Whether you’re new to IT or you’ve been around since token ring networks were popular, you’ve probably searched a forum for answers to a problem. Online forums have been around in one form or another since newsgroups were popular. Many people today rely on Google to surface answers to IT problems, especially if you run into a specific error message. A few weeks ago I was getting an iTunes 4013 error message when I tried to backup my son’s iPhone. A quick Google search told me I was using a defective USB cable.
Forums, The Value For Software/Hardware Support
But what about issues that arise that don’t come with an error message? Maybe a certain business application can’t connect to the internet or an employee is unable to connect to a network share running Ubuntu 16.04. A few months ago, I wanted to disable the Windows 10 upgrade nag screen on my son’s computer. Today Google links to a number of helpful articles, but when I search a while back, there wasn’t a lot of helpful information available. I finally found the answer at Tom’s Hardware forum.
This week, I’d like to take a look at a few of my favorite forums. We’ve all used Microsoft Support or TechNet. When I deployed Cisco equipment I relied heavily on the Cisco Support Community. If you have a service agreement with a company that’s always a great place to start because they have a big incentive to assist you. But there are times when the issue isn’t urgent or you’d like to discuss options with your peers. This is where forums shine. I’ve found a handful of forums I turn to for answers as well as keeping up on the latest news and developments in IT. There’s no such thing as the perfect forum, but here are four of my favorites:
I spend far too much time on the forums at Tom’s Hardware. It’s organized by main topics such as hardware, software, IT Pro, Networking and Mobility. Each main topic includes a handful of subtopics which makes it very helpful to jump to questions about motherboards, for example. One thing I appreciate about the forums at Tom’s Hardware is how most questions are written in plain english which makes it an excellent choice for those starting out. You’ll find answers to advanced questions here, but you won’t find a lot of blowhards answering questions with 1200 word epistles.
Answers here can be voted up or down depending on their helpfulness. Search is adequate yet is heavily reliant on tagging which can be hit or miss. Tags can prove to be incredibly helpful though as I’ve been guided to the answer I need using the “related article” section at the end of each page. I use Tom’s Hardware to search for answering, but I also spend quite a bit of time reading various threads. Lately I’ve been following a thread about Intel rumors that’s full of fascinating information, yet has never spiraled into name calling or machismo like I’ve seen happen in other forums. I’m sure the forums are moderated to some degree, but it doesn’t feel overly strict.
Overall, I enjoy the forums at Tom’s Hardware, and I don’t have many complaints. I find myself enlarging the text whenever I visit, and I wish the search results were a little less cluttered, but those are minor issues. The forums are not flushed after a certain period of time, as best I can tell, so it’s wise to check the dates on articles because I’ve found some were a few years old. If your job requires a lot of hardware research, this is a great forum to bookmark.
The Spiceworks community has a modern feel to it and doesn’t look like a traditional forum. It has a substantial community (over 6 million members) behind it along with a company that makes IT helpdesk software supporting it financially. I was skeptical at first, wondering how a company with financial obligations could grow a community without it feeling heavy-handed, but they’ve done it. You’ll find plenty of IT topics from which to choose, but you’ll also find a more casual and communal approach to forums here. You might find an article about mobile encryption followed by an article about the best office prank you’ve ever witnessed. It’s an odd mix of questions and characters that gives Spiceworks its personality, and it hope it doesn’t change.
Spiceworks doesn’t look like most forums which is both good and bad. I spent a while learning what information is hidden around the site. If one area keeps me coming back outside the forums, it’s the product reviews. Here you’ll find a mix of vendors and users with personal experience with the products reviewed. I don’t mind seeing vendors or companies who can answer questions as long as they aren’t pushy. You can also request a quote from up to five vendors from within the product review section.
I love the serendipity of Spiceworks. I enjoy perusing the frontpage for interesting topics and inevitably come across a question that’s relevant to my job. The way the front page is organized means that hot IT topics trend higher giving it a feel of urgency and timeliness not found in other forums. If you are hooked on following the trending topics on Twitter, you’ll feel right at home on Spiceworks. I spend the most time at Spiceworks because I feel most at home. You won’t find any “inside baseball” attitude at Spiceworks either.
You might be asking why I included a forum for developers on this list, but I’ve found answers to a number of IT related questions at Stack Overflow. It’s mostly dives deep into developer and program related topics, but there’s a lot of excellent information about scripting, security, and mobile to be found as well. One thing you’ll notice about Stack Overflow is its simplicity in presentation and efficiency in answers. Questions can be voted up or down, and those answering questions can earn reputation points.
The forums here are very active with over 4.7 million users. The site’s simplicity can make it feel unwelcome to new visitors so I recommend taking a look at the “hot” questions listed down the right side of the page to get started. This is a community where spending some time as a lurker will come in handy because it does have its own set of cultural guidelines. Tags are used heavily, and I’ve found its search results to be incredibly accurate. I like being able to filter my search results by relevance, newest, most active or number of votes received. Stack nails search and you’ll wonder why other sites don’t copy their implementation.
Stack Overflow doesn’t include many traditional IT topics that you’ll find at forums at Tom’s Hardware or Spiceworks, and that’s its biggest downside. But you’ll probably find it helpful if your job includes some scripting or programming work. Even if you just modify code you’ll find a lot of value here.
The neat thing about it is, it’s not just one forum. Stack Exchange is a network of 156 Q&A sites just like Stack Overflow, that cover topics ranging from network engineering, server fault and web applications to mathematics, travel, movies and database issues.
Quora has been around since 2009, but only took off a few years ago. I still talk to people in technology who haven’t heard of Quora. let alone used it. And that’s a shame because it’s one of the most useful sites out there. It’s basically a site where one can ask any type of question, and many are IT related. It’s not the first place one would search for a quick answer. But if you have a very detailed question and can wait a few days for an answer it’s incredible.
Quora has a high level of moderation, in my experience. Questions and answers will aggressively be edited for spelling and clarity. Occasionally a question will be combined with a similar question that’s already been answers. For these and other reasons, Quora requires a little more patience than some forums.
This is the ideal place to learn about what people think about Microsoft’s strategy for giving away Windows 10. Some Quora users will spend not just hours, but days crafting answers to questions. I’m not kidding. The best answers get voted up, and Quora takes special care in highlighting its most valued contributors. Quora can be an acquired taste, and if you don’t like a high level of moderator involvement then Quote won’t be to your liking.
But I find Quora interesting and helpful for many of the reasons it turns off some users: thoughtful questions mixed with very high quality answers. I recommend spending some time lurking on Quora before you jump in and begin asking or answering questions. When I first started on Quora back in 2010, I made the mistake of asking a couple of questions that had already been answered. I’ve learned to perform a thorough search before starting a new thread. I often refer to Quora as the Apple of forums with all the good and bad that reflects.
These are the four forums I use most frequently. One site I’m not including really isn’t a forum at all but it’s so incredibly addicting, I’m going to mention it: Hacker News. It’s a stream of great topics, relating to programming, IT and technology. It feels more like Reddit than a forum. I find it addicting because the topics change frequently, and those near the top capture the Zeitgeist of technology.
I’m interested to hear what forum you find most valuable. It seems like every four to six years, I cycle through another batch of forums in my bookmarks. But I feel the ones I listed above will last longer, especially Spiceworks and Quora.
What is your favorite IT forum?