired hands from copy/pasting that YouTube link.

    • “SO, you can bet 150th person asking why the shutter on their A-1 squeaks – if they get a positive response – will be the FIRST person to reply next time the question is asked.” Damned straight, Chris.

  4. Good article – all in favour of tackling these issues with organisation and generosity. One small addition – some folks on forums and discussion groups are as interested in the visible social interaction as in than the actual topic so may well ask a basic question just to get into a conversation.

  5. Having been on the receiving end of the problem (let’s call it) on more than one occasion, I find this a very timely intervention. I have myself disengaged from blogs/miss-named “communities” for the very reasons you draw attention to and once because of the vulgar rudeness of the responder. Well done. I think one might also mention those who make no acknowledgment of one’s query let alone fail to reply usefully.


    Trevor

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