Cunningham’s Law

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Image created with Midjourney. Image prompt: illustration of a 2D minimalistic character confidently placing a square peg into a round hole on a bulletin board labeled 'Internet'. Around the character, several other tiny characters are rushing towards him, each carrying the correct round peg to correct his mistake

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The best way to get the right answer on the Internet is not to ask a question, it's to post the wrong answer. Ward Cunningham (although he denies having said that)

Cunningham's Law states, "The best way to get the right answer on the Internet is not to ask a question, it's to post the wrong answer"1. While it may sound counterintuitive, this law uncovers an interesting dynamic within online communities: people are often more motivated to correct misinformation than to provide information. Although originally referring to interactions on Usenet, the law has been used to describe how other online communities work (e.g., Wikipedia, Reddit, Twitter, Facebook).

Despite the law being associated with Ward Cunningham, he denies ownership, attributing it to a misquote. Regardless of its origin, Cunningham's Law offers valuable insights for software development, especially in the realm of collaborative problem-solving.

Cunningham's Law in Software Development

In software development, Cunningham's Law can be a useful tool for stimulating productive discussions and uncovering innovative solutions. Let's take a look at three examples of how this law can apply in the software development context:

  1. Code Reviews: During a code review, a developer might intentionally include an unconventional or suboptimal approach in their code. This could encourage reviewers to not only identify the issue but also propose more efficient or elegant solutions.
  2. Design Brainstorming: In a design brainstorming session, a team member could suggest a design idea they know is flawed. This might stimulate a discussion among the team, leading to the refinement of the idea or the birth of entirely new concepts.
  3. Product Features: When proposing new features for a product, a product manager might intentionally suggest a controversial feature. The ensuing debate could lead to better understanding of user needs and the development of more valuable features.

Connecting Cunningham's Law to Digital Product Creation

Cunningham's Law has significant implications for the creation of digital products. It reminds us that the process of correcting and refining ideas often leads to more robust solutions than simply providing answers. This aligns with the iterative and collaborative nature of software development, where feedback and continuous improvement are key.

The law also underscores the importance of creating a culture where team members feel comfortable challenging ideas and making mistakes. By fostering an environment where 'wrong answers' can be posted without fear, we can stimulate the kind of constructive discussions that drive innovation.

Furthermore, Cunningham's Law also has relevance beyond the immediate software development team. For example, it can guide community management strategies for software products with user-generated content. By understanding the dynamics described by Cunningham's Law, community managers can better facilitate productive interactions among users.

In conclusion, Cunningham's Law offers an intriguing perspective on the dynamics of information sharing and problem-solving, both within software development teams and in broader online communities. By understanding and leveraging these dynamics, we can create digital products that are not only functional but also continuously improving and adapting in response to feedback and new ideas.

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