Back when Internet culture was something that felt like it happened over there, online, separate from the rest of our lives, people started to create rules to explain what it was like. Godwin’s Law is probably the best known of these: It states that eventually, as an online conversation progresses, it becomes increasingly likely that someone is going to compare someone else to Hitler.
A lot has changed, online and otherwise, since Godwin’s Law first appeared in 1990. But the law is still true on the Internet, even if some of the people now getting called a “Nazi” online are literal Nazis.
Of these many old rules about the Internet, three of them — Godwin’s, Poe’s and, er, Rule 34 — have managed to stay particularly useful for explaining basically the whole of Internet culture. Appropriately, they cover irony, Nazis and porn.
“On the one hand, there’s this assumption that 2007 and 2017 are eons apart in Internet time,” said Ryan Milner, co-author of “The Ambivalent Internet” and an assistant professor of Communication at the College of Charleston. “But there are these persistent behavior norms that show up over and over again.”
What it is: A message board user going by Nathan Poe defined it as, “Without a winking smiley or other blatant display of humor, it is utterly impossible to parody a Creationist in such a way that someone won’t mistake for the genuine article.” That was in 2005.
“That small root started to become shorthand for a bigger idea,” Milner said. “Places like 4chan and Reddit started invoking Poe’s Law over the past decade. It becomes a general rule that you can’t tell someone’s motives and intentions unless you know who you’re talking to.”
Why it’s still useful: Oh, boy. You know that trolling cycle, in which someone says something extremely offensive and hurtful about someone else, and then claims they were “just kidding” when called out about it? That is Poe’s Law.
Poe’s Law is the argument over whether the Pepe the frog meme was really a Nazi hate symbol, and whether the possible role of irony in its use as a racist symbol would really change anything. It’s the blow-up over the “OK” hand symbol, which 4chan memed as a “secret” white nationalist symbol in order to fool and terrify liberals. It’s why journalists are often left staring at a question mark while trying to report on Internet phenomena today. It’s the space that people wiggle into after they’ve said something dehumanizing about another person online. It was just a joke, and if you don’t get it, then you’re the problem.
“People embrace irony, run to it, and use it as a shield to dip into a more objectionable idea,” Milner said. And what was once an adage reminding message board users to remain agnostic about the motivation of a stranger on the Internet has become more consequential as it slips into more public spaces.
“It’s easier to laugh off someone pretending to be a flat Earther than it is to laugh off someone ironically saying the Holocaust is a good thing,” Milner said. “We’re unfortunately in a place where a lot of our public conversations are the latter.”
What it is: “As an online discussion continues, the probability of a reference or comparison to Hitler or Nazis approaches 1.” That’s how Mike Godwin defined the law in 1990, when he was trying to do something about the phenomenon of online arguments devolving into sloppy name-calling — specifically, unwarranted comparisons to Adolf Hitler.
Invoking “Godwin’s law” eventually became a way to address those comparisons. Thoughtlessly accuse someone you disagree with of being a Nazi, and someone might turn around and accuse you of breaking the Internet’s most treasured law.
Why it’s still useful: The key of Godwin’s law is in its criticism of avoiding an argument by bludgeoning your opponent with a careless comparison to the worst people on earth. “When you don’t want to or are too blinded to get into the depth and nuance of the issue, then the easy blow-off is to call someone a Nazi,” Milner said.
The phenomenon is easily visible today. You’ll see it in the replies to any of Donald Trump’s tweets, and in the Trump Internet’s obsession with connecting mainstream liberalism and liberals to “leftist violence.”
But like most things on the Internet, Godwin’s Law has gotten a little bit more complicated in the past couple of years. Spamming Trump’s Twitter mentions with Hitler memes might be a good illustration of the law in action, but even Godwin himself came forward in 2015 to clarify that his rule shouldn’t be invoked when people make thoughtful, well-informed comparisons between Hitler and Trump, or any other politician.
There’s another trick to navigate with Godwin’s Law in 2017: literal Nazis and white nationalists are on the Internet, too, and they’re more visible now. For example, Richard Spencer, the white nationalist who coined “alt-right” as a friendlier term for his beliefs, may not like being called a Nazi. But he also told his supporters shortly after Trump’s election that they should “party like it’s 1933,” referencing the year Hitler was appointed Germany’s chancellor. So comparing Spencer to a Nazi is less about painting someone as an extremist, and more about semantics.
“I don’t think Richard Spencer and his supporters could invoke Godwin’s Law when someone calls them a Nazi,” Milner said.
What it is: If it exists, there is a porn of it. The rule comes from a bunch of old 4chan “rules,” which were basically inside jokes for navigating the culture of the message boards at the time. Unlike many of those Rules of the Internet, though, Rule 34 crossed over and took on a life of its own. It seemed to be true, and it also served as a fun game that has the added bonus of destroying your search history.
The law’s golden age ended around 2010, and — as, uh, The Washington Post explained in an important investigation last year — the porn that is easily accessible on the web has become more centralized since then, indicating that the rule — and the creative and disturbing world of super weird Internet porn that sustained it — may be on its way out.
Why it’s still useful: Originally I was going to be kind of facetious about this one — the Internet is still full of porn, and even if it’s harder to find than it once was, a porn of pretty much anything you can think of does seem to exist somewhere online. But there’s actually more to it than that.
“Where Rule 34 still connects is with the fact that even as the Internet has become more diverse … there’s still this undercurrent that still looks like the subculture niche spaces of a decade ago,” Milner said.
If you’re willing to expand the rule beyond it’s porn-specific origins, Rule 34 is about discovering the worst and weirdest things that humans have voluntarily put on the Internet. And if 2017 has taught us anything, it is that no matter how bad the last terrible thing that happened on the Internet was, something worse is always waiting around the corner.