Warnock's Dilemma

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Warnock's Dilemma, named for its originator Bryan Warnock, is the problem of interpreting a lack of response to a posting on a mailing list, Usenet newsgroup, or Web forum. It occurs because a lack of response does not necessarily imply that no one is interested in the topic, and could have any one of several different implications, some of which are contradictory. Commonly used in the context of trying to determine why a post has not been replied to, or to refer to a post that has not been replied to.


[edit] Original description

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.

—Bryan C. Warnock, [1]

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.

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."

[edit] Common usage

Since Warnock's original description of the dilemma in August 2000, the expression has become widely used in the Perl world[2] and has seen some adoption by webloggers.[3] It is commonly used to refer to the uncertainty of deciding which of any number of reasons caused an absence of responses. Oft-seen phrases include:

"He was Warnocked."[4]

Someone posted a question, but nobody replied.

"Warnock applies."[5]

Warns readers not to draw conclusions based on the lack of response.

[edit] Linguistic aspects

Traditionally, a dilemma has exactly two choices, both unfavorable, which would mean that Warnock's Dilemma as originally phrased is not a true dilemma. Properly speaking it is a logical disjunction. However, many modern dictionaries consider this restriction needless and allow "dilemma" to be used colloquially to refer to a difficult situation with any number of choices[6], since the term Polylemma, which is the appropriate description, has not come to widespread use. 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.

[edit] Notes and references

  1. ^ Re: RFCs: two proposals for change -- Original description of the dilemma
  2. ^ Re: Warnocked? -- Post to the Perl 6 language list explaining history and uptake of term
  3. ^ Google search of use of term on blogs
  4. ^ This Week on perl5-porters - 19-25 September 2005
  5. ^ Perl 6 Summary for 2006-01-02 though 2006-01-09
  6. ^ "Dilemma", Dictionary.com

[edit] External links

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