The Social Processes that cause Internet Flame Wars

Internet “flame wars” are sometimes the stuff of legend within the tens of thousands of forums that exist on line. Whether the war is a consequence of an individual posting a series of inflammatory and controversial posts, or whether the war is a basic failure of diplomacy in the course of a discussion in a relatively calm forum, “flame wars” do break out. They break out rapidly and they involve the on line equivalent of “road rage”, where people lose their perspective and their minds.

In the early days of internet forums, a person would be “flamed” for such transgressions as poor grammar and spelling, not staying on topic, and that all capital letters indicate yelling. Over time, participants got the point that they had better step it up with the writing and reading skills and learn the developing protocols which remain today.

One of the ongoing social processes that is unique to the Internet is that the physical referents that indicate a person’s true emotions and intent are notoriously absent. Sarcasm is difficult to detect when the speaker and his or her sense of humor is unknown. In the real world, a facial expression, movement, or posture speaks volumes in indicating whether a person is joking, tired, in a bad mood, or truly intends to make or to take offense at some aspect of another person.

The development of little graphic pictures of various facial expressions, or “emoticons”, was intended to provide the physical referents that are lacking in on line discussion. Such expressions as “LOL” and keyboard graphics, such as the cheap smiley: : ) were intended to allow some help, but these have been eschewed as tacky or undesirable in many forums. As a result, the same dynamic persists: it is not possible to get additional clues about the true intent, attitude, feelings, or motivation of the speaker. Most seasoned veterans of on line communicators have learned to take the fullness of time before coming to conclusions about a writer’s intent, motivation or personality.

As a result, the social processes of observing, evaluating, and reacting to others on line are more measured and lengthy processes than in the real world. But, determining race, gender, ethnicity, class, and other factors about an individual are actually fairly easy processes. The individual may have a complete profile with photo and biography, or will eventually identify facts about themselves in their written comments and communications.

In cases of prejudicial or predisposed “filters” that are based on race, class, nationality, gender, values, ideology, dogma, political leanings or religion, flame wars can develop from even the most innocuous of statements by an individual. A response can be an overly angry or insulting expression of disagreement that is directed at the perceived facts about the writer. In turn, the writer perceives that they have been attacked with disregard, disrespect or uncalled for personal rage.

As in the real world, mood altering substances, especially alcohol cloud the judgment, perceptions, and ability to read the finer details of a discussion, which leads to angry recriminations, personal attacks, and escalation of rage that goes on between individuals, while others chime in, take sides, or attempt to moderate the discussion.

It is the standard for certain extremist political groups to attack anything that does not agree with, or which criticizes their conduct. There are roving and well organized groups which infiltrate virtually every site and political discussion to post inflammatory and disruptive content. In groups and forums where these individuals are allowed to stay, the group eventually dies out from the internecine flame warfare, and the roving group moves on to attack from within, or upon another forum.

Titling of posts is another social mechanism that is used to deliberately ignite “flame wars”. The use of inflammatory or controversial language in post titles is a social mechanism drawing attention to particular points of view, publicizing dogmatic or ideological “spam”, or for taking personal fights to the general forum. To add insult to injury, when the site allows the titles to remain, but allows the publisher to restrict comments or even viewing of the complete content, there is rising general demand that the private forum and it’s titles be removed from the general list of titles. Otherwise, the flame war escalates when opponents use equally attention getting titling in order to insure that the opposing view is prominently displayed. This serves as a detriment to the site, as personal and group disputes end up prominently displayed on the sites “newest”, “most viewed” or other home page features.

Internet forums are also vulnerable to socially maladaptive or deviant personalities which operate on the same basis: injecting themselves into groups, behaving in an initially ingratiating fashion, then engaging in personal attacks, incessant complaints against individuals, persistent and detailed recounting of personal problems that are actually campaigns for money, or other dysfunctional behavior. As other group participants take sides on the issue, the battle spreads to the entire group and can last for days until the emotional and financial charlatans are either satisfied or exposed and run out of the group.

In summary, some of the social processes that cause Internet “flame wars” are the same processes that cause disruption in the real world: violating rules and protocols; expressing hostility that is based on personal prejudice or filters; misunderstandings as to intent or motivations behind what is being said; or organized campaigns and behaviors that are designed to prey upon or to stir up trouble in the group, especially through the use of controversial titling that dominates the home and general pages.