Flaming on the Internet
You're sitting in front of your computer, checking your email like you do everyday. This time, however, you get an email from someone whose name you don't recognize. Your curious nature getting the best of you, you click on it and see this:
Guess what! I'm a woman, and I'm sending you e-mail. I must be able to use a computer. I also do not take a herd of women into the restroom with me. Women do not do that. Men just like to think that we do. Who do you think you are exactly? Guess
what! I know exactly what you are. You are a pitiful, pathetic excuse for a piece of poor white trailer trash man whose angry because he's an ignorant, chauvinist little prick who can not bribe a decent, intelligent woman into coming within a mile of him and has to resort to cheap, stupid whores to keep him company.
What exactly is "this"? It's a flame
, of course, courtesy of "Flaming on the 'Net." Susan Herring in her essay entitled "Bringing Familiar Baggage to the New Frontier" defines flaming as "'the expression of strong, negative emotion,' use of 'derogatory, obscene, or inappropriate language', and 'personal insults'" (149). The flame shown above is only one of several different types that are exchanged over the Internet.
According to The Wall Street Journal, the Net is growing at the estimated rate of two million novices each month (Sandberg). Thus, the potential increase in flaming as more and more people log on is obviously a problem. However, are there any benefits to this phenomenon? As the debate rages on, my opinion on the matter is that flaming is not the action one should take because it is more harmful than not.
On the one hand, the argument stands that flaming does indeed prove itself as an asset. One such instance is to curb scammers. Scammers view the Internet as a cheap avenue to reach millions of people and, by misleading them, making money
off of their deception. For example, companies throughout the globe sell their products over the Internet. Not everyone, however, is able to discern which company is reputable and which is not, which allows for an individual to be "taken in" by a great offer. So a flamer, upon finding a scam, posts a flame so others may know about the fraudulent company's intentions. Brock Meeks in an interview with The Wall Street Journal says, "'People got scammed all the time in frontier towns.... There's no other service out there that's kind of watching out for the net'"(Sandberg). Meek uses his newsletter, Cyberwire Dispatch, to post his flames. In an email, Herring offers her analysis based on her research and observations of flaming. In this instance, she explains why such action is taken. She says "many people feel that it is legitimate to use whatever aggressive tactics they have within their power, including public flaming on the Internet, so that 'justice' is done." Therefore, like Meek, other flamers feel that through their flames, they save the unsuspecting consumers from wasting their money on a scam product. Also, if they do not take it upon themselves to do the flaming, who will?
Another point is those who see flaming as indicative of the freedom from censorship as stated in the First Amendment. Christopher Henrik Lund, member of Alt.flame, maintains that a flame includes "...anything you damn well want." By telling flamers what they cannot write, that action infringes on their rights. Herring cites Ronda Hauben's quote on the matter: "'...the importance of facilitating the development of uncensored speech and communication - there is debate and discussion - one person influences another - people build on each other's strengths and interests, differences, etc.'" (150).
Furthermore, each individual reacts differently to the contents in a flame. One might react with indifference, another with hostility, and yet another with humor. For instance, how did you react to the flame at the beginning of this essay? Would your spouse, family member, friend or even your neighbor react in the same way? It is inevitable that individuals will disagree, especially when it comes to such heated words as found in a flame. With each interaction with another human being, a difference prevails in, among other things, background, culture and knowledge. Since everyone cannot be appeased, the argument stands that one must write what one feels.
Another positive aspect of flaming that is maintained is the emotional release one receives through the act of flaming. With a Master's Degree in Behavioral Science, psychologist John Smith* offers his analysis of the benefit in this instance. Smith contends that the only good point in flaming is the action of expressing emotions. "We the psychologists would like to see more people expressing themselves as people and portraying their true inner emotions rather than suppressing them inside." Smith continues by saying that it "is always a better way to vent things than to vent." In his studies he has found that individuals who do not express their emotions in right ways have a tendency to express them physically, such as hitting another human being.
On the other hand, Smith also points out the drawbacks in flaming. He says, "We must also look at the point such as [flamers] putting people down to gain self-esteem or making others feel less of a person while [they] try to boost [their] own self-confidence." Smith says this is the first sign of low self-esteem. He continues, "Low self-esteem can lead to suicide or abuse of wife, kids, or girlfriend, with ninety-six percent of all violent crimes com[ing] from men." Smith adds that in his studies of this phenomenon, he has noticed that flaming tends to cause an individual to have a feeling of self-rejectment and to feel less of oneself. He adds, "Flaming is a serious matter and can harm more than just the recipient."
Now, there are those, following Smith's latter view, who contend that flaming accomplishes more harm than good. An example of this is a company misinformation campaign. Minda Zetlin asserts that "Anyone from disgruntled employees to dissatisfied customers can easily wage them these days" (33). She continues by stating these campaigns "can hound a company, damage its reputation and wreak financial havoc" (33). With the easy access by millions of people to the Internet, the misinformation posted by a flamer can be believed to be true. This then causes a domino effect. The company's reputation is tainted; it loses some of its customers and thus money. Jeff Antebi, founder of Alt.syntax.tactical, concedes the point that flaming is very influential. In an interview with the Mercury News he states: "'...there is an element here that allows individuals to become their own experts in propaganda, manipulating hundreds or even thousands of people to believe that what they are reading is real, when in fact it is absurd, incorrect, made up'" (Levander).
Considering both sides of the issue I believe flaming is not beneficial, as I mentioned earlier. I do not believe that flaming is the action one should take to get their point across to the public. As in the case with the scammers and the misinformation campaign, legal procedures should be taken to rectify the situation if it does indeed need to be corrected. In the instance of free speech, show some common courtesy where the language is involved. On that subject Herring says "that it tends to perpetuate the dominance of the most aggressive users, thereby creating a social environment unwelcoming to less experienced, less confident, or simply less contentious users, including new users, many women, and people from cultures which highly value social harmony. She adds that flaming "is contrary to egalitarian ideals of the Internet as a form of participatory democracy to all. That is, it is not equally open to all if some groups feel intimidated from speaking out because of fear of being flamed."
Emotionally speaking, the person can write the flame, get it off of their mind, and then get rid of it instead of sending it to someone. Another avenue one can take is provided by Peter Denning in his article "A World Lit by Flame." He says, "If you must respond in email to an emotionally charged matter, let your draft rest for a few hours (better yet, overnight) and reread it before sending it. The cooling-off period often helps."
So when you find yourself receiving a flame, do the wise thing and don't flame back. Be the mature one and send a polite response instead. And you never know. The flamer who sent you that flame just might realize that there's no fuel to keep the flames alive.
* Name has been changed to protect privacy.
Denning, Peter. "A World Lit by Flame." Communications of the ACM. 36.12. (1993): 170.
Herring, Susan. "Bringing Familiar Baggage to the New Frontier." CyberReader. Massachusettes: Allyn and Bacon, 1996. 149-150.
---. Email from Susan Herring. December 5, 1998.
Levander, Michelle. "A Cyberspace Gang Fans the Flames on the Internet." Mercury News. 16 May 1994. 36. 8 Nov. 1998. http://www.eff.org/pub/Global/America-US/Net_culture/Folklore/Flaming/.
Lund, Christopher Henrik. "The One and Only alt.flame FAQ." 8 Nov. 1998. http://www.wlu.edu/
Morrissette, Jess. "Flaming on the 'Net." 8 Nov. 1998. http://www.wiw.org/~jess/flame.html.
Sandberg, Jared. "Computers: Newsletter Faces Libel Suit for 'Flaming' on Internet." The Wall Street Journal 22 April 1994: B1+.
Smith, John. Telephone interview. 18 Nov. 1998.
Zetlin, Minda. "Disinformation: What to Do When You Get Dissed." Management Review 87.7 (1998): 33-37.