Most of the people savvy enough to be reading an Apple tech blog are probably the ones who get asked a lot of computer-related questions by family and friends. Perhaps you provided tech support over the holidays. But what happens when you have a question? Who can you ask for help?
My favorite spot for Apple Q&A is Ask Different, which is part of the Stack Exchange network of sites. I’ve only been using it for a few months, but unlike all of the other “help forums” I have used in the past, this is one I return to almost every day, because it’s better.
Most web forums are horribly ugly. Posts are crammed full of animated GIF signatures and a whole bunch of irrelevant information about the user. Many have huge distracting ads which are inserted in-between questions and answers. Discussion threads can go on for pages and pages, making it difficult to find any good information among the cruft.
Ask Different is clean and straightforward: a question at the top of each page, and answers below. Good answers get voted up, bad answers get voted down. Users can have their own “avatar” but other than that, the only other information you’ll see is “reputation data.” More on that in a moment.
More importantly, it is not a discussion forum, it is a place to ask questions and get answers, hopefully so that the next time someone has a similar question, they can find the page where it was asked and find the information they need.
Most web forums are also notoriously horrible for the trolling, flame wars, and related nonsense. Ask Different has administrators and moderators who not only help keep order, they will even edit questions for clarity, as well as make suggestions on how questions can be improved. If a question is deemed off-topic, it is closed. The end result is a much nicer experience than any other forum I have ever used.
When you first join the site, you will have only very basic privileges, such as asking or answering a question. As your reputation increases, you will gain the ability to do more things on the site. Your reputation data is posted alongside your question and answer. If you ask a good question, it will get voted up, and your “reputation” will increase. Provide a good answer, it too can be voted up (not only by the person who asked the question, but also by others who read it), and your reputation will increase.
If you want to join Ask Different, you probably won’t even have to make a new login. You can use your Gmail, Facebook, Yahoo, AOL, WordPress, Blogger, LiveJournal, or any other Open ID login. (If you want to make a separate Stack Exchange login, you can do that too.) Just head over to their login page and you can be up and running in a few minutes. (Note that Stack Exchange uses Gravatar for avatars, so if you want your own picture on your account, you’ll need to connect it to a Gravatar account.) Your account will work across the entire Stack Exchange family of sites. Once you are there, take a look at questions with no official answer yet or post one of your own.
With so many bad web forums out there, you might have given up on ever finding a useful one. Trust me, I understand, I use Google Chrome’s personal blacklist to block search results from several of them. Ask Different is truly useful, and it will only get better with more people who are willing to share their knowledge.
Also, just a little heads up that if you don’t have an Ask Different/Stack Exchange account yet, you might want to get a head-start and set one up soon, because we have a little something planned for next week. All I can tell you right now is that it will only be for TUAW readers, and you’ll need an account on Ask Different to be able to participate.