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Internet comments show the worst side of humanity. If you dare to venture an opinion that differs from someone else’s online, you can expect to be called any of several dozen words I can’t put here. Suffice to say, you can expect to be accused of improbable acts with an array of family members, animals and inanimate objects for simply expressing an opinion that another commenter doesn’t agree with.

Why are flamewars so common on today’s web, and is it really a new phenomenon? It seems like if Dante wrote Inferno today, there’d be a tenth circle reserved for anyone who comments on YouTube videos.

Personal insults are — sadly — the norm online, even outside of the various “-gates”. Publish something and you can be pretty sure that someone will take issue and express it with four-letter adjectives and typos. Even a site like MakeUseOf – which usually has excellent comments – isn’t safe from flamewars. Our own Ben Stegner kicked off something special with his Goodbye to Windows Phone MakeUseOf Says Goodbye To Windows Phone MakeUseOf Says Goodbye To Windows Phone This is going to be a tearful goodbye, buddy, but it has to happen. MakeUseOf will soon be parting ways with Windows Phone. Read More article.

stegner

My own article on Why Microsoft is Awesome Stop Bashing Microsoft: 5 Ways In Which They're Awesome Stop Bashing Microsoft: 5 Ways In Which They're Awesome Microsoft doesn't always get fair treatment. When it comes down to it, they're a pretty awesome company. There's been enough Microsoft bashing, now it's time for some love. Read More had a similar response. It’s at the stage where if I’m not called a corporate shill after I write an article, I wonder where I went wrong.

Tyson-gate

Just last week, the physicist Neil deGrasse Tyson managed to infuriate people with his tongue-in-cheek tweets about Christmas. Republican Representative Steve Smith shot back a rejoinder that led to him being called many unpublishable things.

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While Tyson’s jokes certainly didn’t warrant the expletive laden responses they occasionally got, Rep. Smith is unlikely to be capable of the anatomically improbable things he was accused of doing. As always with a flamewar, no one who weighed in came away looking good.

Fire, Brimstone and YouTube

YouTube comments are widely regarded as the worst of the worst. Scan the comments of any video and you’ll see bigotry in every one of its guises. If something can be described as an “-ism”, you’ll find it in most YouTube video’s comments. There is nothing so inoffensive that it can’t start a flamewar on YouTube.

A British comedy troupe has started reconstructing especially stupid YouTube arguments. This argument between two One Direction fans is one of my favourites. Warning, NSFW language from the start.

Wikipedia Woes

Wikipedia’s Talk pages — the comments area for editors to discuss changes — are rife with flamewars. While it’s immediately obvious that contentious figures like Barack Obama would lead to “interesting” discussions amongst Wikipedia’s many editors, other less-divisive topics have triggered ridiculous arguments.

star_trek_into_darkness

The Talk page for Star Trek Into Darkness has a 40,000 word debate (and I use that word extremely loosely) over whether the correct title for the article should be Star Trek Into Darkness or Star Trek into Darkness. I don’t think so much passion has ever been devoted to the capitalisation — or lack thereof — of a single character in a preposition. Tempers flared and lit a flamewar.

Ignition Sources

So what is it that leads to a flamewar? Okay, religion and politics are contentious issues. It’s no surprise that people get passionate about their god or political party. But why will people devote their time and energy to bashing someone who uses a different operating system? Or disagrees over whether into should be capitalised or not?

Fundamentally it comes down to how the Internet removes much of the framework of traditional face-to-face communication. Psychologist John Suler has investigated the online disinhibition effect. He’s identified six factors that lead to people saying and doing things online that they never would offline. These are the root causes of flamewars.

The Six Flamin’ Factors

Dissociative Anonymity

Online no one knows you’re a dog… or a doctor, an accountant or anything else. When you can dissociate what you do online from what you do in real life, it’s much easier to act out and do things you otherwise wouldn’t. Your online identity doesn’t effect your offline one.

Internet_dog

Gawker unmasked Violentacrez, a “notorious Internet troll” as a middle-aged married man who worked for a Texas financial services company. Violentacrez, who was responsible for some truly reprehensible online activities, was — in his offline life — a seemingly regular guy. The anonymity of the Internet, and it’s separation from his day-to-day life, gave him the freedom to act out.

Invisibility

Invisibility is related to anonymity but subtly different. Even when you are communicating with someone you know online they still can’t see you — and nor can you see them. The effect is twofold: not only do people do things they otherwise wouldn’t because they aren’t being directly observed, but they also miss social cues that would stop them otherwise.

It is easier to have empathy for another person when you can see the pain in their eyes than when they are just another user name.

Asynchronicity

In face-to-face communication responses are immediate. Online they can take minutes, days, weeks or even months. According to Suler, this removal of immediate reactions disinhibits people. While in some cases it can allow people to reach more logical conclusions by thinking about an issue further, in others it can lead them to “toxic inhibition”.

Solipsistic Introjection

The removal of face-to-face cues combined with text-communication can alter how you perceive someone else. Rather than as a distinct person, self-boundaries can blur and another person can be seen as a part of your own psyche. While this is a fairly philosophical point, it does make sense if you think about it.

Most people routinely carry out fantasy arguments in their own mind, where they say and do things that they’d never actually act on. By reducing another person to words on a screen, fantasised over-the-top responses become possible in a way they would not in person.

Dissociative Imagination

Suler writes that by combining the dissociative nature of online communication along with the seemingly imaginary nature of other people online it’s possible that — consciously or unconsciously — you can begin to see online characters existing in a different space distinct from the real world. Again, the separation of real life from online life disinhibits people and they act in ways they otherwise wouldn’t.

Minimisation of Status and Authority

Online there is no authority. While in day-to-day life authority figures are apparent through dress, body-language and situational cues, online anyone can claim to be anything they want.

Fear of disapproval and punishment is one of the many things that keeps people from doing anti-social things offline. With no authorities online that fear disappears. Well moderated forums are generally safe from flamewars. Truly open arenas like YouTube, Twitter and Reddit aren’t.

It Was Always Burning

fire-flameware-internet

The Internet didn’t start the flamewars: as long as discourse has been around, there’s been uncivil discourse. John Adams famously described Benjamin Franklin’s whole life as “one continued insult to good manners and decency” and George Washington as “too illiterate, unlearned, unread for his station”. Similar to Internet flamewars, most of it happened in writing — either to a newspaper or in a letter — rather than face to face. It’s interesting to consider how similar letter writing is to online communications, and how Suler’s six factors could also be applied to it.

Authors are also renown for their sharp critiques of fellow writers. William Faulkner dismissed Ernest Hemingway saying “He has never been known to use a word that might send a reader to the dictionary.” Hemingway responded, “Poor Faulkner. Does he really think big emotions come from big words?”

While these examples may be a little more eloquent than your average YouTube comment, the underlying emotions and reactions are the same. A disagreement over political opinion in the 1700s was as likely to degenerate into insults as one in the 2000s. Unless someone finds a way around the online disinhibition effect, it’ll probably be the same in the 2300s.

What about you? Massively disagree with this article? Maybe I’m an idiot who makes Hitler look like Mother Teresa. Why not tell me in the comments?

  1. Rich Berson
    January 12, 2015 at 11:41 pm

    OK, I've had my say, & others have had theirs. You believe what you believe & I'll believe what I believe. No flaming, no trolling, no Googling on my part, just my belief that it's ridiculous that if every time somebody does something we don't like he or she is a Hitler. There are different degrees of bad or evil & if we don't recognize that we lose the capacity to avoid repeating it. in any case, I've said more than enough for this audience; take it for what it's worth.

  2. Anonymous
    January 11, 2015 at 6:49 pm

    Lol. Everyone is soooo intelligent on the internet, that's why they are posting on forums right? Just as bad as flaming are these supposed intellectual comments and arguments that 99% of people probably Google first and then post like they actually know something.

    The real reason people are so horrible online? Because they can be. If they were in front of anyone they would get an ass whoopin, that's what stops them in real life. How many are just kids with no parental guidance, saying whatever they like to whoever they like? Or more specifically, no online guidance.

    So all in all there are a bunch of chicken shit loud mouths with nothing better to do but flame. I used to take the downside and tell them If I ever met them in person, they wouldn't be so quick to talk that way to me. Some would shut up, some would swear they would meet me so I would take the invite only to find they dodged me. Wasn't the smartest route but I was in fact so tired of it all that I had some false hope of straightening them out.

    I swore I wouldn't comment on anything but I ran across this during my RSS upate for the site and made an exception. I stick by one rule now, I stay the hell away from forums and anything chat related, my internet life has been so much more peaceful now.

    • Harry
      January 11, 2015 at 8:58 pm

      While I don't agree with everything you said, you're totally right about just ignoring comments. More and more sites are turning them off and taking conversations to social media instead.

  3. dicky109
    January 8, 2015 at 4:54 am

    The author emphatically answered all of the comments in his last paragraph. Yes he is an idiot.

    How dare anyone trivialize what Hitler did by equating flaming on the internet with the flaming that Hitler did in his ovens, camps and battlefields where millions died and were tortured? Do any of the younger folks realize the carnage that took place; 20 million Russians alone, 6 million Jews, Gypsies, mentally disturbed or anyone else that didn't fit his image of the Aryan Super Race & untold millions of other nations citizens & soldiers.

    Disgusting display of inhumanity!

    • dragonmouth
      January 8, 2015 at 2:25 pm

      Nobody is trivializing Hitler and what he caused. However, either by intentionally or inadvertantly misunderstanding a comment or by a knee-jerk reaction to a phrase, you demonstarte how/why flamewars start.

      The fact is that, as a discussion goes on, sooner or later someone will compare Nazis'/Hitler's lack of tolerance to a poster's intransigence. That someone could also use Stalin or Mao and the communists, or bin Laden and the Islamists but somehow (s)he never thinks of that comparison. The fact that only Hitler and the Nazis are used in the comparisons means that they have made a grave impact on the posters and thus dispels your contention of trivialization.

      Before you put your foot any further in your mouth, I know whereof I speak. My grandfather spent 4 years in Buchenwald (google the name) and that was one of the lesser effects Nazis had on my family. If anybody should be offended by the Hitler comparison, it should be me.

    • Harry
      January 11, 2015 at 12:02 pm

      Dicky, I'm not sure if that was a ridiculously awesome troll (cause Dragonmouth bit hard) or you actually mean what you said. Either way, as he said — and contributed to — it's a pretty good example of a flamewar starting.

  4. Devora
    January 8, 2015 at 3:36 am

    I have always been taught that one must avoid hateful behavior of any kind, always. I can't engage in flamewarfare, I don't want to do it. I try to think before I say or do. I am a regular person. I say to other regular people who allow the internet to amplify their unkind words to think first, and probably never respond. Being mean is bad for you.

    • Harry
      January 11, 2015 at 12:00 pm

      Hey Devora, the fact you can do that is pretty awesome! Most people don't have the self-control. I know I try to but sometimes you just can't!

  5. Devora
    January 7, 2015 at 11:10 pm

    If you act rotten in any way, thought-word-or deed, you have done wrong. If you frequently write mean or hatefully, or constantly unkindly criticize others, you risk making yourself into something awful inside. The "Godwin" principle is interesting, but the fact remains that Hitler was a bad example, others capitalized on it, all his followers showed horrid behavior, and that's the subject of the article, horrid behavior. I did enjoy the rejoinders and everyone's good humor. What you say in writing or orally speaks of what is inside you. Sometimes what is inside flamethrowers is ick, and they do seem intent on a flamewar...of any kind as long as they have the opportunity to contend.

    • danniagro
      January 7, 2015 at 11:53 pm

      Yes, you're right -a large number of people who are looking for a fight use the comments section as a way to unwind by trolling, character assasination, automatically gain saying what the main commenters say etc. They really have no interest in debate, just letting off steam and getting under the skin of as many of the other commenters as they can.

    • Harry
      January 8, 2015 at 12:12 am

      Hi Devora, I think the issue is that it's not just horrible people. It's regular people. Everyone thinks or does something unkind at some point — even if just through omission. The Internet just amplifies the effect.

  6. Doc
    January 7, 2015 at 9:54 pm

    What many don't realize, by definition, half (49.99999...%) of the people on the planet are of below-average intelligence.
    As an example, just go to any site with a "comments" section and make note of those commenters who can't discern the difference between "to" and "too," "then" and "than," or "its" and "it's" (as well as any other use of an apostrophe). (Bad grammar isn't limited to commenters, either!)

    • Harry
      January 8, 2015 at 12:10 am

      Hey Doc, I disagree with spelling and bad grammar being an indicator of poor intelligence. Yes theirs some correlation but too put to much wait on it is wrong. Their are plenty of intelligent people who, when writing or typing quickly make a mistake. There called typos for a reason!

    • dicegeorge
      January 8, 2015 at 7:42 pm

      many like me have higher than average IQ but lower than average EQ (emotional quotient - / empathy ) and almost everyone thinks theyre above average ! cos I understand what you don't understand, but don't understand what I don't understand.

    • Harry
      January 11, 2015 at 12:00 pm

      I think you might be on to something there! Low EQ is probably gonna be a much bigger predictor of flaming than IQ.

  7. Dann Albright
    January 7, 2015 at 2:30 pm

    Great article, Harry! Hopefully gaining an understanding of these issues will encourage a few people to calm down.

    Also, the video from Dead Parrot is absolutely hysterical. I get the feeling that I'm going to lose a lot of time to watching those. :-)

    • Harry
      January 7, 2015 at 2:51 pm

      Thanks Dann! Glad you liked it. Yeah including the Dead Parrot sketches meant this article took twice as long to write. It was a tough decision but I think it was worth it!

  8. KT
    January 7, 2015 at 10:32 am

    I like how most flame wars start off as spirited debates, there's usually good info to be had. Once they digress though, it's just pure entertainment at that point.

    • Harry
      January 7, 2015 at 2:49 pm

      Yeah it's really the removal of context that causes problems. In face-to-face their really it's easier to see that there's no malice in what someone is saying. Online there isn't. And so people get called idiots and a lot worse!

  9. ReadandShare
    January 6, 2015 at 10:44 pm

    I really think the ability to respond instantly has helped dumb down conversations. Not always and not causative, of course, but too many of us react too quickly... too dismissively, and often times too emotionally.

    • Harry
      January 6, 2015 at 10:49 pm

      I think the real thing you're reaching for is that people react too humanly. It hurts to feel challenged or that you're wrong so people defend themselves reactively. And that creates a terrible spiral.

    • ReadandShare
      January 7, 2015 at 4:55 am

      @Harry:

      I think the hurt when feeling challenged is always there -- online or off line. The point is that we mostly don't respond quite so hastily /emotionally in face-to-face situations. And the difference is that being online, flaming back is super easy and safe - and so we do it.

      And yes, we are indeed reacting all too humanly.

    • Harry
      January 7, 2015 at 2:50 pm

      Yeah you're totally right. Having another person standing in front of you is a good barrier to acting like an idiot. Online there's no buffer.

  10. CK
    January 6, 2015 at 10:27 pm

    Unfortunately, the six factors that lead to people saying and doing things online have been transformed into "normal" social behavior offline.

    • Harry
      January 6, 2015 at 10:48 pm

      What do you mean CK? Offline discourse is still way more civil than online.

  11. dragonmouth
    January 6, 2015 at 8:09 pm

    Be reasonable and see it MY way and we'll avoid this entire flamewar thing.

    • Mike Merritt
      January 6, 2015 at 8:59 pm

      I am being reasonable and I can see it YOUR way ... and your way is TOTALLY wrong. Ha ! :-) (#Flame)

    • Harry
      January 6, 2015 at 10:48 pm

      Author weighs in with cutting response.

  12. Keefe K.
    January 6, 2015 at 5:43 pm

    While reading this entire article, I couldn't stop hearing this song by CollegeHumor in my head. http://youtu.be/_QyYaPWasos

  13. Eva
    January 6, 2015 at 4:44 pm

    Good points on the reasons for these phenomena - I can think of an additional one though: the fact that the argument is recorded. When a "real life" argument ends in a loss or draw, one walks away and no one except the participants and any potential witnesses will have first-hand memories of it. But online arguments tend to be in written form, and accessible to others months or even years afterward.

    So that offensive thing someone said to me or that blatantly wrong information someone gave will stand for ages untold - or, well, until the website moves things around and the page is a 404 thereafter, but that might be *months*!. And of course I can't let that stand, so I need to make another comment setting the record straight. And another. And another.

    The above at least is why I have gotten into a few utterly futile arguments in the past, although I'm doing a lot better since I realised the pattern. I don't get into profanity-laden shouting matches, but oh, I have a hard time seeing someone spread misinformation and other people react to it in ways that make clear they believe it. Even when I see a months-old comment page where someone claims "people in [ my own country] do [this or that absurd thing]", to which commenters reply in shock and amazement, my fingers itch. In a way, I can understand the people on that Star Trek talk page so well that it frightens me.

    • Harry
      January 6, 2015 at 10:47 pm

      Hahahahah there's always someone who's wrong on the Internet. Often it's me. It's why some of my posts get looooots of comments!

  14. Mike Merritt
    January 6, 2015 at 4:27 pm

    What has Hitler (as shown in the Title of this article) to do with "Flamewars". I thought that he started a real war (where people died) !

    • Eva
      January 6, 2015 at 5:06 pm

      You might want to have a look at Godwin's Law.

    • Mike Merritt
      January 6, 2015 at 6:51 pm

      Godwin's Law:

      "As an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving the Nazis or Hitler approaches 1"

    • Harry
      January 6, 2015 at 10:46 pm

      Yep Eva's right. It was a deliberate self-Godwin. Only so often you can pull it off with the title of a post!

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