Godwin's Law

On October 4, 2005, I had the good fortune to meet Mike Godwin at the ITS Colloquium. Godwin is famous for his adage that as the duration of a USENET discussion grows, so does the probability of a comparison with Hitler or Nazis. During the seminar the topic of Wikipedia arose and Mike, sitting two seats away, nudged me and said he had an interesting story to tell.

Godwin’s Law is now quite old, few use the USENET for discussion, but the observation remains potent because while Godwin spoke to a feature of human discourse, that though exaggerated on discussion groups, transcends a particular media. Indeed, Senator Rick Santorum started a controversy with just such a comparison this summer.

Godwin notes that his observation was penned specifically as a memetic experiment: to pose an idea and see how it perpetuates and mutates in the field of popular discourse. The law has been fecund, leading to variants and malapropisms. Ironically, when someone unknowingly uses one of these variants she might be attacked by a dogmatic defender of the orthodoxy, provoking allusions to fascist language Nazis, thus proving the adage.

In any case, the Wikipedia experience that Godwin wished to share was about the article on Godwin’s Law. While modifying the article to more accurately reflect the history of the meme, some other editors objected. The trinity of Wikipedia policies is that editors should be neutral in their presentation of claims, not include original – and potentially crackpot – research, and provide citations such that any such claim can be verified by others. So, this story brings us to the interesting question of how does the primary source, such as Godwin, edit a related article? While recognizing Godwin’s authority, one might also then challenge his neutrality and reporting of primary claims. It is not uncommon for contributors to create “vanity” edits (pages or links) that are rebuffed with these policies when the edit is not of encyclopedic merit. But what of when the edit is of merit? Are the most qualified primary sources disqualified from editing the Wikipedia article? Need a primary source published her first person claim elsewhere before it can bear upon the Wikipedia article?

Ported/Archived Responses

David Gerard on 2005-11-15

Pretty much, yes ;-) Which will feel odd to the person in question, but is needed for verifiability. Because then we can say “According to Mike Godwin’s own account of the history of the law [reference link] …” and it’s clearly marked what it is.

The very proper way to do these things is to put them on the talk page for an independent editor to look over. It’s hard enough for someone to write neutrally about themselves that we just need to say “please don’t.” We have several Wikipedia editors who cope okay with this stuff.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wikipedia:Autobiography covers how to deal with articles about yourself.

Joe on 2010-03-21

References are provided so later readers can check on the source of the information and judge for themselves how much credence they wish to give that source.

If the primary source posts information using an IP or pseudonymous account then it is difficult to attribute that info. Even when the information is posted using a wikipedia account which is known to  belong to a particular person, it can still be hard for an inexperienced to track down exactly who posted the information by looking at random diffs on the history page.

It just so much easier if the info is posted elsewhere. A personal website or blog is good as it is likely to be clearly associated with that person.

If they have a verified Wikipedia account they can post the info as a signed comment on the article talk page - references can link to a talk page diff.

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