Flame Wars and Other Online Arguments

Copyright © 2003 by Timothy Campbell
Email:  flamewarsat– tc123 –dot– com
Please do not cut-and-paste this article
April 20 2003 Edition
http://members.aol.com/intwg/flamewars.htm
Approximate Reading Time: 9 Minutes

 Table of Contents
Introduction
I'm Passionate; You're Wrong (Instaclick)
I'm Just Trying to Help (Pedantry)
My Soapbox, My Audience (Abstraction)
I'm Right; You're Wrong (Polarity)
You're Right; I'm Wrong (Ego)
They're Wrong; You're Wrong (Transference)
You Mustn't Be Right (Antiprocess)
You're Not Listening (Frustration)
I Thought You Knew (Miscommunication)
I'm Right; You're Deluded (Flamebait)
I'm Right; You're Hooked (Trolling)
I'm Within the Rules (Brinking)
Conclusion
Resources
 Introduction
Top

"I came here for a good argument."
"No you didn't, you came here for an argument."

— Monty Python

If you've spent more than a few days using an online message system (such as message boards or newsgroups), you've probably noticed that arguments sometimes arise even when people are honestly trying to have a fruitful conversation.

Sometimes these arguments become quite heated, at which point they ignite what has become known as a "Flame War". The infuriated participants write rapid-fire posts and counter-posts, each trying to win what has now devolved into a no-holds-barred battle.

I designed and ran my first message board in 1981 and have been posting and reading online ever since. I've noticed that there are certain types of disputes that occur again and again. I am hoping that if I itemize them here it will help us spot them and prevent civil conversations from spinning out of control.

 I'm Passionate; You're Wrong
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The Problem: Instaclick

The online world moves with electronic speed, and sometimes we react quickly when it would be better to pause for reflection. People may see a post (i.e. a message on a message board) and instantly click on the "Reply" button. If they do this when incensed, they can say things that they might otherwise not have said, or state their case in a less than diplomatic fashion.

There is much to be said for the wisdom of "counting to ten" when one is angry. Unfortunately, it is tempting to get your thoughts onto the screen the moment they spring to mind.

 I'm Just Trying to Help
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The Problem: Pedantry

People writing posts on a message board often consider it an informal process and do not take as much care as they would if they were, say, writing a business letter. Some people feel the need to correct those who make mistakes in their spelling, grammar or punctuation. While this may be well-intentioned, it is after all a public rebuke, and this can raise the hackles of the person being "helped" in this way. An otherwise friendly conversation can acquire a hostile edge, which may surprise the person offering the advice. After all, he or she was merely trying to help!

Of course, the responsibility for a negative reaction lies with the person being so helped (if the advice was offered in a gentle manner). Ideally, they should take the advice with good humour and (if possible) some gratitude. They might be writing a message that contains many valid ideas, but if they commit some of the common online spelling errors (e.g. "definately" instead of "definitely", or "hypocracy" instead of "hypocrisy"), their ability to convince others will be weakened.

It would be nice if people could be advised in private (via email), but because of the chilling effect of spam, few people are willing to post their email address in public these days. Some message boards have local, private "In-Boxes" to deal with this dilemma.

Pendantry is also a problem if some people think the conversation is informal while others think that everybody must express themselves with utmost precision. Thus, somebody may say, "Dogs have hair" and someone will jump in with the comment, "You're wrong: what about the Mexican Hairless?" It is possible that the first person really meant, "In general, dogs have hair" and if the matter isn't critical he or she should have been given the benefit of the doubt.

Once again, there's a question of who is responsible for the problem. Many people have a tendency to speak in absolutes when writing online. They could be more clear about what they do or do not know by saying that things "can" happen, that people "may" do such-and-such, and so on.

 My Soapbox, My Audience
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The Problem: Abstraction

The word "abstraction", as used here, has a double meaning. In the first case, it refers to the dictionary definition: "absence of mind or preoccupation". It also refers to seeing others online as abstract concepts as opposed to real human beings.

When we're online, we can get so wrapped up in what we're writing that we forget that we are addressing living, breathing people.

This can come out in several ways. We may speak as if we were broadcasting — a one-way communication — ignoring the input of others. We may be seduced by the insulation of distance to exhibit what I call "keyboard bravery": the tendency to speak with more boldness or even hostility than we would in a face-to-face encounter.

When people are called to task for speaking in a bellicose manner, they may defend themselves by saying, "I'm just saying what I think", or "I'm just being honest". Yet they would be well advised to read their own words back out loud before clicking on the "Send" button. They may be surprised at how hostile or bombastic they sound.

It is significant that the problem of abstraction comes up less frequently in online chat rooms. When people are interacting more directly, they tend to choose their words more carefully.

 I'm Right; You're Wrong
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The Problem: Polarity

The digital world is a binary world; computers work with zero and one — true and false. In a striking parallel, people in online discussions often seek Yes/No answers rather than compromise. Rather than seeking a middle ground, a struggle arises to determine who is right and who is wrong. If the truth lies somewhere in between, there can rarely be a resolution, and the debate can continue indefinitely.

 You're Right; I'm Wrong
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The Problem: Ego

One wag once remarked that the sentence typed least often on the Internet is "I was wrong".

It is indeed hard for us to admit defeat, especially if we have typed several impassioned messages establishing our position. We are afraid to lose face, or we do not know how to concede gracefully.

This problem is sometimes related to that of polarity: we may feel that we have to be right or wrong. We may also think that an issue must be resolved in a single post. Yet we can often deflect an argument simply by responding, "Yes, that makes sense." We do not have to make a formal surrender!

 They're Wrong; You're Wrong
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The Problem: Transference

Flame wars can break out when one person tentatively takes a position that another participant feels strongly about. The original poster may then be seen as representative of the entire opposing side.

For example, if I was to express support for a particular political candidate's stance on some issue, you may heap upon me the scorn you feel for the entire political party. Since you cannot attack the party itself, you transfer your hostility to me. If I don't realize that this has taken place, I might end up fighting with you.

 You Mustn't Be Right
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The Problem: Antiprocess

Most people have a fairly fixed set of beliefs with which they are comfortable. These help them get through life, and if these ideas are in jeopardy they may react irrationally.

This involves a psychological defense mechanism known as "avoidance of cognitive dissonance". I refer to this problem as "antiprocess" because while the person preprocesses the information subconsciously, he or she does not process the information consciously. Indeed, he or she actively evades conscious processing. When this happens the person can appear to be stubborn or even stupid.

Once you learn to spot antiprocess, you will see how it causes unresolvable arguments. Certain types of phrases (which I refer to as "Unwarranted Ascription") serve as warning signs that a debate has run up against antiprocess:

You know perfectly well ...
You are deliberately ...
You are intentionally trying to deceive ...
You know I'm right, but ...

When you see somebody "mind-reading" like this — telling somebody else what they "know" or what they are thinking — it's quite likely that antiprocess has entered into the discussion.

There are other warning signs. It is a good idea to familiarize yourself with the various logical fallacies, such as Ad hominem, Argumentum ad populum, Straw Man, and so on. (These are documented in many places on the net and are outside the scope of this article.) It is my belief that we pick up these techniques as we learn language and keep them in our subconscious catalog of defensive techniques. We may understand, on a purely rational level, why each of these techniques is fallacious, but we are nonetheless tempted to fall back on them when our emotional well-being is threatened.

 You're Not Listening
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The Problem: Frustration

When you are in a crowd, it is hard to be heard above everybody else. You can compensate by raising your voice — but this does not work online.

When people think they are not being given a fair hearing, they may become more and more emphatic. They start using words such as "clearly" and "obviously" more often, and make key terms stand out by placing them in UPPERCASE. Expressions such as "any fool can see" start popping up. When you see people ramping up in this manner, an argument is looming.

On the other hand, some people do this habitually when they write messages. Everything is stated as if it should be obvious to any intelligent person once they have the facts (as the poster sees them). This stands as a subtle challenge, if not an insult, to those who may think differently.

People who demand to be heard may also increase the length of their posts, or post more often. This often has the opposite effect they desired: people start skimming or skipping what they say. That is when we start seeing phrases such as, "Didn't you read what I wrote?" or "I've already explained to you that...".

Clearly (ahem), this is a conversation that is heading for trouble.

 I Thought You Knew
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The Problem: Miscommunication

People sometimes get angry when they misinterpret what others have written. The other person may have written a joke that didn't quite work, or may have written what they thought was self-evidentally a bit of playful teasing. They may use a word correctly and have it taken the wrong way ("You're ignorant of ..." does not mean the other person is uneducated; it means they do not know).

In addition, people sometimes post messages when they are not at their best. They may be tired or even two beers past their usual limit. People who know them well will probably not take offense if they write something a bit coarse, but others may have their feathers ruffled by a careless remark.

If you are participating on a message board, it helps to have a thick skin.

 I'm Right; You're Deluded
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The Problem: Flamebait

"Flamebait" (sometimes rendered "Flame Bait") is a subject that people feel strongly about and which almost always causes causes sharp divisions in viewpoint. In general, these topics involve sex, religion and politics. Here are some examples of topics that are considered flamebait:

Abortion
Atheism
Capital punishment
Gun control
Legalization of drugs

When flame war veterans see one of these topics come up, they often restrict their reply to something like, "This is flamebait; I'm not touching this topic." Inexperienced users, on the other hand, blithely charge in, and the same tired arguments are trotted out for the millionth time. Nobody changes their position and everybody gets irritated.

 I'm Right; You're Hooked
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The Problem: Trolling

Internet trolls are people who set out to start arguments or otherwise make people on message boards uncomfortable. They can do this by posting "flamebait" topics or by writing preposterous or insulting messages. (I have written an article that provides a more detailed explanation of "Internet Trolls"; you can click here to read it in a new window.)

Trolls may participate in the ensuing argument, or they may simply write what I call "Drive-by Postings". That is to say, they will ignite the flame war and then sit back and watch the show.

Cagey net users quickly recognize trolls for what they are and warn their fellow posters that "You are being trolled" (or words to that effect). However, since there is a constant influx of new users on the net, trolls are going to be able to entertain themselves for a long time to come.

 I'm Within the Rules
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The Problem: Brinking

Some users find sport in seeing how close they can get to being thrown off a message board. The system administrator will often have a set of rules (typically known as the "Terms of Service") which specify how people should conduct themselves. One type of poster, which I call a "brinker", attempts to get as near to the edge as he or she possibly can without actually going over.

Unlike the troll, who directs his or her efforts at the users of a system, the brinker is actually toying with the system administrator. He or she can be a thorn in the side of the administrator, holding the good name and popularity of the system at stake. Most administrators hesitate to throw people off the system unless they have broken an explicit rule. The brinker enjoys using words (or, occasionally, computer hacking) to exploit "grey areas" and thus wreak havoc.

Brinkers, like trolls, elevate their hobby to an art form (albeit an unpleasant one). They can be so subtle that the administrator may not be sure that he or she is being brinked. For example, on a message board I once ran I explained to the users about "flamebait". Within a week, one of them had started up a flamebait topic. I was tempted to close it down before it devolved into the usual bickering, but that may have made me look dictatorial. So was the creation of the topic a dig at me, or was I being paranoid? Assessing that user's past actions, I concluded that I'd been brinked.

If an administrator runs an informal board, it may be counterproductive to explicitly list all the rules. I have sometimes been "taken to court" (so to speak) by users when I kicked somebody off a message board, and had my own rules used to "prove" that my action was not justified. Most message board administrators, if they do have a list of rules, include a statement that they may block any user "at our discretion". In other words, they can banish somebody without stating a specific reason. This still irritates people, but at least the administrator is covered by his or her own rules.

 Conclusion
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It is exceedingly rare to see somebody change their position during a flame war, no matter how much the facts are stacked against them. However, this does not mean that we should never have intense discussions online. Even people who will not admit error may remember the conversation and allow the information to affect their viewpoint in the future. Moreover, onlookers who are following the debate may be swayed by the person with the most persuasive approach.

Note that I did not say, "The person who has the best information" or "The person who makes the best case". If we were purely logical creatures we would not have flame wars — or wars of any sort. The writer Kurt Vonnegut Jr. once opined that when people see a debate they side with the person they like the best. Since it is hard to like somebody who is ranting and raving, it behooves us to learn a bit of self-control if we wish to garner support for what we say.

Moreover, I would like to think that most of us actually do seek after truth. We may be waylaid by our lower nature but nobody consciously believes a lie. It is for this reason that I think it is helpful to learn to spot how other people get into silly arguments ... and then learn to spot this tendency in ourselves.

 Resources
Top

Links: You are invited to link to this article; it is not necessary to ask for permission. Please do not cut-and-paste copies of this article.

Trolls: I have written another article on a similar theme, about "Internet Trolls".

Fruitless Discussions: Why do some debates last for years without positive results? This article about "antiprocess" offers some perspective on the problem.

Writing Guide: If you participate in a message board, you may find it helpful to link to my Internet Writing Guide — it is a 10-minute course that can help new Internet users write better messages and email.

Parsing Tools: If you need to extract specific lines from text files, have a look at my freeware Windows utility TextHarvest. This can be helpful if, for example, your web site is troubled by trolls or system crackers, and you need to extract specific records from your system log file. (I also offer customized file conversion and a conversion knowledge base).

On a completely unrelated note, if you know somebody who is afraid to fly, check out the web page for my book about fear of flying.