Why We Can't Help Ourselves from Caring About Things That Don't Matter

One would think that with all the intense outrage over Yahoo's new logo that this logo is the most cared about logo to ever grace our eyes, but it's not.

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One would think that with all the intense outrage over Yahoo's new logo that this is the most cared about logo to ever grace our eyes, but it's not. Just a few of years ago, the new Gap logo evoked more ire than it deserved. The anger got so extreme that the clothing company reverted back to the old look. This happens often: The public gets very upset over something that matters not at all. Maybe the new Yahoo design is "dull, uninspiring and limp," as one critic put it, but does it mean anything? No.  But everyone gets all worked up because they have the facilities to do so in a somewhat astute (sounding) manner — a phenomenon known as the "Bikeshed Effect."

The Bikeshed Effect, more formally known as Parkinson's Law of Triviality derived from the humor book Parkinson's Law, is "the principle that the amount of discussion is inversely proportional to the complexity of the topic," as explained in Producing Open Source Software: How to Run a Successful Free Software ProjectThe most classic and titular example is that people care more about the color of a bike shed than the decision to build a nuclear plant because they know about colors and don't know about nuclear power.

"Why Should I Care What Color the Bikeshed Is?" asks the Bikeshed.com website. The answer, from developer Poul-Henning Kamp, who created the site:

The really, really short answer is that you should not. The somewhat longer answer is that just because you are capable of building a bikeshed does not mean you should stop others from building one just because you do not like the color they plan to paint it. This is a metaphor indicating that you need not argue about every little feature just because you know enough to do so. Some people have commented that the amount of noise generated by a change is inversely proportional to the complexity of the change

Weighing the pros and cons of building something controversial and dangerous like a nuclear plant takes actual knowledge, having an opinion on the color of a building — or of a new Yahoo logo — is something everyone can do with roughly the same amount of expertise.

Since everyone needs to say something — especially on the Internet — these mundane things get talked about often and with vigor. Meanwhile, the more complex questions — like "How Will Yahoo Increase CPM's Given Current Trends in Digital Advertising?" — get much less attention because most people can't comment with any intelligence, as The Guardian's Oliver Burkman explained in his column "Why trivia is so important" back in 2010. "Each wants to demonstrate, to the boss or to themselves, that they are taking part, paying attention, making a difference, 'adding value,'" he wrote. "But with complex subjects about which they're ignorant, they can't: they risk humiliation."

The dumbest topics — the tilt of an exclamation point, for example — therefore, get the most attention. A related phenomenon happens a lot in the work-life balance debate, which relies a lot on personal anecdotes to talk about an important societal question. Without much knowledge or data on women in the workforce, writers and thinkers revert to their personal experiences to fuel the debate. Since these people are women and have worked and have also had children, they can speak to the issue with some intelligence. That leaves harder questions, like how most women can improve working while raising families, on the sidelines.

In the Internet news world the ability to participate in a discussion drives Twitter, blog posts, and page views. More people can say unique and not totally stupid things on Twitter about something like a Yahoo logo. Plus, Yahoo kind of set itself up for this when it decided to bikeshed its own logo, talking up this new logo for 30 days straight by putting out a different decoy version each day. The fact Yahoo opted to spend that much time discussing something so meaningless is either genius marketing or incredibly sad.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.