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Restoring Sanity in the Blogosphere: Discovering Godwin's Law

Given enough time, in any online discussion, regardless of topic or scope, someone inevitably criticizes some point made in the discussion by comparing it to beliefs held by Hitler and the Nazis.
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I have never been so excited about writing a blog post as I am right now. You know that feeling you have when you find out that something incredibly bizarre and horribly annoying that you've noticed and discussed with people for years is not in your head, and actually has a name, and even its own Wiki?! A total sanity-validator. More in a moment...

Yesterday I was reading Women Making Slow, Sure Strides in Science, Math right here on the Huffington Post, and I was aghast at the comments, a large number of which demonized women for this small success, insisted that female achievement takes something away from men, and revealed many incorrect beliefs and misunderstandings of the facts. The usual gender war had broken out early on in the thread, and the attacks were customarily vicious. Even though there was nothing surprising about this, as I see it every day, I could not help swallowing my usual bitter dose of disillusionment.

I started composing a comment. This was going to be the magnum opus of all flamewar-ending comments. This was going to set everyone straight on the facts. I was going to detail my experiences on the undergraduate admissions committee at MIT, my training as an educational psychologist, and provide links to some of the articles I have written about the gender skewing of college admissions, the history of female underrepresentation in STEM careers, and Why Boys Are Failing in an Educational System Stacked Against Them (written as an advocacy piece for boys right here on HuffPost).

Typing away, I quipped to my husband, "Why do I waste my time? Someone will just call me a feminazi." And to my great surprise, his reply was, "Yup. Godwin's Law."

Godwin's Law? What was that? Well, fellow draft dodgers of the eternal flame wars, allow me to tell you. Back in 1990, at the very dawn of the Internet Age, Mike Godwin, an attorney who was one of the early cyber ethicists, observed the following: "As an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches one."

In other words, "Given enough time, in any online discussion--regardless of topic or scope--someone inevitably criticizes some point made in the discussion by comparing it to beliefs held by Hitler and the Nazis." And once this gun is unholstered, the thread is finished and whoever shot out the Nazi comment has not only lost his or her own credibility, but has ruined the discussion thread for everyone else because the piling on has begun. Once a thread has devolved into this kind of rhetoric, there is no saving the original topic.

Godwin created his Law essentially as a counter-meme. As a frequent contributor to UseNet back in the early days, he was concerned about the casual, hyperbolic, and frequent references to Nazis being not only a distraction and diversion in comment threads, but being actually disrespectful to victims of the Holocaust by trivializing that horror. His idea was to try to cancel out the Nazi meme with one of his own. Godwin's Law became a wildly popular citation within comment threads, and, like all good neologisms, quickly morphed into a verb. One could now say, when Nazi-shaming trolls had hijacked his or her article or comment on an article, "I've been Godwinned." Or, the people insisting on their inalienable rights of free speech regarding anything related to the Third Reich could say, upon push-back to their Hitler comparisons, "Don't Godwin me." When someone invoked the Law to try to settle down the thread, all bets were off as to whether things would calm down or heat up, but they usually became volcanic. Not much has changed.

One of the funnier offshoots of Godwin's Law is Bright's Law, created by some guy named Peter Bright: "If you cannot work out whether someone is trolling or merely stupid, the answer is probably both."

As a prolific reader and writer of Internet blogs, hardly a day goes by where I do not see someone stem-winding someone else by calling them a Nazi. These people have no inkling of the depth of their own embarrassment and shame. That seems to be evidence that Godwin's Law has not "worked" as a counter-meme, but how could it? There is just way too much satisfaction people get from insinuating genocidal mania in other people to bolster their own views. Whether the blog topic is related to gender, politics, or recipes, sooner or later, someone will torpedo the thread with their anger management problems.

When it comes to politics, I notice several prevalent newer memes have popped up amidst the Balkanization of punditry and sound bite wisdom. There is the whole Osama bin Laden/Muslim/terrorist comment bomb that can be dropped without provocation. Then there is the whole tea bagger/neocom meme so popular in today's political discourse. But the point is, Godwin's Law explains all of it!

From now on, I plan to maintain greater composure whenever someone trollishly destroys a thread I'm reading or participating in, or attempts to sabotage an article I have written because -- and here's the key take-away -- Godwin's Law predicts this extremely aggravating phenomenon, allowing me to remain calmer because I anticipate and understand it.

And this is one of those gifts that keeps on giving, so I'm giving it to all of you. March forth into the blogosphere armed with this knowledge, and you, too, can keep your head from exploding every time you think that people cannot get any stupider. They can, they will, and it's not you, it's them.

Maybe that could be Day's Law. You can connect with Lori on Facebook, Twitter, or Google+.