Godwin’s Law: “As an online discussion becomes longer, the probability of a comparison invoking Hitler or Nazis approaches one.” In other words, in any online discussion, regardless of topic or scope, someone will inevitably make a comparison to Hitler or Nazis. Also called Godwin’s Law of Nazi Analogies.
Godwin’s Law was formulated by Mike Godwin, an American lawyer with a long career in computer law; he was the first staff counsel of the Electronic Frontier Foundation and general counsel for the Wikimedia Foundation, and has been a contributing editor at Reason magazine for nearly 20 years. In a 1994 article for Wired magazine, Godwin told the origin story of Godwin’s Law:
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. …
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!
Since then, it has been a tradition in some online discussions that once the Hitler/Nazi comparison is invoked, the thread is finished and the invoker has automatically lost the debate.
Godwin’s Law manifests itself frequently in discussions of the Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution (“the right to keep and bear arms”). See, for example, last Friday’s column by lexicographer Orin Hargraves for Visual Thesaurus, “Up in Arms”—paid subscriber content—in which Ben Zimmer, the executive producer, cited Godwin’s Law as justification for removing some uncivil comments.
Godwin’s Law is so familiar to some audiences that it can be reduced to shorthand and expanded beyond the original Hitler/Nazi meme, as in this headline last week on the Little Green Footballs blog:
“TeaParty.org Goes Godwin for Dough”
There’s no link to the quoted content, but you can find it by searching for the phrase “Someday, your children will thank you for saving their future from Obama’s Soviet-Style Socialist State.”
See also Cunningham’s Law and Dunning-Kruger Effect. For more Internet jargon, see The Jargon File.