Johnny Storm: Revealed.
February 20, 2007 2:11 AM   Subscribe

Flame wars as psychopathology. What's behind those flaming hot e-mails or UseNet flame wars or MetaFilter comments?. Perhaps, as John Suler suggested, there are a number of factors, including dissociative anonymity, invisibility, asynchronicity, solipsistic introjection (altered self-boundaries), dissociative imagination, and minimzation of authority, as he discussed in his fascinating 2004 paper (note: .pdf). Is there, as the NY Times piece asks, "a design flaw inherent in the interface between the brain’s social circuitry and the online world"? Flaming previously covered by MeFi here, here, here, and of course, here.
posted by scblackman (39 comments total) 14 users marked this as a favorite
The fascinating discussion of the neurobiology of impulse control as it relates to flaming refers to the work of Jennifer Beer's Self Regulation Lab.
posted by scblackman at 2:13 AM on February 20, 2007

This certainly matches my experience. Back in the days of BBSing, flamewars were common... but our local area had group meetups on a regular basis. It was very interesting to see people go from literal death threats to INSTANTLY getting along in person. All online flaming would drop enormously by everyone who had attended a gathering. It would take about two or three weeks, and then the flaming would resume... only to drop sharply after the next monthly meeting.

We used to talk about this, and how important body language is, but we didn't study it to quite this degree.

People you absolutely despise online may be perfectly okay in real life... while people you like a lot here may be annoying and upsetting to you in person. We're not well-suited to this medium at all.

Maybe it'll work better with kids, but after reading this article, I'm thinking maybe it won't.
posted by Malor at 2:48 AM on February 20, 2007

Oh, this is just the Greater Internet Fuckwad theory.
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 2:54 AM on February 20, 2007 [3 favorites]

Damit, joe's spleen beat me to it.
posted by PenDevil at 3:07 AM on February 20, 2007

I'll admit I haven't gotten around to reading the links from this FPP, and I intend to do so as this is an area of interest for me, but on quick glance (and hey, that's all it takes!) of the Greater Internet Fuckwad theory, I gotta say I think it's pretty spot on. I wish more MeFites would put their real names, websites, whatever, on their user profiles. I do belive it would result in less instances of asshattery.

Thing is, though, I think maybe lots of the most egregious asshatters are probably delighted to engage in rampant asshattery, so... whatayagunnado?
posted by flapjax at midnite at 3:35 AM on February 20, 2007

The first link: "One proposed solution to flaming is replacing typed messages with video. The assumption is that getting a message along with its emotional nuances might help us dampen the impulse to flame."

Someone with poor writing skills but fine speaking skills and a great smile may do better with a video interface, but others would do worse. I'm sure this place has plenty o' folk who are quivering bags of nerves in face-to-face conversations but who express themselves well here, where no one knows whether you're a Great Dane or a dachshund. For them, the lack of audio and video cues is a benefit they wouldn't want you to eliminate.

To take care of the occasional inner fuckwad released by faceless remote anonymity, you just need autocratic or group moderation. Mockery and scorn usually are enough.

Besides, who the hell would want to watch video of everyone in every thread yammering on about every topic? A text interface is what saves us from video of some guy with a paper bag over his face posting an askme about his penis sores followed by video of twenty other guys describing (and showing!) their similar problems and the remedies they're tried.
posted by pracowity at 3:36 AM on February 20, 2007 [3 favorites]

Sorry, spelling... that's whaddayagunnado. The 2 Ds are key. Damn, you'd think I never lived in Brooklyn or something...
posted by flapjax at midnite at 3:38 AM on February 20, 2007

I've said it before, but the single most civil online forum I participate in is a woodworking board where your actual given name is a requirement to join. It's not the subject matter--other woodworking forums are no better than your average anonymous posting place.

This place isn't so bad, though, considering the dipshits, assholes, fuckers, and other assorted cranks who hang out here.
posted by maxwelton at 3:50 AM on February 20, 2007

Hey get off my back, maxwelton. I'm trying - I really am.
posted by the quidnunc kid at 3:56 AM on February 20, 2007

One proposed solution to flaming is replacing typed messages with video.

And a much simpler one is just ignoring these idiots.

It's not the subject matter--other woodworking forums are no better than your average anonymous posting place.

Oh really? Working your wood is a great reliever of stress.
posted by three blind mice at 4:16 AM on February 20, 2007

I do belive it would result in less instances of asshattery.

I agree with this conclusion, but not with the premise that a reduction in asshattery is the best primary goal to pursue. I'd rather endure the rather minimal amounts of asshatterism that is on MeFi than get the bland, inoffensive commentary one finds on network TV, for instance.

That said, YouTube could use a purge or two. Damn kids are *all over* my lawn.
posted by DU at 4:19 AM on February 20, 2007 [1 favorite]

Probably because it actually costs money to join, so the dipshit factor is dampened considerably compared to the likes of Fark, /., etc.
posted by Talanvor at 4:20 AM on February 20, 2007

Yes, but there's an intervening variable. I don't think idiots are any less likely to spend money than anyone else (quite the reverse, in fact). It's more than with a barrier to entry you have a smaller userbase and with a smaller userbase comes great responsibility a village-like atmosphere where social pressure is enough to keep people from going haywire.

It could also be that bannination happens a lot here, I don't know. I've been lurking for a long time but I haven't paid much attention to usernames and when/if they disapparate.
posted by DU at 4:27 AM on February 20, 2007 [1 favorite]

Any barrier to entry will keep out some large portion of the total idiots, who are of course just one of the many kinds of people who feed flame wars. So I concluded from my experience in the days of BBS. Requiring an email to the sysop explaining why you wanted to join up was my favourite method. I imagine having to pay $5 works almost as well, though with such a huge pool of potential members any method is going to be less effective than it was back then.

On the internets, it seems like the best way to keep an open forum free from idiocy is staying obscure and keeping the discussion at a high level of civility and complexity. Many of the people who like to disrupt things will not have much fun if they response they get is vast, cool, and unsympathetic paragraphs of reasonable argument, or no response at all.

I don't have time to look at that paper now, but I'm wary of it. This stuff too often gets over-analyzed, fit into some convenient theory that doesn't really explain much. Sounds like that's probably the case here. And yeah, I'd be happy to say the same thing in real life, face to face.
posted by sfenders at 5:33 AM on February 20, 2007

Wow, what a stroke of luck. I'm currently trying to find psych research on Internet users for an article, and this is exactly the kind of research I need. Thanks!
(I heart cyber psychology.)
posted by Menomena at 5:55 AM on February 20, 2007

Flaming has a technical name, the "online disinhibition effect"

In my acronym happy world, that would make it an ODE. The best ode I got was sent to an office listserv where my team was told we should be yanked from the gene pool and not allowed to breed. I'd already spawned a child process by then so I thought it pretty funny, but others did not. Later on, I got to meet the author of the poison pen letter and he turned out to be a pretty nice guy.
posted by hoppytoad at 6:22 AM on February 20, 2007

Shouldn't that be "solipsistic interjection"?
posted by scratch at 6:34 AM on February 20, 2007

MetaFilter: dissociative anonymity, invisibility, asynchronicity, solipsistic introjection (altered self-boundaries), dissociative imagination, and minimzation of authority.

Well, it had to be done (and I guess I had to be the one to do it).

Anyway. It doesn't take a weatherman, etc.; it's clear that people who practice asshattery regularly, here or elsewhere, have some psychological issues. As for myself, I am nominally sane, but some days I feel snarkier than others and it shows.

As for accountability - aside from the entry fee and high number of identifiable users, something else happens here that creates accountability. That is that there's something of an institutional memory here; the degree of intentionality and self-focus of MetaFilter seems to encourage people to manage their identities about as responsibly as they do their real-world identities. The function of MetaTalk in both praising and calling-out is only part of that; there's also the revelation of personal information here and there over time, the patterns established by AskMe participation, and so on. Identity on MeFi is rather durable. I value my username as my good name, in a way, and try not to compromise it. I suppose those who don't care how they come off here are freer, and some people create a userid for the sole purpose of channeling their assholish qualitites, but my sense is that the majority of people here value their identity and the general good opinion of the group.
posted by Miko at 7:06 AM on February 20, 2007

Not wanting to make a flame commentary, I wonder how a commet poster can put down his ideas about the subject and then go on to tell us he has not the time to9 read the article but is sure he knows what it is saying. I recall oneof my favorite critics noting a few times that one should always go first to the primary source.
posted by Postroad at 7:09 AM on February 20, 2007

It's not just the $5 cost that weeds out the wrong element; it's the need to set up a PayPal account to make this $5 payment. You need to have a certain minimal amount of technical chops to figure out how to do this and that hurdle alone filters out almost all of the flamewar-rejects. If Matt set up a P.O. Box and asked people to mail in $5 money orders, I think the quality of the discourse here would sink slowly towards the AOL level.
posted by jason's_planet at 7:12 AM on February 20, 2007

Shouldn't that be "solipsistic interjection"?

No, because the author's saying that we're inwardly projecting the voices and characters of internet identities onto our own mental screens.

Prefix intra-

on the inside, within
a prefix signifying in, within, interior

It's really interesting what he says in that section, particularly when I consider the way in which I consider some users 'friends' and 'allies' and others 'enemies' or 'jerks'. I'm projecting quite a bit onto these indentities built of disembodied words.
posted by Miko at 7:17 AM on February 20, 2007

"a design flaw inherent in the interface between the brain’s social circuitry and the online world"?

I find this subject fascinating, and this work great, but such questions are the wrong way to go about your thinking.

It's different online: not better or worse. You can't make sound observations when you inject moral judgments like that.

There's no reason why a (relative) lack of comity should be written off as a flaw. Human behavior is what it is.
posted by teece at 7:32 AM on February 20, 2007

Oh really? Working your wood is a great reliever of stress.

posted by Kwine at 8:12 AM on February 20, 2007

you ALL suck!
posted by sexyrobot at 9:25 AM on February 20, 2007

I've only known three types of people personally who went on to join Internet/Intranet forums and chat rooms with flamethrowers a-blazing: bitter people, passive-aggressive people, and people who think it's funny.

The bitter people (warning: sample size two) would get so worked up about things that they ended up getting their own goat reguarly; the sociopathic fun-lovers (sample size three) didn't think it mattered, because it "wasn't real" or somesuch. The passive-agressive people (much larger sample size) were in it for teh win, and the medium is all but designed to encourage such behavior from persons of that mindset.

The first time I encountered any of this was when I worked for an accounting firm that's since gone under; Lotus Notes was used as groupware, and many office-wide forums existed (this was about a year or two before Internet connectivity started entering the workplace.) I built and oversaw an anonymous complains forum, and (despite it not being REALLY anonymous -- I knew who was posting!) one person used to put the most awful, angry stuff up.

One day I confronted her about it, and asked her why she did it, as it was making people upset; her response was "I know, that's why I do it" with a smug smile on her face.
posted by davejay at 10:11 AM on February 20, 2007

OK, scblackman, if that really is your name (you're probably just hiding behind that, thinking I won't rip you because I'll be afraid of being accused of racism), your subtle accusations of nutbuggery among those who engage in the gentle art of flamethrowing is a passive-agressive attempt at shoring up your own feelings of inadequacy that the holy rage of righteousness doesn't burn quite bright enough in your own pathetic little excuse for a soul, especially when you are clearly provoked, yet at the same time in the right, and so the situation demands that you defend your certitude with appropriate levels of opprobrium and invective, arrows in your quiver of intellectual tools long missing and left to tarnish in the corner, time out of mind, a mind so loose with the facts that it behooves me to point out that your post is indelicately offensive to just about all of the true believers in Internet social freedom...uh, what was the question again?
posted by Mental Wimp at 10:18 AM on February 20, 2007

Er, passive-aggressive, that is.
posted by Mental Wimp at 10:20 AM on February 20, 2007

The people who never express themselves online have all the same problems.

However, in addition to these, they are also repressed and repressive, and suffer from a terrible need to be herded around like sheep, and spend most of their time praying for a highly authoritarian sheepherder to come along and play into their sick S/M fantasies.
posted by nervousfritz at 10:24 AM on February 20, 2007

I wonder how a commet poster can put down his ideas about the subject and then go on to tell us he has not the time to9 read the article but is sure he knows what it is saying.

Ah, it's easy, I was feeling so refreshingly disinhibited this morning. Though to be fair, I did make it clear that I was not at all sure about that. Having found time to read it now, my first impression is that it's much shorter than I expected. Somewhat interesting, though nothing particularly new. Old ideas expressed in language unfamiliar to me, is all. Good point about asyncrhonicity, which for me is the most important factor; I think it deserves more discussion than it was given. My main disagreement is summarized by this quote from the conclusion:

The disinhibition effect can then be understood as the person shifting, while online, to an intrapsychic constellation that may be, in varying degrees, dissociated from the in-person constellation ...

Too much of it rests on the assumption that there is a single unified "in-person" constellation of personality. It strikes me as bizarre that the author can explicitly acknowledge that there is not a single "online self", but rather a "collection of slightly different constellations of affect, memory, and thought" in online environments, without mentioning that exactly the same can be said of "in-person" environments. Many of the effects described are not in any way unique to Internet.
posted by sfenders at 10:30 AM on February 20, 2007

You can't make sound observations when you inject moral judgments like that.

I never sense, say, or think anything whatsoever which is not informed by moral judgement, as far as I can tell. (however, your comments have always been among those I look forward to, think about carefully, and enjoy, teece.)

Also, I have said far worse things in person-- even to every single member of my own family-- dozens of times than I have ever been so much as tempted to say online.
posted by jamjam at 10:36 AM on February 20, 2007

er, that was the "2004 paper" pdf I was commenting on. Following some more links, it looks like there's much more to read, though most of it's from the 90's back when this kind of thinking was relatively new.
posted by sfenders at 10:42 AM on February 20, 2007

Really looking forward to reading this post, am at work and can only skim a little. Also previously discussed on MetaFilter.
posted by nickyskye at 11:13 AM on February 20, 2007

I think davejay's categories are spot on.

But really, for all three categories it all comes back to, "It's not real." As soon as we just start accepting the internet as part of meatspace, the trolls will find some other way to be annoying, passive aggressive people will timidly back off, and the bitter people will go home and cry.

Also, imagine how much more fun Second Life would be without the anonymity.
posted by roll truck roll at 1:23 PM on February 20, 2007

I've belonged to a number of on-line communities over the twenty-odd years I've had access to them.

The only thing I can identify as important to the quality of the community are the intellectual and social standards maintained by the most-frequent posters, ie. the most vocal.
posted by five fresh fish at 9:14 PM on February 20, 2007

A perplexing scenario is something that I refer to as The Metafilter Effect :

1) You post an opinion in a thread. This may not be an opinion that you hold very strongly - it may just be an immediate impression that you made after following a link to some article.

2) People respond to your comment. Some agree, some disagree. Some of those who disagree are calm and reasonable. Others, however, respond with the knives of snark, bitterness, and vitriol. They get personal, resorting to ad-hominem or borderline ad-hominen. This makes you upset.

3) At this point, the wisest thing to do is just quit the thread. No online discussion is worth getting upset about. You just don't have time for that shit. However, you are bored at work and have time to kill, or maybe you don't realize that you are feeling attacked, or maybe you feel like you should defend your point of view, lest the attackers make you look foolish.

4) You become involved in an intense back-and-forth debate, vigorously and passionately defending your opinion against all comers.

5) At the end of the day, you look back on the thread. You're mostly happy with your contributions - you feel like you've defended your original position pretty well. However, you realize that your original opinion wasn't something that you believed in very strongly - the only reason that you put so much effort into arguing it was because people started in with the snark and the emotional responses. And then the realization sets in - you've posted 15 times to a single thread. You appear to be obsessed. To the outside world, it would seem that you cling to your original position as if it were life itself. Even worse, you totally ruined the thread for everyone except for the 4 or 5 other people who really cared about arguing with you. In the end, you wasted a whole lot of time that you will never get back.

Although I'm sure this isn't unique to MeFi, I've mostly seen it happen here. Ever since I first noticed myself doing it, I've tried my best to resist. I wish that others would do the same.
posted by Afroblanco at 9:48 PM on February 20, 2007 [17 favorites]

I never sense, say, or think anything whatsoever which is not informed by moral judgement, as far as I can tell.

Sure. (that sentence was all I could think of, and it's too vague, but I needed to move on). I suspect it's nigh impossible to remove all moral judgment, but one should try, in situations like this. The internet, and human interaction on it, is new. The first step to understanding it is to catalog how. One should try really hard to leave the judgments aside when doing that.

The question: "[is there] a design flaw inherent in the interface between the brain’s social circuitry and the online world?" is a common form of bias in arm-chair social commentators. It's question-begging. "Design flaw" assumes something is "wrong" with human interaction on the internet. In such squishy social issues, that word makes little sense. It's different, that's all.

At some point, you take what social research has taught you, and try to plug it back into a moral framework, but I don't think that that is being approached in the right way, in that question by the NYT author. Technology is changing the way humans interact, live, and behave right now, and it's happening a lot. Too many folks jump right into "this change is bad" without any real thought. Things are different, that's for sure, but with most of the things I see, it's not at all easy to say they're bad. It's just a knee-jerk reaction that assumes change is bad.

however, your comments have always been among those I look forward to, think about carefully, and enjoy, teece.

Well, you must truly be a fool then, jamjam ;-)

As an aside, I think emoticons can and should play an important roll in online communication. But I get the feeling "serious" folks look down their nose at them. I wish this wasn't the case. A smiley or a winky can do a tiny bit to replace the non-verbal communication that is absent online.

I hardly ever see emoticons on MeFi, which I think is a shame. Yeah, newbies and others can greatly overuse the emoticon, but I think they are very useful.
posted by teece at 8:20 AM on February 21, 2007

posted by hoverboards don't work on water at 9:50 AM on February 21, 2007

I'm also currently working on an article on flaming...

But in the meanwhile, here's something that I think is more helpful - flaming is only judged by the community and its norms.

posted by k8t at 8:28 AM on February 22, 2007

This place is really one of the nicer places on the internet, that I've found.... I guess it helps that if someone messes up they'll get called an asshat, and if they mess up bad enough, Cortex will write a song pointing it out.
posted by magikker at 8:30 AM on February 22, 2007

« Older For gardeners, by gardeners   |   Ashbourne Royal Shrovetide Football Newer »

This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments