Learn New Skills for Free: The Power of Forums

by Carlos Portocarrero on 13 October 2011 5 comments

Learning a new skill is hard. Whether it’s becoming a better cook  or trying to build your own computer, your success rate will improve if you have some help. (See also: 6 Ways to Get Paid to Learn)

That can be expensive — taking classes or hiring someone to help will cost you. But there’s an old-school kind of social media that can help. It isn't talked about very much since it isn’t Twitter or Facebook or Foursquare (ugh).

I’m talking about the good-ol' fashioned forum.

What’s a Forum?

A forum is simply a place where people gather to discuss a common topic. If you’re trying to learn it, I guarantee there’s a decent forum out there of like-minded people talking about everything from growing your own tomatoes to trimming your cat’s whiskers. (Forums are better suited for DIY-ish things like setting up a home theater, growing your own herbs, and around-the-house repairs. For things like learning a new language and perfecting a sport, you're probably better off taking classes.)

The reason forums are so helpful is because they’re filled with people that are knowledgeable and passionate about the topic. Some are like you — they’re there to learn new things. Others are more experienced and can share their tips on how they learned. Then you have the veterans. These people are subject-matter experts and pretty much know everything there is to know about the topic.

Some are even professionals.

You put a collection of experts and newbies together in one place and you end up with a few things:

Lots of Knowledge

Browsing forums is a great way to get learn the basics.

A Place to Ask Questions

Asking questions (and getting them answered in a timely manner) is probably the coolest part of participating in a forum. It’s like Twitter, but everyone here is focused on this one, narrow topic.

Network

Sure, it’s just online, but if you hang out long enough and participate, these people will eventually become part of your network, which is always valuable.

How to Use a Forum to Learn New Things

My experience with forums has been great, as long as you follow a few rules:

Do Your Research

Don’t just join and start demanding questions because you want a quick fix. It will piss everyone off. Make sure you read any threads that are “pinned” to the top of a forum and search (you may have to register for this) thoroughly for your question, since it’s probably been answered already.

Learn the Language

Know the words people use relative to the topic. If I went into a computer-building forum and asked how I can install the video thingy, people would dismiss me right away. Learn the vocab — it’ll make the communication smoother. You should be able to pick all this up in the forum during the research phase — just make sure you get it before you start posting!

Say Please and Thank You

You should do this everywhere in life, but especially in forums. People are being generous with their time and their knowledge, so thank them accordingly. It goes a long way.

I’ve had great experiences with forums. Anandtech helped me figure out the hardware for my last desktop. XDA Developers guided me through the process of rooting my phone. And the Build Your Own PVR forum has given me a wealth of information about how to build my own personal video recorder.

Could I have figured all this out by researching the web? Sure, but there’s nothing like several informed voices helping you out instead of just reading what one person thinks on a website. I highly recommend you try it out.

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Guest's picture

You should definitely get the lay of the land before throwing out a question. Search and search again and then, search once more using Google narrowed down to the forum. Nothing more annoying than a new user asking a question that's easily found in search.

Pay attention to the conventions as well. For the Q&A sites like Stack Exchange, they don't take kindly to people saying "Thanks" when they have votes and checkmarks to keep the place clean and information up front.

Carlos Portocarrero's picture

Yeah I learned this the hard way when I was younger. You stumble into a forum and you want an answer now now now so you carelessly post a new questions and you get flamed for now doing even a tiny bit of research.

Not a good first impression if you really want to stay around and learn the nuances of whatever it is!

Guest's picture
Alden

Thanks for posting this! We actually just launched a forum on money topics TODAY at LearnVest called LV Discussions. You should check it out: http://www.learnvest.com/discussions/

Guest's picture

Can I use some of the content from your site on mine? I will make sure to link back to it :)

Carlos Portocarrero's picture

No problem Stacy, go right ahead!