Recently I saw a post from someone called Annie, she said: “Every time I have a programming question and I really need help, I post it on Reddit and then log into another account and reply to it with an obscenely incorrect answer.
“People don’t care about helping others, but they LOVE correcting others.
“Works 100% of the time.”
This is very smart on Annie’s part, but it turns out Annie is using Cunningham’s Law.
This was coined by Steven McGeady in 2010 and 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."
McGeady says he learned this from Ward Cunningham, the inventor of Wiki.
But Cunningham wasn’t talking specifically about the internet, his advice was more general: “People are quicker to correct a wrong idea than to answer a question.”
For us, this is very interesting – Bill Bernbach says, in the communications business: “Our proper area of study is simple, timeless, human truths.”
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was a student of human nature – it’s what gives his detective, Sherlock Holmes, an advantage over others.
In The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle, Holmes needs information from a salesman.
The salesman refuses to help, so Holmes makes a bet with him that is clearly incorrect: “I’m always ready to back my opinion on a matter of fowls, and I have a fiver on it that the bird I ate is country bred.”
“Well, then, you’ve lost your fiver, for it’s town bred,” snapped the salesman.
“It’s nothing of the kind.”
“D’you think you know more about fowls than I, who have handled them ever since I was a nipper? I tell you, all those birds that went to the Alpha were town bred.”
“You’ll never persuade me to believe that.”
“Will you bet, then?”
“It’s merely taking your money, for I know that I am right. But I’ll have a sovereign on with you, just to teach you not to be obstinate.”
The salesman chuckled grimly. “Bring me the books, Bill,” said he.”
(The salesman opens the books he previously refused to open. Holmes inspects them, gets all the information he needs, then surrenders the sovereign.)
Later, Holmes explains to Watson. “When you see a man with whiskers of that cut and the ‘Pink ’un’ protruding out of his pocket, you can always draw him by a bet,” said Holmes. “I daresay that if I had put £100 down in front of him, that man would not have given me such complete information as was drawn from him by the idea that he was doing me on a wager.”
Holmes sums up the simple, timeless, human truth: “People don’t like telling you things, but they love to contradict you.”
The people who couldn’t, or wouldn’t, help you do the job will always tell you what’s wrong with it after it’s done.
For instance, the people who write the brief and can spot exactly what you should have put in the ad once you present the finished work.
Their suggestions weren’t written in the brief where they would have been helpful before you did the work.
But after you’ve done the work, they are keen to say exactly what’s wrong with it, and a new brief is issued.
Because it’s more interesting to crit someone else’s work than to put in the effort to do the job properly in the first place.
That’s why it’s important for creatives to question the brief before starting work on it.
As Robin Wight used to say: “Creatives should tug at the brief like a dog pulling at a piece of cloth. If it holds, it’s good. If it comes apart, it isn’t.”
Dave Trott is the author of The Power of Ignorance, Creative Blindness and How to Cure It, Creative Mischief, Predatory Thinking and One Plus One Equals Three