Internet Laws – Fact and Friction 2


If you have been surfing the Internet for some time then you may have become aware of some Internet laws. Now, when I use the word “law”, its not in a legal legal sense. Instead, its an observation regarding human behavior that appears to be so probable and predictable, it is described as a ‘law’ … for example “Murphy’s Law” which states “Anything that can go wrong, will“. Well, it turns out that Murphy does not live alone, the Internet has given birth to a lot of new “laws”, or has it? Lets see.

Skeptics, by their very nature, engage in a lot in Internet discussions, so they should often trip over instances of these. Lets take a quick look at some and see if they sound familiar.

Godwin’s Law

This is real and is perhaps now one of the most famous. It has its origins rooted within the Usenet discussion boards several decades ago where, in 1989, a chap called Mike Godwin made the following observation

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

In other words, if a conversation goes on long enough, then somebody at some point will loose all sense of perspective and will start spouting a comparison with Hitler or the Nazis. Usually something along the lines of … “All of those out there who [support|oppose] <insert whatever is being discussed here> are just a bunch of Nazis“, or something similar. Godwin explains that his law was just a sarcastic comment targeted at folks who glibly compared someone else to Hitler or to Nazis, and was designed to cause them to stop and think a bit harder. After several decades it has now survived the test of time and is applied for that same reason to many other on-line discussions forums such as Wikis and Blogs; all far beyond the initial scope of Usenet.

Within some forums it is now common to invoke this law whenever any such Hitler comparison is detected and point out that by doing so, the discussion is automatically ended, and that whoever made the comparison is automatically the looser. One exception to this is when its done deliberately. In this case the law does not apply, so if any of you out there disagree with that, then you are behaving just like a bunch of Nazi’s. :-)

It does of course beg the question, what if you are discussing genocide or racism, does Godwins law still apply? I guess not.

Poe’s Law

I’ve also personally encountered this one out there in the wild and have seen it invoked, so I believe it to be also real in the sense that it has penetrated into the wider community consciousness. Essentially it says:

Without a winking smiley or other blatant display of humor, it is impossible to create a parody of Fundamentalism that SOMEONE won’t mistake for the real thing.

In other words, there is stuff out there that is so totally insane, that its almost impossible to work out if its a parody, or if its a genuine belief. It came from a chap called Nathan Poe during a 2005 during an evolution debate on Christianforums.com

Click here to see his original posting.

It would appear this this one cuts both ways.

  • Sometimes non-believers can’t work out if the Fundamentalist statements are real or just parody
  • Fundamentalist believers, also have the same difficulty, and sometimes accept parody as a real statement of belief

Still a bit fuzzy regarding this one? … worry not, here is a link a list of examples of poe’s law.

The fun part to this one is that if its correct, then it means that you can go join a fundamentalist discussion board and start spouting the most outrageous things. They will not be able to work out that you are engaged in a satire or parody.

The Rest

There are lots more of these laws listed in various places, but I suspect you can take most of them with a rather large grain of salt. I’ve heard of both Godwin’s law and also Poe’s Law, but as for the others? … well, just for interest here are some examples …

  • Danth’s Law – states that anyone who declares themselves victorious, has probably done so because they’ve lost.
  • DeMyer’s Laws – an argument that consists primarily of rambling quotes isn’t worth bothering with.
  • Pommer’s Law – a person’s mind can be changed by reading the internet; they’ll go from “no opinion” to “the wrong opinion”.
  • Cohen’s Law – whoever resorts to the argument that whoever resorts to the argument that whoever resorts to the argument…

Have you ever heard of any of them or actually encountered an example being invoked out there on a discussion board? I’ve not, but if curious to see a longer list and check, then you can do so on the rational-Wiki by clicking here. Interestingly enough there was also an article in the Telegraph in Oct 2009 that listed the top 10 Internet laws. You can find that article by clicking here. Once again both Godwin and Poe get a mention, but what about the other top ten? There is a bit of overlap with the previous online list. I’m skeptical, I’m guessing that the Telegraph author either read the on-line rational-Wiki list, or perhaps the on-line Rational-Wiki list folks added the contents of the Telegraph list to their site. The second is more probable, the site does after all link to the Telegraph article. Neither is proof that any are real, I’ve not see real examples out in the wilds of the comment boards, nor can I find any citations.

If you have, then please do drop a comment (with a citation of course). I’m quite happy to be proven wrong.

As for Godwin and Poe’s laws … long may they rule :-)


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