Thinking About Gresham's Law and Internet DiscourseA few months ago, someone emailed me with a passing reference to Gresham's Law. I had never heard of this before, but apparently it is an economic formulation essentially saying that bad money drives out good. Gresham was an English businessman during the 16th century. In that time, money was metallic coins made out of some rare material - gold or silver. All the money was treated as legitimate currency and citizens were forced to accept it, but many people would shave some metal off the coins they held, keeping the scraps because they had their own value, and then use the coins at face value. Or sometimes governments would mix the rare materials with base ones to stretch them and keep more of the valuable metals themselves.
Eventually people got wise to this scheme and would keep the coins with more metal and spend the devalued currency. Thus, the "bad" money dominates the "good" because it tends to be the one in circulation, as people first spend the ones they know to be of lesser intrinsic value.
On it's own this is an interesting phenomenon. But it applies in other areas. According to the Wikipedia article, for example, lemons can push good vehicles out of the used auto market, because people want to dump the cars with problems, so the lemons recycle more quickly into the used market and, depending on their total number, can come to dominate it. So why not apply it to Internet discourse? I've seen firsthand more than once how unpleasant discourse in specialty online forums, driven by a few people, can cause more thoughtful and knowledgeable folk away. The result is that as new people come in, they see the "victors" as the long-time denizens and associate them with a greater understanding of the topic in question.
In other words, people online are collectively promoting misunderstanding and poor knowledge and effectively rewarding those who actively drive out others because of their own psychological peculiarities. It's another example of collective intellectual and emotional degeneration. What do we expect of younger generations, who spend so much time online, when these are the examples of "success?"