The other day I was reading some online comments and wavering between laughing out loud and rolling my eyes. At one point, I was reading little bits and pieces out loud to my 18-year-old son, Nick, who was sitting nearby shopping for text books online and barely acknowledging my presence.
“…And then suddenly someone brings up Hitler and the Jews. Why does every thread eventually dissolve into a conversation about Nazis?” I asked.
“Godwin’s Law,” he mumbled absentmindedly, proving that he had actually been listening to my ramblings.
“What?” I asked.
“Godwin’s Law,” he said again, giving me his full attention. “As any Internet discussion thread gets longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches one.”
“Somebody made a law about this?” I asked in confusion.
“Um, yeah, Mom,” he answered, and I could tell he was trying not to roll his eyes. “Godwin did.”
Well, excuse my ignorance, Mr. Big Britches.
Nick’s girlfriend Grace was sitting nearby nodding her head, which made me realize she knew about this, too. Why wasn’t I told?
I have read many an Internet discussion and have always been annoyed when people invoke the Hitler name, especially during the inevitable racial arguments, so I was curious about this Godwin guy.
I did a little Internet research and learned about Mike Godwin, who in 1990, coined a humorous observation which was originally made about Usenet discussion groups. It was almost word for word what Nick had told me. It does not make any statement about whether any particular reference or comparison to Adolph Hitler or the Nazis might be appropriate, but asserts that the likelihood of such a reference or comparison arising increases as the discussion progresses.
“It is precisely because such a comparison or reference may sometimes be appropriate, Godwin has argued, that overuse of Nazi and Hitler comparisons should be avoided, because it robs the valid comparisons of their impact,” the Wikipedia entry on Godwin’s Law states.
Godwin, in an online article dated April 30, 2008, commented on 18 years of Godwin’s Law, and how he never anticipated his phrase would last that long.
“But I’m mostly gratified that it has done so,” he wrote. “Although deliberately framed as if it were a law of nature or of mathematics, its purpose has always been rhetorical and pedagogical: I wanted folks who glibly compared someone else to Hitler on Nazis to think a bit harder about the Holocaust.”
From the information on Wikipedia, Godwin’s Law has also become somewhat of a game. Apparently, Internet trolls will sometimes make such a reference for the express purpose of derailing an Internet discussion thread.
Don’t even get me started on the trolls, who are more annoying than the people who constantly said, “Stupid is as stupid does” after watching Forrest Gump.
A columnist in The Smithsonian stated in 2007 that when an online adversary uses an inappropriate Hitler or Nazi comparison, “you have only to say ‘Godwin’s Law’ and a trapdoor opens, plunging your rival into a pool of hungry crocodiles.”
Which only goes to prove that Internet discussions can be a dog eat dog (or crocodile eat crocodile) kind of world.