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A Guide to Flaming

flame ~ n. insulting criticism or remark meant to incite anger

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The Causes of Flame Wars

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Once the flames reach the ceiling, few people trouble to think about how it all started - though many look for someone to blame. Fewer still think about why it started, and how it might best be avoided.

There's no doubt that trolls start many flame wars, just because they can, and because they don't have a bad enough singing voice to get on the "X-Factor" (but I digress!).

Some are started by someone with an axe to grind; revenge is a fairly pointless exercise, but it does give a certain satisfaction, and someone slighted once may wait happily for an opportunity to strike back. This is normal human behaviour; I'm not talking about stalking here, though very occasionally, they do strike in this way.

Many - perhaps most - flame wars owe their origins to accident, and not ill will.

The act of being misunderstood due to lack of verbal, physical and inflective cues does not make a flame war by itself - but it does provide the fuel and often the spark. The war does not really start until the response to a misunderstanding; that happens when someone chooses to, as it were, fan the flames.

Flaming is a deliberate act, not an accident.

I coined the term detonator for one who - deliberately or not - starts the exchange. One reason it has not caught on is that once the flame war has begun, few care who started it!

Contributing factors

In the early days, the internet was growing exponentially; every conversation included people new to the game, who did not know the rules, and walked into trouble. they didn't know about cross-posting, top posting and other items of Netiquette. And when someone, often impatiently, advised them, they spontaneously combusted. As the web has matured, this is far less an issue.

Usenet was unique; forums were few, mailing lists had to strangle disputes, as they filled mailboxes, blogs had not been invented, nor had chatrooms and instant messaging. This means that every newsgroup welcomed people with different interests, different levels of knowledge, and very different backrounds; the turnover of readers was high, as people searched for whatever content suited them. It didn't take a lot for misunderstanding to happen.

Newgroups comprised active members (often only a few) and 'lurkers' (often thousands). Only flamers consistently recognised this and drew in the lurkers with carefully written flames that often confused the regulars.

Usenet was (and largely still is) unmoderated; attempts to stop flame wars are pleas, not orders, and carry no weight. As in all societies, natural leaders rise, often through knowledge or humour and writing skills; others may resent this. Housekeeping trivia can become a test of 'Who Runs This Place'. I frequent one group where rows about crossposting and top posting occur almost weekly; the same basic argument, often the same protagonists, week after week after week. Go figure!

Crossposting, almost invariably started by idiots, can spread a flame war to another group, who are almost guaranteed to be irritable from the outset; luckily, such a pointless feature does not exist in most meeting places on the web.

Evolution

As venues get smaller and more specialized, so the spats get more personal, briefer and can be ended by sensible (and powerful) moderators in real time. Gone, probably forever, are the days when a flame war of 3000 messages could not only occur once, but be repeated a few weeks later.

People are NOT equally intelligent or reasonable, but the web treats all alike; it really is a great equaliser, and for some with sad 'real lives', winning a flame war may be the only power they have ever had, or will ever have (other than selling grandmother's teeth). Such people will happily hurt thousands (or at least waste their time) in order to 'beat' or embarass, one individual.

Flaming is, was, and always be a pointless exercise - but that doesn't mean it won't keep happening!



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Guide to flaming