virus: I'm not dead yet!

Fri, 08 Nov 1996 12:17:44 -0800

Hakeeb A. Nandalal wrote:

> ---------------------------------------------------------------------
> >From "Good Times Virus Hoax FAQ 5/9/9" by Les Jones <>
> gopher-//
> ---------------------------------------------------------------------
> [Open Quote]
> -----------------------------------------------
> What's the best way to control a thought virus?
> -----------------------------------------------
> Create a counter virus like this one as an antidote. To make the
> counter virus contagious, include instructions such as, "The Good
> Times email virus is a hoax. If anyone repeats the hoax, please show
> them the FAQ."
> [Close Quote]
> ---------------------------------------------------------------------

Is Everybody familiar with Goodwin's Law? If not, read on. (Taken from
the Hotwired archives)

Meme, Counter-meme

Do we have an obligation to improve our informational environment?

By Mike Godwin

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. It
was the kind of thing that made you wonder how debates had ever occurred
without having that handy rhetorical hammer.

Not everyone saw the comparison to Nazis as a "meme" - most people on
the Net, as elsewhere, had never heard of "memes" or "memetics." But now
that we're living in an increasingly
information-aware culture, it's time for that to change. And it's time
for net.dwellers to make a conscious effort to control the kinds of
memes they create or circulate.

A "meme," of course, is an idea that functions in a mind the same way a
gene or virus functions in the body. And an infectious idea (call it a
"viral meme") may leap from mind to mind,
much as viruses leap from body to body.

When a meme catches on, it may crystallize whole schools of thought.
Take the "black hole" meme, for instance. As physicist Brandon Carter
has commented in Stephen Hawkings's A
Brief History of Time: A Reader's Companion: "Things changed
dramatically when John Wheeler invented the term [black
hole]...Everybody adopted it, and from then on, people
around the world, in Moscow, in America, in England, and elsewhere,
could know they were speaking about the same thing." Once the "black
hole" meme became commonplace, it
became a handy source of metaphors for everything from illiteracy to the

By 1990, I had noticed, something similar had happened to the
Nazi-comparison meme. Sure, there are obvious topics in which the
comparison recurs. In discussions about guns and the
Second Amendment, for example, gun-control advocates are periodically
reminded that Hitler banned personal weapons. And birth-control debates
are frequently marked by pro-lifers'
insistence that abortionists are engaging in mass murder, worse than
that of Nazi death camps. And in any newsgroup in which censorship is
discussed, someone inevitably raises the
specter of Nazi book-burning.

But the Nazi-comparison meme popped up elsewhere as well - in general
discussions of law in, for example, or in the EFF conference
on the Well. Stone libertarians were
ready to label any government regulation as incipient Nazism. And,
invariably, the comparisons trivialized the horror of the Holocaust and
the social pathology of the Nazis. It was a
trivialization I found both illogical (Michael Dukakis as a Nazi?
Please!) and offensive (the millions of concentration-camp victims did
not die to give some net.blowhard a handy trope).

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! And it mutated like a meme, generating corollaries like the

Gordon's Restatement of Newman's Corollary to Godwin's Law:
Libertarianism (pro, con, and internal faction fights) is the primordial discussion topic. Any time the
debate shifts somewhere else, it must eventually return to this
fuel source.
Morgan's Corollary to Godwin's Law: As soon as such a comparison
occurs, someone will start a Nazi-discussion thread on alt.censorship.
Sircar's Corollary: If the Usenet discussion touches on
homosexuality or Heinlein, Nazis or Hitler are mentioned within three
Van der Leun's Corollary: As global connectivity improves, the
probability of actual Nazis being on the Net approaches one.
Miller's Paradox: As a network evolves, the number of Nazi
comparisons not forestalled by citation to Godwin's Law converges to

In time, discussions in the seeded newsgroups and discussions seemed to
show a lower incidence of the Nazi-comparison meme. And the counter-meme
mutated into even more useful
forms. (As Cuckoo's Egg author Cliff Stoll once said to me: "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?") By my (admittedly low) standards, the experiment was a success.

But its success had given me much to reflect on. If it's possible to
generate effective counter-memes, is there any moral imperative to do
so? When we see a bad or false meme go by,
should we take pains to chase it with a counter-meme? Do we have an
obligation to improve our informational environment? Our social

But this power to do good may also be a power to do ill. Anyone on the
Net has the power to affect stock prices. (Or worse: a fraudulent
re-creation of the Tylenol-poisoning scare
could cause a national or international panic.) And viral memes are
capable of doing lasting damage.

While the world of the Net is filled with diverse critical thinkers who
are ready to challenge self-indulgent or self-aggrandizing memes, we
can't rely on net.culture's diversity and inertia to
answer every bad meme. The Nazi-comparison meme has a peculiar
resilience, in part because of its sheer inflammatory power ("You're
calling me a Nazi? You're the Nazi in this
discussion!") The best way to fight such memes is to craft counter-memes
designed to put them in perspective. The time may have come for us to
commit ourselves to memetic
engineering - crafting good memes to drive out the bad ones.

Otherwise, plus ga change, plus c'est la meme chose.

Mike Godwin ( is online counsel for the Electronic
Frontier Foundation.

And on the topic of the amibigous area which falls on the continuim
between behavior which is clearly directed by genes and that which is
primarily meme-driven, consider the Portia spider. Where does her
mimicry behavior sit on Martin Traynor's ascii visual aid:

- -1 0 1
Gene Meme

There's a story in the new National Geographic about a spider called
Portia fimfriata. The story's title is "PROTIA SPIDER Mistress of
Deception." Portia lives by eating other spiders. She does so with
mimicry. She will sometimes pluck the threads of another spider's web
in a manner that signals to the web's builder a helpless victim. With
other prey she mimics the vibrations indicative of an ardent spider
Romeo. Here are some excerpt's:

"Death comes courting when Portia mimics the mating ritual of the
Euryattus sp. spider, which lives in a rolled-up leaf suspended by silk
cables. Sitting atop a females spider's home, Portia rocks the leaf,
dancing atop it like a Euryattus male. Fooled for the moment, the
spider emerges from its home.
Portia has an uncanny ability to elicit specific responses from other
spiders. Most of its targets are themselves formidable predators, and
it would be dangerous for Portia to always pretend to be prey and so
provoke a full-scale attack. The best way to hunt a lion is, after all,
not to imitate a gazelle."

"How does Portia match signals with different types of spiders?
The answer defies the conventional wisdom that spiders are simply
instint-driven automatons. Portia can find a signal for just about any
spider by trial and error. It makes different signals until the victim
spider finally responds appropriately--then keeps making the signal that

"Even the gutsy Portia knows better than to tackle the huge female
Nephila macalata. But the male of the species, a comparative midget
that lives on the same web, is just the right size for a meal.
There's one complication, though: Portia must tailor its dignals just
for the Nephila male. If the female is alerted, she'll attack.
Amazingly, Portia lures the male in for the kill--while maintaining
"radio silence" with his mate."

"Because Portias recognize one another so easily, they have developed
what appear to be ingenious methods of mounting surprise attacks.
For example, we observed one Portia as she apparently planned a rear
attack on another female's web. After she was repelled by the resident
spider, the attacking Portia seemed to retreat.
Once she was out of sight of her rival, however, she climbed some
nearby vegetation and ventured out across a vine that extended above the
web. From above, Portia dropped on her own silk line alongside the
web. Then Portia began to swing toward her unsuspecting victim ...
until she made a kill. Lab experiments suggest that Portias must plan
such detours.
We may be uncomfortable with the idea of spider intelligence. After
all, with a brain no bigger than a pinhead, a spider like Portia is
supposed to follow rigid, simple behavior patterns. There's no much
room in there for thinking. But from its deadly skill at mimicry to its
elaborate attack strategies, Portia is one of the most behaviorally
complex predators in the animal kingdom."

Of course, with National Geographic, the words comprise less than half
the story. Having stared at hair, big toothed spiders for the time it
took to transcribe the above excerpts has left my scalp crawling all
over my cranium. Eeyuck!

Take care, all.