Twenty years ago, Mike Godwin, the online counsel for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, began developing something that has become known as Godwin's Law. It states that as any online discussion continues, so the likelihood of someone comparing someone else to Hitler increases. Ten years ago, a then colleague of mine flirted with the idea of circumventing Godwin's Law and cutting straight to the chase by setting up a Jewish dating site, called There-are-so-many-nice-jewish-girls-out-there-you-just-don't-get-out-enough-to-meet-them-and-honestly-dating-shiksas-all-the-time-think-of-your-poor-grandparents-what-are-you-trying-to-do-kill-them-you're-as-bad-as-hitler.com.
He never did get around to it, and nowadays Godwin's Law is just too slow. But now there's a way round it. I have just been advised that I am "worse than Hitler" with a speed that nobody could have predicted 10 years ago, and without having done anything to provoke it except by the fact of my existence. I also learn – within an hour or so of signing on for this new online self-improvement service – that I must stop telling people so rudely about their shortcomings; that I must stop banging on about "church liturgy" (I never realised there was another sort), that I should wear hats less often, and that yellow doesn't suit me.
The service, the brainchild of two Americans, Danny Peck and Stephen Celis, is called "Failings". You can find it at http://Failin.gs, and the notion is alarmingly simple. You register, put up a bit about yourself, then invite your friends to comment. They will enjoy an impenetrable wall of anonymity. Not only have you nowhere to hide on the Failin.gs site itself, but thanks to the magic of the web, you can be automatically horribly exposed on Facebook and Twitter. And so the destiny of the net as a mechanism for the global trading of insults is being fulfilled.
There have been other similar schemes. Personratings.com was a sort of review site about people, with a team of volunteers to maintain order and weed out extremist opinions. Since extremist opinions are the main source of fun, it's not really surprising that it seems to have disappeared. And last year a hopeful entrepreneur was trying to start up a "Rate Your Friends" application for Facebook; but the project was cancelled. If you're incredibly lazy, you can buy an application for your Blackberry, "FaceRate", which decides how appealing your friends are by looking at their photographs. Google's social networking site Orkut (Orkut.com) allows you to make various public judgments about your friends: "The more smileys you select, the more trusty you rate your friend."
Well, whack my porcupine... but Failings' elegance lies in its circumventing all that blather. Click the link, make your comment, then bugger off again in your electronic Cloak of Invisibility. And guess what? Your victim will get an email to say someone has commented. It would take a strong will to resist that. "Lovely," you think. You log in to check. "You are worse than Hitler." Have a nice day.
Peck and Celis are trying their best to promote civility. Little helpful notifications appear while you are denouncing someone. "Is this constructive?" they ask; "We're here to help, not hurt." To which the answers are, respectively, "No; so?", and "You may be, but I am here to wound."
The mission statement is similarly affable. "Failin.gs is a community where you can anonymously critique your friends' various personality flaws. This is a place for constructive criticism! We're here to help one another, not hurt one another. So, please, be nice."
Yes; and look! Pigs! Flying past the window as I write! Speaking from the Old Media to the New, I have to say that the main fun of journalism, for writers and readers alike, is being nasty, unhelpful, wounding, personally offensive and destructively critical. "London Man 'Perfectly Pleasant' Say Friends, Police" is not a headline which will sell papers. Nor is it the sort of story which young journalists dream of getting to write. I can't imagine a different rule applying on Failin.gs, somehow.
Not that it will matter. Because the other great trick up Peck and Celis's sleeve is that it gives us all the chance to experience celebrity; to understand what it must be like, for a moment, to be Gordon Brown or one of those women with bosoms married to a someone you've never heard of, who has run off with someone else you have never heard of, or been thrown out following a "sex romp" (a form of human activity nobody has ever actually experienced). Morals of a slag! Wears too much yellow! Bores on about stuff! Fat ankles! Bad breath! Now it can be YOU, and what's more, everyone else can see it. We are the celebrity stars of our own lives. Now, at last, with our failin.gs made public and the chance to issue our own denials, we can be treated like them too.
Just one problem. Given the anonymity of one's critics, one has to come to one's own judgments. Is he the one who said I am worse than Hitler? Was it her? Or is it you?
The mature response is to invoke the Spartacus Principle. You said it. And you said it. And you and you and YOU said it. You ALL said it and I hate you all and you are NOT MY FRIENDS ANY MORE. None of you. I don't care. I am going to have my bosoms done and run off with a liturgically minded footballer, and I don't care what you think.
Michael is at: Failin.gs/profile/asortofagodReuse content