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Warnock's Dilemma

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It can be important to consider Warnock's Dilemma when trying to determine why a community doesn't seem to be actively responding to posts. Warnock's Dilemma is the situation described by Bryan Warnock in an August 2000 post to a Usenet group:


"The problem with no response is that there are five possible interpretations:

  1. 'The post is correct, well-written information that needs no follow-up commentary. There's nothing more to say except "Yeah, what he said."
  2. 'The post is complete and utter nonsense, and no one wants to waste the energy or bandwidth to even point this out.
  3. 'No one read the post, for whatever reason.
  4. 'No one understood the post, but won't ask for clarification, for whatever reason.
  5. 'No one cares about the post, for whatever reason."


Each of these interpretations suggests a differing approach to handling the situation. This Warnock's dilemma can be an issue when you're actively trying to get feedback from the community, for example about

  • Quality of patches sent to the developer mailinglist
  • Usability of new services provided for the community
  • Quality of a new alpha/beta software release

Once you've worked in a community long enough, you get a feel of what the lack of response means in any given context; for example, if several developers usually provide feedback on clearly bad patches, it's likely that if no feedback arrives, the patch is probably of good quality. If this the case, then it may make sense to follow the lazy consensus development model.

In cases where guessing the right answer is difficult, it's best to ask people to respond, instead of just stating your question and hoping to get a response. This is proven to work, at least occasionally. Even if when this fails, you may be able to collect the necessary information from somewhere else, e.g. forum stats or webserver logs, depending on the context.

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