Godwin’s Law: The First Internet Meme?

Godwin's Law: The First Internet Meme?

By: Daniel Jeffers - Search Engine Optimization - 2014

In 1990, Mike Godwin, a usenet participant, identified the tendency of online debates to end in comparisons to Nazism or Hitler. Like many of the engineers and technical types who populated usenet, he understood Richard Dawkin's model for memes, and he realized these comparisons were memetic behavior. He set out to create a counter-meme.

“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.”

In 1994, Godwin wrote this description of how he created his meme.

“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!”

The law has continued to evolve. In addition to corollaries, there is a distinct version that many consider to be Godwin’s Law. As expressed in Knowyourmeme.com:

This so-called law refers to one of the earliest bits of Usenet customs, which goes “if you mention Adolf Hitler or Nazis within a discussion thread, you’ve automatically ended whatever discussion you were taking part in.”

Godwin mentions that he first heard this version from Cuckoo's Egg author Cliff Stoll: "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?"

From Meme to Internet Meme

I might argue that Internet memes are a subset of memes overall, but the truth is that they are seen differently. One reason may be that the word is only used outside of the Internet by a small group of people--while using the word in describing online phenomena is widespread. Another may be that memes live in web content--easy to see, share, and discuss. Memes in the real are often ideas or patterns that have to be described.

Godwin did not think of his meme as being different, but he was a specialized user of the term already. When his discussion about his meme became widespread, it found an audience less used to the word. They attributed it what they saw happening: an internet law that was frequently being invoked in forum discussions, on bulletin boards, and in comments.

The use was similar to the way image macros and standard phrases were used--and these also were widely seen as memes. Because much of the meme culture was born in hard to ephemeral communities with little or not archiving, it's hard to make an absolute claim. But I think there's a pretty good argument for Godwin's Law as the first Internet Meme.