the spread the (data) science of sports

How to ask for (and receive) help from strangers on the internet

Wed 23 September 2015

One of the purposes of this site is to help people learn more about data science and how they can think more rigorously about sports analytics. I've made a conscious effort to be approachable and offer up my time and energy to teach others. I even wrote a guide to getting started in data science that received and continues to receive a decent amount of traffic. I get a lot of emails asking for help. Sometimes this is more rewarding than other times.

With this in mind, I thought I'd offer up some suggestions on how to ask strangers for help on the internet and how to maximize the chances that those strangers will respond favorably. Pretty much no one that you're writing to is getting paid to answer your questions, and they're using their valuable free time to do so.

  1. RTMP.
  2. Be nice.
  3. Say thank you. More than once if necessary.
  4. Don't ask lots of unsolicited follow-ups.


This is my own kinder, gentler version of the more common RTFM. It stands for read the manual please. I've written a lot of posts about data science both relating to and not relating to football. Did you check and make sure I haven't covered this topic already? You can do a custom Google search. It would save us both a lot of time.

That being said, the reason I chose the more forgiving RTMP instead of RTFM is that I remember being a beginner and the frustrating feeling of not knowing what to search for because I didn't know the right words yet. That's OK. The R-help mailing list is famously mean, and it discourages a lot of people just getting started. Documentation is often written for people who already know how to use the software or method. Help files are really hard to write. Have you ever looked at the Wikipedia entries for most statistical topics? Yeah.

Be nice.

The fact that I have to even say this makes me a little depressed. When you ask for help, make sure you ask nicely. If your email signals "probably not going to say thanks" or "didn't make an effort to write a decent email" to me, I probably won't answer it.

Say thank you. More than once if necessary.

You would be surprised (or maybe you wouldn't be) how many people I write detailed responses to, only to have the message disappear into the ether with nary a response. Are you freaking kidding me? I just spent ten minutes of my Saturday morning responding to a stranger's question and they can't respond with a simple thank you? This really burns me up and has led me to consider not answering email questions more than once.

Don't be an asshole. Say thank you. Do it initially with your question ("thanks in advance for any help you can provide!") and once the question has been answered.

Don't ask lots of unsolicited follow-ups.

So you read the manual, you were nice, and you got a response! Congratulations. You just got asked for and received help from a stranger on the internet. But wait, you have follow-up questions or something in the answer wasn't clear. What to do? It's fine to ask a follow-up question. However, don't start down new lines of questioning or send five follow-up questions or assume that because we now have an open channel of communication, I'm on call for your technical support. Often I will end an email with "please let me know if this isn't clear or you have any more questions." This is an invitation to write back if you need it. If I end an email with "best of luck", I'm letting you know this conversation is over for me.


Of course most of this is common sense. I just don't want to turn into one of those embittered people that doesn't answer emails or respond to questions because I've been mistreated so often. People that answer your questions and people that teach are providing a public, free service. Respond in kind.

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