From the Boidem - 
an occasional column on computers and information technologies in everyday life

February 25, 2005*: How to lose an online argument.

It was a couple of months ago, probably while conducting one of those web surfs which I can still justify as an integral part of the thinking process that leads to the writing of one of these columns, or some other writing that I might be doing, that I stumbled across a reference to Godwin's law. This caught my interest since I hadn't seen a reference to this "law" for at least a couple of years, but other than saying to myself "that's nice", this didn't have much of an effect on me. Then, a few weeks later, I stumbled across an additional page that referred to the law, and my interest had been sparked. At the very least, it was time for a Google search.

This wasn't a Google search in order to find out what Godwin's law states - I already knew that - but a search to try and find out why people are still referring to this law. Still, at least a bit of clarification is called for here. Godwin's law was coined by Mike Godwin who was, back long ago, legal counsel for the Electronic Freedom Foundation. Godwin is reported to have stated:

As a Usenet discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches one.

From this formulation it should be clear that we're not dealing with a law that somebody can break, and be arrested for so doing, but instead a law that attempts to define the natural world, or perhaps only the unnatural world that's known as usenet. What's most interesting, however, is that the vast majority of the references to Godwin's law from the past couple of years that I've been able to find don't relate to usenet, or to the internet at all, but instead seem to invoke a generic attitude toward any argument: If you're the first to compare someone to Hitler, you automatically lose the argument. This isn't what the law states, or even what it hints, but it seems to have been reduced to this.

Interestingly, though from my own experience I've found that this law (within internet-based discussions/arguments) makes a great deal of sense, I haven't been able to find someone else who gives the basic and rather simple explanation that I use for why it does. My argument is based on a very simple paradox: We join online discussions because we're interested in interacting with people with whom we have a significant common interest. But when we have a common interest, there's hardly anything interesting worth discussing. Thus, remaining part of the online discussion is only worthwhile to us when we're disagreeing. So, if an online discussion hasn't petered out and faded into oblivion, it's survived because the people taking part in it are arguing. As the arguments continue, more people drift away because they no longer feel they have a common interest, and once again, there's little to talk about, because everybody agrees. At a certain point, all that's left is almost violent disagreement, and sooner or later, the Nazi comparison is going to come up. So Godwin's law essentially describes the inevitable curve of what was once online discussion.

Discussion group participants (and especially moderators) can, of course attempt to avoid this cycle of violent disagreement. The best way to do this is by keeping a tight ship - by making sure that all discussion stays "on topic". The problem is that this ultimately creates boredom, which is perhaps an even greater danger to the survival of the discussion than violent disagreement. I recently encountered this sort of tight ship moderating on a low volume list to which I subscribe. I doubt that this list was ever in any real danger of getting even close to Godwin's law territory, but the moderator apparently wasn't taking any chances.

Although Godwin's law certainly seem to reflect a reality of online discussion, I can't seem to recall ever being in a situation that approached its possible injunction, and not because I can't be highly argumentative. And even though I'm probably simply on the wrong lists for this sort of thing, I've got the feeling that today it gets used less as a measure of online discussion, than as a source of online humor. Numerous references to the law show up on web sites that seem to pander to a somewhat elitist, web-savvy clientele. Often, the test of the best of these is that we're never really sure that they shouldn't be taken seriously.

It seems that Godwin's law has succeeded in becoming a staple of internet folklore. As is, I suppose, to be expected, on the way to becoming such a staple, whatever clear-cut meaning it once had became blurred. With the demise of Usenet it seems also to have outlived its context, and as such its worth. Because of this we shouldn't be surprised that it seems to have received a new lease on life as a cliche that is only marginally related to its original meaning. But perhaps we can be encouraged by the fact that what happened to Godwin's law seems to be a case in which life imitates internet. Over the years we've seen numerous examples of how our real life activities are reflected in internet-based settings. We've grown accustomed to seeing the internet adopt more and more elements of our more traditional lives. With Godwin's law we have the opportunity to watch things developing in the opposite direction.

That's it for this edition. Reactions and suggestions can be sent to:

Jay Hurvitz

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