By Mike Godwin
It was back in 1990 that I set out on a project in memetic engineering. The Nazi-comparison meme, I’d decided, had gotten out of hand – in countless Usenet newsgroups, in many conferences on the Well, and on every BBS that I frequented, the labeling of posters or their ideas as “similar to the Nazis” or “Hitler-like” was a recurrent and often predictable event. It was the kind of thing that made you wonder how debates had ever occurred without having that handy rhetorical hammer.
Not everyone saw the comparison to Nazis as a “meme” – most people on the Net, as elsewhere, had never heard of “memes” or “memetics.” But now that we’re living in an increasingly information-aware culture, it’s time for that to change. And it’s time for net.dwellers to make a conscious effort to control the kinds of memes they create or circulate.
A “meme,” of course, is an idea that functions in a mind the same way a gene or virus functions in the body. And an infectious idea (call it a “viral meme”) may leap from mind to mind, much as viruses leap from body to body.
When a meme catches on, it may crystallize whole schools of thought. Take the “black hole” meme, for instance. As physicist Brandon Carter has commented in Stephen Hawkings’s A Brief History of Time: A Reader’s Companion: “Things changed dramatically when John Wheeler invented the term [black hole]…Everybody adopted it, and from then on, people around the world, in Moscow, in America, in England, and elsewhere, could know they were speaking about the same thing.” Once the “black hole” meme became commonplace, it became a handy source of metaphors for everything from illiteracy to the deficit.
By 1990, I had noticed, something similar had happened to the Nazi-comparison meme. Sure, there are obvious topics in which the comparison recurs. In discussions about guns and the Second Amendment, for example, gun-control advocates are periodically reminded that Hitler banned personal weapons. And birth-control debates are frequently marked by pro-lifers’ insistence that abortionists are engaging in mass murder, worse than that of Nazi death camps. And in any newsgroup in which censorship is discussed, someone inevitably raises the specter of Nazi book-burning.
But the Nazi-comparison meme popped up elsewhere as well – in general discussions of law in misc.legal, for example, or in the EFF conference on the Well. Stone libertarians were ready to label any government regulation as incipient Nazism. And, invariably, the comparisons trivialized the horror of the Holocaust and the social pathology of the Nazis. It was a trivialization I found both illogical (Michael Dukakis as a Nazi? Please!) and offensive (the millions of concentration-camp victims did not die to give some net.blowhard a handy trope).
So, I set out to conduct an experiment – to build a counter-meme designed to make discussion participants see how they are acting as vectors to a particularly silly and offensive meme…and perhaps to curtail the glib Nazi comparisons.
I developed Godwin’s Law of Nazi Analogies: As an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches one.
I seeded Godwin’s Law in any newsgroup or topic where I saw a gratuitous Nazi reference. Soon, to my surprise, other people were citing it – the counter-meme was reproducing on its own! And it mutated like a meme, generating corollaries like the following:
- Gordon’s Restatement of Newman’s Corollary to Godwin’s Law: Libertarianism (pro, con, and internal faction fights) is the primordial net.news discussion topic. Any time the debate shifts somewhere else, it must eventually return to this fuel source.
- Morgan’s Corollary to Godwin’s Law: As soon as such a comparison occurs, someone will start a Nazi-discussion thread on alt.censorship.
- Sircar’s Corollary: If the Usenet discussion touches on homosexuality or Heinlein, Nazis or Hitler are mentioned within three days.
- Van der Leun’s Corollary: As global connectivity improves, the probability of actual Nazis being on the Net approaches one.
- Miller’s Paradox: As a network evolves, the number of Nazi comparisons not forestalled by citation to Godwin’s Law converges to zero.
In time, discussions in the seeded newsgroups and discussions seemed to show a lower incidence of the Nazi-comparison meme. And the counter-meme mutated into even more useful forms. (As Cuckoo’s Egg author Cliff Stoll once said to me: “Godwin’s Law? Isn’t that the law that states that once a discussion reaches a comparison to Nazis or Hitler, its usefulness is over?”) By my (admittedly low) standards, the experiment was a success.
But its success had given me much to reflect on. If it’s possible to generate effective counter-memes, is there any moral imperative to do so? When we see a bad or false meme go by, should we take pains to chase it with a counter-meme? Do we have an obligation to improve our informational environment? Our social environment?
But this power to do good may also be a power to do ill. Anyone on the Net has the power to affect stock prices. (Or worse: a fraudulent re-creation of the Tylenol-poisoning scare could cause a national or international panic.) And viral memes are capable of doing lasting damage.
While the world of the Net is filled with diverse critical thinkers who are ready to challenge self-indulgent or self-aggrandizing memes, we can’t rely on net.culture’s diversity and inertia to answer every bad meme. The Nazi-comparison meme has a peculiar resilience, in part because of its sheer inflammatory power (“You’re calling me a Nazi? You’re the Nazi in this discussion!”) The best way to fight such memes is to craft counter-memes designed to put them in perspective. The time may have come for us to commit ourselves to memetic engineering – crafting good memes to drive out the bad ones.
Otherwise, plus ça change, plus c’est la meme chose.