Flaming is a hostile and insulting interaction between persons over the Internet, often involving the use of profanity. It can also be the swapping of insults back and forth or with many people teaming up on a single victim. Flaming usually occurs in the social context of Internet forums, Internet Relay Chats (IRC), Usenet, e-mail, game servers such as Xbox Live or PlayStation Network, social media services, and video-sharing websites such as YouTube. It is frequently the result of the discussion of heated real-world issues such as politics, religion, and philosophy, or of issues that polarize sub-populations, but can also be provoked by seemingly trivial differences.
Deliberate flaming, as opposed to flaming as a result of emotional discussions, is carried out by individuals known as flamers, who are specifically motivated to incite flaming. These users specialize in flaming and target specific aspects of a controversial conversation. In modern Internet parlance, this term has been almost entirely superseded by the term “trolling.”
Many social researchers have investigated flaming, coming up with several different theories about the phenomenon. These include deindividuation and reduced awareness of other people's feelings (online disinhibition effect), conformance to perceived norms, miscommunication caused by the lack of social cues available in face-to-face communication, and antiprocess.
Jacob Borders, in discussing participants' internal modeling of a discussion, says:
Mental models are fuzzy, incomplete, and imprecisely stated. Furthermore, within a single individual, mental models change with time, even during the flow of a single conversation. The human mind assembles a few relationships to fit the context of a discussion. As debate shifts, so do the mental models. Even when only a single topic is being discussed, each participant in a conversation employs a different mental model to interpret the subject. Fundamental assumptions differ but are never brought into the open. Goals are different but left unstated. It is little wonder that compromise takes so long. And even when consensus is reached, the underlying assumptions may be fallacies that lead to laws and programs that fail. The human mind is not adapted to understanding correctly the consequences implied by a mental model. A mental model may be correct in structure and assumptions but, even so, the human mind—either individually or as a group consensus—is apt to draw the wrong implications for the future.
Thus, online conversations often involve a variety of assumptions and motives unique to each individual user. Without social context, users are often helpless to know the intentions of their counterparts. In addition to the problems of conflicting mental models often present in online discussions, the inherent lack of face-to-face communication online can encourage hostility. Professor Norman Johnson, commenting on the propensity of Internet posters to flame one another, states:
The literature suggests that, compared to face-to-face, the increased incidence of flaming when using computer-mediated communication is due to reductions in the transfer of social cues, which decrease individuals' concern for social evaluation and fear of social sanctions or reprisals. When social identity and ingroup status are salient, computer mediation can decrease flaming because individuals focus their attention on the social context (and associated norms) rather than themselves.
Generally, a lack of social context creates an element of anonymity, which allows users to feel insulated from the forms of punishment they might receive in a more conventional setting. Johnson identifies several precursors to flaming between users, whom he refers to as "negotiation partners," since Internet communication typically involves back-and-forth interactions similar to a negotiation. Flaming incidents usually arise in response to a perception of one or more negotiation partners being unfair. Perceived unfairness can include a lack of consideration for an individual's vested interests, unfavorable treatment (especially when the flamer has been considerate of other users), and misunderstandings aggravated by the inability to convey subtle indicators like non-verbal cues and facial expressions.
Evidence of debates which resulted in insults being exchanged quickly back and forth between two parties can be found throughout history. Arguments over the ratification of the United States Constitution were often socially and emotionally heated and intense, with many attacking one another through local newspapers. Such interactions have always been part of literary criticism. For example, Ralph Waldo Emerson's contempt for Jane Austen's works often extended to the author herself, with Emerson describing her as "without genius, wit, or knowledge of the world". In turn, Thomas Carlyle called Emerson a "hoary-headed toothless baboon".
In the modern era, "flaming" was used at East Coast engineering schools in the United States as a present participle in a crude expression to describe an irascible individual and by extension to such individuals on the earliest Internet chat rooms and message boards. Internet flaming was mostly observed in Usenet newsgroups although it was known to occur in the WWIVnet and FidoNet computer networks as well. It was subsequently used in other parts of speech with much the same meaning.
The term "flaming" may originate from The Hacker's Dictionary, which in 1983 defined it as "to speak rabidly or incessantly on an uninteresting topic or with a patently ridiculous attitude". The meaning of the word has diverged from this definition since then.
whereas an open computer conference begins with a small number of well-informed and highly interested participants, it soon attracts others. That's all right; it's supposed to attract others. Where else would you get new ideas? But soon it attracts too many, far too many, and some of them are not only ignorant but aggressively misinformed. Dilution takes place. Arguments replace discussions. Tempers are frayed.
The result is that while computer conferencing began by saving time, it starts to eat up all the time it saved and more. Communications come from dozens of sources. Much of it is redundant. Some of it is stupid. The user spends more and more time dealing with irrelevancies. One day the user wakes up, decides the initial euphoria was spurious, and logs off, never to return. This is known as burnout, and it's apparently quite common.
He added, "I noticed something: most of the irritation came from a handful of people, sometimes only one or two. If I could only ignore them, the computer conferences were still valuable. Alas, it's not always easy to do".
Computer-mediated communication (CMC) research has spent a significant amount of time and effort describing and predicting engagement in uncivil, aggressive online communication. Specifically, the literature has described aggressive, insulting behavior as "flaming", which has been defined as hostile verbal behaviors (Thompsen and Foulger, 1996), the uninhibited expression of hostility, insults, and ridicule (Kayany, 1998), and hostile comments directed towards a person or organization (Aiken and Waller, 2000) within the context of CMC.
Flame trolling is the posting of a provocative or offensive message, known as "flamebait", to a public Internet discussion group, such as a forum, newsgroup or mailing list, with the intent of provoking an angry response (a "flame") or argument.
Posted flamebait can provide the poster with a controlled trigger-and-response setting in which to anonymously engage in conflicts and indulge in aggressive behavior without facing the consequences that such behavior might bring in a face-to-face encounter, a fact parodied in a YouTube video by Isabel Fay. In other instances, flamebait may be used to reduce a forum's use by angering the forum users. In 2012, it was announced that the US State Department would start flame trolling jihadists as part of Operation Viral Peace.
A flame war results when multiple users engage in provocative responses to an original post—while the original post is sometimes flamebait, this is not always the case. Flame wars often draw in many users (including those trying to defuse the flame war) and can overshadow regular forum discussion if left unchecked.
Resolving a flame war can be difficult, as it is often hard to determine who is really responsible for the degradation of a reasonable discussion into flame war. Someone who posts a contrary opinion in a strongly focused discussion forum may be easily labeled a "baiter", "flamer", or "troll".
An approach to resolving a flame war or responding to flaming is to communicate openly with the offending users. Acknowledging mistakes, offering to help resolve the disagreement, making clear, reasoned arguments, and even self-deprecation have all been noted as worthwhile strategies to end such disputes. However, others prefer to simply ignore flaming, noting that, in many cases, if the flamebait receives no attention, it will quickly be forgotten as forum discussions carry on. Unfortunately, this can motivate trolls to intensify their activities, creating additional distractions.
"Taking the bait" or "feeding the troll" refers to someone who responds to the original message regardless of whether they are aware the original message was intended to provoke a response. Often when someone takes the bait, others will point this out to them with the acronym "YHBT", which is short for "You have been trolled", or reply with "don't feed the trolls". Forum users will usually not give the troll acknowledgement; that just "feeds the troll".
Any subject of a polarizing nature can feasibly cause flaming. As one would expect in the medium of the Internet, technology is a common topic. The Holy war perennial debates between users of competing operating systems, such as Windows, Classic Mac OS and macOS, or the GNU/Linux operating system and iOS or Android operating system, users of Intel and AMD processors, and users of the Wii U, PlayStation 4 and Xbox One video game systems, often escalate into seemingly unending "flamewars", also called software wars. As each successive technology is released, it develops its own outspoken fan base, allowing arguments to begin anew.
Popular culture continues to generate large amounts of flaming and countless flamewars across the Internet, such as the constant debates between fans of Star Trek and Star Wars. Ongoing discussion of current celebrities and television personalities within popular culture also frequently sparks debate.
In 2005, author Anne Rice became involved in a flamewar of sorts on the review boards of online retailer Amazon.com after several reviewers posted scathing comments about her latest novel. Rice responded to the comments with her own lengthy response, which was quickly met with more feedback from users.
In November 2007, the popular audio-visual discussion site AVS Forum temporarily closed its HD DVD and Blu-ray discussion forums because of, as the site reported, "physical threats that have involved police and possible legal action" between advocates of the rival formats.
Flaming varies in severity and as such so too does the reaction of states in imposing any sort of sanction. Laws vary from country to country, but in most cases, constant flaming can be considered cyber harassment, which can result in Internet Service Provider action to prevent access to the site being flamed. However, as social networks become more and more closely connected to people and their real life, the more harsh words may be considered defamation of the person.
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- A free forum for flaming without limits
- An Interactional Reconceptualization of "Flaming" and Other Problematic Messages, by Patrick B. O'Sullivan and Andrew J. Flanagin
- Older flamebait reference on USENET, 1985 (via Google Groups)