Cunningham’s Law is a semi-serious internet adage that states that “the best way to get the right answer on the internet is not to ask a question, it’s to post the wrong answer.” In the pantheon of semi-serious internet adages, it does not enjoy the limelight of something like Godwin's Rule of Nazi Analogies (the longer the online discussion, the greater the chance that somebody will make a Hitler comparison) or Poe’s Law on Satire (it’s not satire until proven otherwise), but it gets trotted out enough to have become received wisdom in some circles.
Cunningham’s Law was coined by former Intel executive Steven McGeady in 2010. He submitted it to a New York Times linguistics blog, referencing his time working with Ward Cunningham, the inventor of the wiki, in the ’80s. Neatly enough, you can see the relevant links outlining the law’s origins on Cunningham’s Wikipedia page. (While McGeady is credited with writing that “Wikipedia is now perhaps the most widely-known proof of Cunningham’s Law,” I would argue that Wikipedia, a website with a search box that lets you look up information on almost any topic, is in fact, the best way to get a right answer on the internet. That the person the law is named for disavows it probably does more to undermine it than this particular experiment did.)
It’s easy to see how Cunningham’s Law has become an internet truism. Outside of chatting or posting with friends and colleagues, so much communication online is described in adversarial terms, and there are no shortage of “well, actually” posts out there. So are people quicker to correct a mistake than to answer a question, or what?
For a week, I tested out this silly internet adage by being wildly, gloriously wrong online. In preparation for my journey, I set some ground rules for myself. I would post on text-friendly platforms such as Twitter, Facebook, and Reddit, with the occasional Instagram post or YouTube comment. I wanted to avoid political topics and anything that might make it seem like I was being mean-spirited, so I picked my topics to be wrong about using the template first established by Trivial Pursuit: geography, entertainment, history, arts and literature, science and nature, and sports and leisure.
And to control for the toxic sexism present in far too many areas of the internet, I adopted three personas while posting — one masculine (Mick Heart), one feminine (Michelle Heart), and one gender-neutral (Emm Heart). In the interest of expediency, I decided at times to tweak Cunningham’s Law by asking questions that contained inaccuracies in order to solicit more responses.
I expected to attract the worst of internet archetypes, including: men correcting women incorrectly, people deciding things that were not about politics were actually about politics, and otherwise reasonable people becoming apoplectic over minor errors. I also worried about a single, mildly inaccurate post on my part snowballing into the next Pizzagate. Yet, strangely, none of those things happened. Here’s what did.
I cheerfully set off on my expedition. I started with something straightforward: I sought travel tips on different platforms, and placed Yellowstone, Grand Canyon and Yosemite National Parks in the wrong states. The people of Twitter ignored me, or didn’t see me (Mick, Michelle, and Emm’s brand-new accounts had no followers); on Reddit I was corrected and given some helpful information; and on some Facebook tourism groups I set off an explosion of advice and good-humored teasing. The posts from retirees — tourism Facebook is full of retirees — warmed my heart. If only they could stop posting inaccurate political memes and concentrate on sharing travel tips. Their help also made me feel guilty for misleading them.
Over on history politics Reddit, a post from Emm about Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria getting “fatally stabbed” was corrected (for the non-history buffs out there, he got shot, leading to the start of WWI). Others were so keen to engage with my question, a hypothetical about Ferdinand not getting assassinated, that they didn’t pick up on the inaccuracy. This happened a little with the National Parks posts, too.
As Michelle, I asked the people of Reddit a question about physics: “If you were driving in a bus and bounced a ball it would hit the back windscreen, why is that?” I knew this wouldn’t actually happen, but only because people who know about this stuff have told me that it wouldn’t. It has never clicked in my head and this seems as good a way as any to try and understand. The people on the r/askphysics subreddit were nice and pointed out I was wrong without getting angry at me.. Somebody mentioned something called the Coriolis effect and acknowledged that it “certainly doesn’t address the original question, and probably only serves to confuse the reader.” They were correct. I was now more confused.
My vaguely academic premise began to feel like just a week of me trolling strangers. My tweets were ignored, as all tweets should be, but in my case I had zero followers and had not posted anything factual. On all three accounts I’d created Twitter gently suggested that I was a robot. (I proved them wrong by knowing what traffic lights look like.)
Like a media start-up in 2015, I pivoted to video and created a compilation of dog videos with the title Too Cute!!! — Best Cats Ever, which I soundtracked with the Willem Dafoe death scene from Platoon. My wife asked how my research was going. I said it was going well.
Like a media start-up in 2018, my pivot to video failed. Nobody watched the YouTube upload. An Instagram version got one comment from an account called @catnessvibes describing it as “gorgeous”and offering me a free “paw and heart necklace.” While I appreciated the gesture, I still have grave doubts about the sincerity of the offer. I joined a lot of Facebook groups, keen for a return to the warm embrace of Facebook boomers. Mick’s post to All Things Browdway claiming that Hamilton was ten years old was rejected (the play debuted in 2015). They run a tight ship on All Things Broadway.
Over in an astronomy group on Facebook, I shared a 3-D perspective view of the giant space-volcano Maat Mons and claimed it was on Mercury — except the Maat Mons is not on Mercury; it’s on Venus. The post got multiple likes and even a positive comment, but no correction. The 240,000-person astronomy group on Facebook blindly accepted my assertion that this massive shield volcano was on a completely different planet. Either Facebook’s algorithm shielded these people from my inaccurate post, or I am fake news. Hours later, two people pointed out my error; I corrected my original post.
I then watched a YouTube video of Ward Cunningham, the attributed author of Cunningham’s Law, in which he says, “I never suggested asking questions by posting wrong answers. This is a misquote that disproves itself by propagating through the internet as Cunningham’s Law.” Great. I commented underneath the video, “That’s not Ward Cunningham.” I did not get a response.
Michelle belatedly got some Reddit feedback on her cute-cats-but-actually-dogs video in the form of someone critiquing my edit job and asserting that one of the cats “looks like a fox.” Does anyone online know what a dog looks like?
I joined some niche subreddits, including one called realbeesfaketophats, in which people photoshop top hats onto photos of bees. I spent a sizable portion of the afternoon fixing a top hat onto a photo of a wasp. Someone helpfully pointed me towards the rival fakebeesrealtophats subreddit. Another poster called me a buffoon. Five days in and that was the first negative feedback I received. My wasp photo was not removed by moderators, making a mockery of this entire subreddit.
Question from someone in All Things Broadway Facebook group: “Cats makes more sense than Hair. Change my mind.”
Answer from me: “Cats is a loose adaptation of a Jane Austen novel so structurally would always make more sense than Hair.”
The people of All Things Broadway set me straight while being lovely. After wasting people’s time through lunacy and receiving earnestly kind responses, I felt bad.
I threw out a few plain wrong sports tweets, all but one of which were ignored. It seems sports fans are so used to a relentless barrage of mockery, bad opinions, and false claims that they were impervious to tweets from my glorified egg account. They are operating on a higher plane.
A Redditor asked why squirrels were falling out of trees more often these days. Mick said that they were not. The Redditor said they were. Mick said that they were not. There is no evidence I can find that might indicate that squirrels are or are not falling out of trees more often, so perhaps the creator of that post had been hoping to find some by making a wildly outlandish claim. Instead, they got me. The squirrel person then challenged me to a cash bet, so I backed down. I half-heartedly tweeted some predictions about NFL games that weren’t actually happening, but nobody was biting. That was my Sunday.
My week of being deliberately wrong was over, and I could now return to a lifetime of being accidentally wrong. I was corrected by plenty of people, but in the type of forums that would also have provided information if I had just asked a question. There are no doubt many people online, and in real life, who prefer to point out mistakes than to answer questions, but from my admittedly haphazard research, Cunningham’s Law seems like a bit of a stretch.
I found that my experiment turned out to be as much an exercise in attracting attention as it was in actually being wrong. Getting ignored was understandable — after all, I was being often transparently disingenuous and had no Twitter followers, Reddit karma, or Facebook friends. But it was a small insight into how lonely a place the internet can be. The longer the week went on, the more outlandish my posts got as I reacted like a child trying to get the attention of a distracted parent. I became louder, resembling one of the millions of people shouting into the online void.
It was also interesting to see the relative success or failure of my posts on different platforms. Twitter users have to deal with enough bad faith and abuse that they’ve become conditioned to ignore it when someone with zero followers tweets that two plus two equals five (an actual thing I tweeted as Michelle). Reddit, meanwhile, was a surprisingly welcoming place, and users seemed to feel that even if I was trolling them, there wasn’t any harm in playing along. Facebook turned out to be the most trusting platform: I was gently corrected, given additional helpful information, and generally made to feel welcome.
I reached out to Ward Cunningham to talk about my experiences, but did not receive a response. Perhaps he will read this and decide to tell me that I’ve got all of this completely wrong about my findings, thereby proving his misattributed theory correct. Back in the ’80s, when he allegedly said his disputed line, the internet was built on discussion, collaboration, and a willingness to experiment without fear of getting things wrong. Now, thanks in large part to resources like Wikipedia, most information can be found without direct human interaction. Our tendency to weaponize or distort information is arguably a bigger problem than accessing it. We’re used to seeing people being wrong online, or at least appearing to be wrong. A week of being wrong online didn’t uncover any information that I couldn’t find in a Google search, but it did show people online in a positive light, and that’s a rare enough occurrence.