In most precincts on the Net, flaming -- loosely defined here as ad hominem verbal violence committed by the pecular denizens of cyberspace, and fueled by the creations and circumstances of the cyberculture they've created -- is both widely practiced and broadly condemned.
During much of what we call civilization, personal attacks on ideological opponents have been considered uncivil, a kind of social cheating that violates the rules of coherent debate and social relations. We generally don't attack other people unless we covet their land or property, are enraged by unreasonable provocation, or paid to do it. But online, people continuously attack others for less obvious reasons.
In fact, people online are frequently assaulted just for existing, one of cyberspace's unique features. Intellectuals, while they may privately backstab and mercilessly skewer one another, have always publically advocated what they call a "contempt for contempt" philosophy about personal attacks.
On the Net's threads and discussion lists, there is no such pretense. Hostility is naked and continuous, and even its most vicious practioners rarely suffer any consequences, experience regrets, or apologize to their targets.
While flaming is generally condemned by mature and civilized people, it's becoming clear over time, and as the Net enters its second generation, that that's too simple a position. However much we might or might not like it, flaming exists for particular reasons and serves particular functions, especially in the context of electric communities.
For example, flaming is a bit reminiscent of the role-playing that goes on in virtual sex sites, where people assume and experiment with different identities. The flamer can be tough and hostile online, even when he can't be in the real world, or isn't the least bit hostile face-to-face. On virtual sex sites, people experiment with different personae all the time, many of them aggressive. But they do so knowingly. Most flamers are not big on self-awareness. Many take themselves very seriously, imparting considerable virtue to their hostility.
Flaming has unintended consequences -- it has elevated e-mail to new levels of significance. Speaking only for myself, as flaming becomes more widespread and disconnected, e-mail seems to become more thoughtful, literate and civil. Denied the opportunity to speak thoughtfully in public, many people online work hard at making e-mail work even better. E-mail used to be an oddity, written in short, herky-jerky bursts. But as more people have grown up using it and become more experienced, it's gotten better. The problem is that unlike flames, few people ever get to see it. Thus e-mail isn't taken as seriously as flaming, it's evolution as studied or appreciated.
Flaming online is like jet noise near an airport, an expected backdrop, part of the digital continuum. Curiously, flaming often seems most enthusiastically embraced not by the dumbest people, but by the smartest, and perhaps the youngest. Male adolescents are the nastiest and most enthusiastic flamers, which shouldn't be all that shocking.
Flamers invariably know better, at least in real life (otherwise the homicide rate would be going up, not down), but the virtual world serves as a kind of free zone for the nervous, discontented, quarrelsome and meticulous. Invective has always provided some of the best and most inventive writing online, the nerd's literal revenge. Freud would have a field day analyzing flaming, though he would surely be roasted alive if he browsed anywhere near most mailing lists. His tortured, ponderous style of communicating would touch off a continuing roast.
People who would get their teeth knocked down their throats if they spoke so viscerally at schools or workplaces become cult heroes online, freely tossing out insults and taunts as long as there's plenty of bandwidth between them and their targets. They often see themselves as heroes and champions of free speech. Cyberspace filters out all the physical characteristics of an actual debate or confrontation -- people's size, gender, demeanor, posture, facial expressions, volume and tone of voice. This is partly because there are economic constraints on online time (thus personal patience), and a lack of immediate response from the target. Besides, almost all Net and Web communities are new, without the traditions, social protocols or inhibitions that exist off-line.
The Net is not a place for people who fear or dislike criticism. Being abused is almost noble, to some points of view. In certain scientific circles, as well as during the Enlightenment, it was considered heroic to dare to put your ideas out there -- you can't respond to criticism without suffering it first. Since at least that time, philosphers and experimenters have had to meet a rigorous test of scrutiny. That ethic continues on the Net, perhaps because programs and code that operate software really needs to work. When they don't, there's no evading it.
Simply a reality of life online, flaming has now become part of the digital social architecture, the price others pay to move around freely and express themselves openly. The Net is not a place for people who fear or dislike criticism, one of the problems CEO's and other thin-skinned types have with cyberspace.
Many people who denounce flaming see it as nothing less than a rise in thuggery, writes William B. Mallard of Rutgers University, in an essay in the collection "Internet Culture," edited by David Porter. Mallard calls flamers "homo incinerans" -- incendiary people. He recounts several rounds of flming on a mailing list devoted to psychoanalysis, of all places. His account reinforces the idea that online academic writing is particularly conducive to flaming, since adademic research is so closely associated with anxiety, wrath and vendettas and online culture only compounds the disassociation of sender and recipient.
This connection between academic temperament and online assaults might explain why tech-oriented sites are prone to metaflaming. Almost all tech and programming discussions are rife with anxiety, wrath and vendettas. And they are disproportionately peopled with students and academics and researchers.
Flaming is a difficult streak in Net culture to write about, because public discussion of flames attracts more flames. Pretty soon, all rational exploration becomes impossible -- as you can see in a flash by scrawling down below this column.
But if you buy the notion that electric communities (Net scholar Mark Stefik has written that flaming is the digital equivalent of people driving menacing outsiders away from their communities), then there has to be some natural rationale for flamers. Mother Net has provided them for the same reason Mother Nature provides mosquitoes and predators; they full some sort of digital predestination. But what, exactly?
The dark side of flaming is obvious enough: it inhibits free speech and it discourages newcomers and the techno-wary. More than any other factor, flaming keeps the Net from actually spawning open and coherent communities, since rational discussion becomes all but impossible except in closed, moderated forums.
Less apparent are the benefits of flaming, but there are some. Flamers are levelers and equalizers, obnoxious maybe, but also democratic. They are BS and hype hunters. When it comes to getting flamed, everybody online is equal. A tool of the adolescent and the young, flaming is a counterstrike against real or perceived authority figures, the very types you can't go after on the non-virtual realm. Flamers are indefatigable and enthusiastic. They generate excitement, create tension and interest around ideas and debates; they discourage punditry and top-down pompousity.
I tend to think of them, sometimes wearily, sometimes with affection, as the canaries in the coal mine, specimens in a jar that test radiatiion and other hazards. As long as flamers flame, the Net remains freer than anywhere else.