Mike Godwin's an interesting guy -- at least for a lawyer. He's now the general counsel for the Wikimedia Foundation, but in the 1990s he was the first staff counsel for the Electronic Frontier Foundation.
It was in this role, way back in 1990 -- back before there was even much of an Internet -- where Godwin hit upon one of the great societal truths of our time.
As an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches 1.
This nugget (or nougat, if you happen to have a sociological sweet tooth) has been immortalized as "Godwin's Law".
This week, Brandon Invergo -- who's half computer scientist and half biologist -- decided to go Godwin one step further, and subject Godwin's Law, Barack Obama, both Presidents Bush, and Bill and Hillary Clinton to the Google equivalent of scientific analysis.
What Invergo decided to do was search Google for page hits. He wanted to see how many pages had the names of the three most recent U.S. Presidents and Hitler on the same page. He also did the same for the Presidents along with the names Lenin, Stalin, Mao, and even Satan.
What he found was interesting. For Google page hits, President Obama scored slightly higher with "Hitler" on the same page than the former Presidents Bush. By contrast, the Bush dynasty scored slightly higher on pages with "Satan" on them.
"Clinton" came out at about half of both, but that's probably because the former President wasn't in office when Google was around and Hillary just doesn't seem able to raise the same level of ire as an actual President (yeah, that surprised me, too).
"Paint The White House Black"
One thing Invergo wasn't able to do was distinguish between was which Clinton or which Bush might have been mentioned. He just did "Bush Hitler" or "Bush Satan" searches, and those could have resulted in either Bush 41 or Bush 43.
The same was true when searching for Clinton. Clinton searches would, of course, result in Billary. But the interesting thing about the family name "Clinton" and Web searches is you never know who might show up, especially when also searching on "Satan". Could there be a Web page link between the great George Clinton, Parliament-Funkadelic, and the famous P-Funk sign (look it up) and could that skew the results?
Or what about Richard Dawkins, the controversial author of The God Delusion. Because he's a critic of both intelligent design and creationism, he's surely appeared on pages with the word "Satan". Why do we care about Professor Dawkins in the context of "Clinton Satan" searches? His full name is Clinton Richard Dawkins.
Why is this important?
First, this is just good, clean geeky fun. Where else are you going to find mentions of Obama, Bush, Clinton, Hitler, Stalin, Mao, Satan, and Parliament-Funkadelic in a ZDNet Government piece?
Second, it's important because we can now use the hive mind that is the Internet (and, specifically, Google) to put things into perspective. Every new generation and every new administration seems worse to some people than anything that's gone before. But if we can quantify public opinion and mine the data in some way, we can begin to get a bigger and broader perspective than what we just get from TV and news Web sites.
The searchable, indexable Internet was new during President Clinton's time, came of age during President Bush's time, and is embedded deeply in daily life in President Obama's time. As we move forward, all of this information will be available to explore.
Can you imagine, a hundred years from now, what some digital anthropologist will have at his or her fingertips (if we don't all completely devolve)? Digging for digital treasure will not involve digging away dirt. Instead, it'll involve algorithms sifting through yottabytes of spam.
Even so, future historians will have a never-ending cache of information, opinion, and angst-ridden blog entries to give them a rich perspective of our world.
Poor guys! The day they discover and log into that last remaining Farmville server is the day their world will slide slowly into the abyss.
Have a great weekend, everyone!
See also: Back in 2008, Ed Bott talked about "Going Godwin".