The impact on you of making 'bad' bug reports

May 27, 2015

One of the reasons that making bug reports is stressful for people who can do them well is that we're aware of the quiet but very real social downside of submitting 'bad' bug reports in most contexts. One of the important practical benefits of making (good) bug reports is that it builds up your good karma with the people behind whatever you're reporting bugs on. This good karma makes it more likely that they will take you seriously in the future, interact nicely with you, and perhaps even fix your bugs or answer your questions. This is ultimately a matter of name recognition; the developers will see a report or a question from you and go 'oh yeah, I remember that name, that's going to be worth reading'.

Bad bug reports are the reverse. They flush good karma down the drain and build up bad associations in people's minds. If you submit bad bug reports, people are going to remember you but it won't be in a good way. You'll be remembered as someone who's not worth paying attention to, someone that they kind of wish wouldn't file bugs and argue with them about the bugs you've filed and so on, and all of this will make the developers less likely to do you any favours or work on your problems or whatever.

Unfortunately, people generally remember bad interactions much better than they do good ones. You can guess what the corollary here is, but I'll say it outright:

It's often better for you to not file a bug report at all than to file a bad bug report.

Unless you can make significant contributions (submitting good patches and so on), you accumulate good karma (aka 'name recognition') only slowly. One bad bug report can thus offset a whole lot of good ones.

These social consequences of 'bad' bug reports serve as an obvious disincentive to file bug reports at all. Unless you're very sure that you're filing a good report (but not too good), it's better to sit on your hands. You're probably not going to get a timely fix for your problem anyways and sitting on your hands definitely avoids the potential downsides.

(By the way, one of the signals that an abrasive bug reporting environment sends to outside people is that there are probably to be significant bad social consequences for making 'bad' bug reports. Unless you've found something that is 110% sure to be a real bug that the developers will care about and that you can report clearly and in an unarguable way, well, it's really better to stay silent.)

Now it's time to add more unhappy news. I put 'bad' in quotes deliberately, because in practice bad bug reports includes any bug report that the developers don't agree with. If you file bug reports that are closed as 'NOTABUG' or the equivalent, those build up bad karma; you're going to get remembered as someone who files bug reports for things that aren't actually bugs. This often extends to bug reports about things that the developers don't really care about, because the developers will remember you as someone who's pestering them about unimportant stuff. Of course all of this adds its own level of stress and tension to filing certain bug reports, especially if you're critiquing a design or API issue.

(I sort of wrote a version of this as a comment reply here a few years ago, but I've decided that it's important enough to be in an entry of its own.)

Written on 27 May 2015.
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Last modified: Wed May 27 03:11:05 2015
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