Sunday, December 24, 2006

Warnock's Dilemma, named for its originator Bryan Warnock, points out that a lack of response to a posting on a mailing list, Usenet newsgroup, or Web forum does not necessarily imply that no one is interested in the topic. Quoting Warnock:

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.

Warnock originally described the dilemma in August 2000 on a Perl 6 mailing list. The expression is now regularly used in the Perl world, and it has also been used by webloggers to describe the feeling one gets when no one comments on something they've posted.

There are other reasons one might not comment besides the ones Warnock enumerated. For example, perhaps writing a good reply would require doing research that the reader lacks the time to undertake. Perhaps one has a mild interest in the topic raised but doesn't feel qualified to comment. Or perhaps an overly insightful reply would commit one to additional work (common on software development lists, where the people who display the most knowledge about a feature often find themselves volunteered to implement it) but the reader doesn't want to get involved. In popular use, "Warnock's Dilemma" has come to refer to all the reasons besides disinterest one might not respond to a posting, not just the five originally proposed.

Traditionally, a dilemma has exactly two choices, both unfavorable, which would mean that Warnock's Dilemma as originally phrased is not a true dilemma. However, many modern dictionaries consider this restriction needless and allow the word to be used colloquially to refer to a difficult situation with any number of choices. Alternatively, the literal-minded can consider the Dilemma to be about whether people aren't replying to messages because 1) they aren't interested, or 2) for some other reason.

It can probably be safely assumed in most situations that not everyone who does not reply to a posting refrains for the same reason, as a literal reading of Warnock's original list might imply. Indeed, Warnock's original description goes on to explain, "Most of the time, there's not even a group consensus on the reason."

"He got Warnocked." He posted a question but nobody replied.
"Warnock applies." Warns one not to draw conclusions based on the lack of response.



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