Do you want to find the right answer online? Stop posting questions.

So goes Cunningham's Law, a counter-intuitive assertion that the best way to find the right answer online is to post something wrong and then get corrected. The law is named after Ward Cunningham, the pioneering computer programmer who developed the first Wiki site (WikiWikiWeb).

The concept of Cunningham's Law has turned into a popular internet adage ("the best way to get a right answer on the internet is to post a wrong answer"), even becoming a t-shirt.

Pioneering American computer programmer, Ward Cunningham By Carrigg Photography for the Wikimedia Foundation (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Given how often we use the web to post questions, Cunningham's Law presents a challenge to our assumptions of why people online offer advice and answers. Following the logic of Cunningham's Law, the motivation to correct a wrong online may be greater than a more altruistic supplying of an answer to a question.

In other words, we get excited by correcting people online. We may not have the same level of desire to merely be helpful.

xkcd: Duty Calls [Fair Use]

Cunningham's Law, and what it says about how we act online, is reminiscent of studies that have shown people more likely to share negative customer service experience online than good experiences. In both situations, the communicator gets to right a perceived wrong.

While we are still in the early stages of understanding how and why we act online, Cunningham's Law points to a classic motivational problem: What is my incentive for doing this?

What is My Incentive to Give an Answer Online?

Time is a finite resource that we commonly complain we are short on. The process of answering a question online, however, takes away some of that precious time. In addition, the very structure of an online community may touch upon a feeling of diluted responsibility, since there are potentially many other users that could help answer a question.

If you are not being paid to do something, there has to be another source of motivation. If Cunningham's Law is correct, an opportunity to show someone their lack of knowledge may be more enticing than merely filling the blank to one's question. This is similar in nature to a recent University of Michigan study found that people who commonly correct the typos of others are not always motivated by benevolent linguistic concerns. 

Are We More Excited to Correct People than Help Them with Answers?

One major distinction between a wrong answer and an unanswered question is the difference between misinformation and a mere lack of information. Seeing misinformation online may trigger an impulse towards action--we have to correct a mistake!--that is far more time-sensitive than supplying an answer to a question. The former is taking away bad, while the later is adding a good.

Just last week I was able to see Cunningham's Law in action for an article I wrote. Misstating the number of mandated vacation days in the UK for full-time workers, a commentator on Facebook within minutes supplied the right answer. The article was corrected. If I had merely posted, "How many mandated vacation days do full-time employees in the UK get?," the query would likely have been met with yawns and, "Why are you asking me? Google it." 

But if Google won't do, you can quickly get a right answer online by posting the wrong one.

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