Unintended Blogsequences

Computers make it easier to do a lot of things, but most of the things they make it easier to do don't need to be done. -- Andy Rooney

Technorati, a search engine that tracks blogs on the "World Live Web," has some interesting numbers.

At the time of this writing, Technorati was tracking 80.3 million blogs, noting that there are over 175,000 new blogs -- just blogs -- every single day. To break it down even further, bloggers put up 1.6 million posts per day, about 18 updates every second.

The obvious upside of blogging (and internet publishing, in general) is the advancement of public discourse democratization. But, with every technological advance, there's a Faustian bargain.

Of course, it's hard to argue with Technorati's appreciation of blog power. "Blogs are powerful because they allow millions of people to easily publish and share their ideas, and millions more to read and respond. They engage the writer and reader in an open conversation, and are shifting the Internet paradigm as we know it," according to their Web site.

While blogging has shifted the Net "paradigm" (one of the most overused words in the world of analysis, Thomas Kuhn would probably agree), I'm not so sure about the "open conversation" part.

My skepticism is based, in part, on an unintended consequence known as blogoreah, particularly in the anonymous, handle-name filled, political blogosphere. Although the internet can be a powerful organizing tool, a publishing house for the People and a quick-and-easy way to access porn, in the crowded political blog galaxy of cyberspace, Godwin's Law rules.

Godwin's Law is named after cyber lawyer Mike Godwin. Godwin's Law states: "As an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches one."

Godwin's blog links to Wiki, where you can learn that the concept was initially used in specific reference to Usenet newsgroups discussions but has since been applied to any threaded online discussion.

In Usenet tradition, when someone uses the Nazi/Hitler analogy, the thread is over and whoever keys the dissembling dis indicates he or she has "lost" the debate.

Wiki adds an important caveat: "Godwin's Law does not apply to discussions directly addressing genocide, propaganda or other mainstays of the Nazi regime. Instead, it applies to inappropriate, inordinate, or hyperbolic comparisons of other situations (or one's opponent) with Hitler or Nazis."

"However, Godwin's Law can itself also be abused, as a distraction or diversion, to fallaciously miscast an opponent's argument as hyperbole, especially if the comparisons made by the argument are actually appropriate."

There's an interesting philosophical discussion to be had about why Godwin's Law even exists, but there's no denying its unfortunate relevancy as it sucks the life out of any potentially fruitful dialogue like a giant black hole in cyberspace -- whether it's a discussion about gun control, abortion, or public smoking bans.

The common use of the Nazi/Hitler analogy, used across a wide variety of un-related topics, convinced Godwin that we're actually dealing with a bad meme; a net-culture virus that needs to be countered.

In a 1994 Wired article Godwin wrote: "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."

While the time is still ripe for countering the seemingly unabated Nazi/Hitler meme, what concerns me far more is what I'll call the Cyber Bubble Theory, which postulates that as blogs and internet news sites grow, the probability of having a meaningful national discourse approaches zero.

The internet has led to the creation of virtual communities where people can construct their own hermetically-sealed, opposing argument-proof, cyber bubble.

So I'm wondering: does a public common even exist anymore? If not, what does that say about the prospects for reaching consensus on important public policy questions -- a necessary component in any healthy society?

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