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A flame war is a heated argument ad hominem: It primarily consists of personal insults, the rational arguments are secondary.
Flame wars usually develop out of a normal discussion in these ways:
- Someone offends people through arrogant behavior (HelpingLusers)
- A thread of discussion touches upon a LandMine
- The rules or values of the community are questioned (c.f. WhatIsaTroll)
- An ad hominem argument results when a poorly qualified contributor posts questionable material.
- A participant tries to communicate with a chronic flamer (it's difficult to stay cool and polite)
- A VestedContributor tries to pull rank.
There are also a minority of users (chronic flamers) who take enjoyment in flame wars and carry them on deliberately. Sometimes these are lumped together with trolls, but there can be a difference. Chronic flamers often have strong world views for which they have no constructive outlet. For example, an opponent of the use of pesticides on food might read a produce newsgroup and post repeated attacks on vegetable growers who use conventional growing practices (with frequent use of pesticides).
In general, we term any text that incites a flame war as flamebait. You will see this term frequently.
In a wiki a flame war can develop to a ForestFire (that means the participants start arguing on dozens of pages).
http://flamewars.net is a social bookmarking site featuring a great selection of flamewars
The Netiquette (RFC 1855 or the WikiNetiquette for wikis) was designed to avoid this for newsgroups. It was based on the anonymous 1980 "Emily Post" posting that, through manipulation of headers, would show up first when a user new to newsgroups opened a newsreader for the first time. Here are some examples from the RFC:
- Remember that the recipient is a human being whose culture, language, and humor have different points of reference from your own. Remember that date formats, measurements, and idioms may not travel well. Be especially careful with sarcasm.
- Use smilies to indicate tone of voice, but use them sparingly. :-) is an example of a smiley (Look sideways). Don't assume that the inclusion of a smiley will make the recipient happy with what you say or wipe out an otherwise insulting comment.
- Wait overnight to send emotional responses to messages. If you have really strong feelings about a subject, indicate it via FLAME ON/OFF enclosures. For example:
This type of argument is not worth the bandwidth it takes to send it.
It's illogical and poorly reasoned. The rest of the world agrees with me.
- This usage has become archaic. When it was more prevalent it was usually used on material considered fairly tame by today's standards, such as a rant about the shortcomings of some particular technology, rather than an ad hominem attack
- If you should find yourself in a disagreement with one person, make your responses to each other via mail rather than continue to send messages to the list or the group. If you are debating a point on which the group might have some interest, you may summarize for them later.
- Don't get involved in flame wars. Neither post nor respond to incendiary material.
- Take responsibility and eliminate flamebait. If you see a incendiary post, transform it into a valuable contribution. If there is no valuable information in the contribution, "return" the text to the person's namepage for further consideration. While this is possible on a wiki, other environments allow moderators to delete or rate down flamebait as well.
The FlameWarriors site categorizes the various fighting styles of flamers.
Theories why FlameWars occur so often
Although heated arguments happen in "RealLife" often enough, they occur more frequently online. There are many theories why this is true. Some common convincing suggestions include
- Lack of ParaLanguage and other emotional clues blunts humour, sarcasm, or intonation which leads to miscommunication, which in turn leads to conflict.
- Mediated communication protects individuals from immediate (physical) reaction to an argument, or otherwise makes individuals feel protected or safe from harm in response to their actions. This is a myth, however, as harm can be reasserted through psychological attacks, such as PunishReputation, or through a permanent digital AuditTrail (cf. ForgiveAndForget)
- People likely to spend a lot of time online have undeveloped or damaged social skills, and thus they prefer the "safer" or more controllable digital discourse (see CyberSpace#quixote's take on HackingAtNight). These people tend to lack empathy more than the general population and therefore they tend to a) lose their tempers faster; b) misunderstand others; c) be paranoid (cf. DefendAgainstParanoia)
- SwitchingCosts between communities is low and the expulsion rate (cf. DissuadeReputation) of malcontents is high. Thus, malcontents move from community to community rapidly as they get thrown out of one after another. The antisocial crowd consequently has a disproportionate visibility on the Internet to the sane crowd. Permanent AuditTrails and Google have helped addressed this problem, but in the event the person has improved, the contemporary situation fails to ForgiveAndForget.
- In MeatSpace there is implicit segregation by point of view, since communities and sub-communities there are relatively homogeneous compared to online communities. It would be most unusual to happen upon a conversation about Mormonism, between two or more Mormons, in MeatSpace unless one is a Mormon. But it is possible to participate readily in such conversations online.
- Some online communities actively encourage flaming, for the purpose of entertainment and because on occasion passionate arguments can result in good ideas and improved reasoning. Examples include the [Flame War Forum] and ThePhlogisticiansCorner?.
- When Prophecy Fails focuses on the failure of prophecies to come true, termed disconfirmation by Festinger, and the accompanied renewal of energy and faith in their source of divine guidance. His theory presupposes the cult having certain identifying features, such as: (a) belief held with deep conviction along with respective actions taken, (b) the belief or prediction must be specific enough to be disconfirmed (i.e., it didn't happen), (c) the believer is a member of a group of like-minded believers who support one another and even proselytize.
- This fits so accurately for all the traditional flame wars like emacs vs vi, Linux contra Windows, etc.
How to get out of a Flame-War
Your first interest must be not to get into a flame war. That's easier than getting out of it. So:
- never insult people (not even in return)
- always look at the problem, not at the person (if someone violates the rules, talk about the rules - not so much about the violation)
- declare the flamebait as flamebait, use humour instead of aggression
How to get out as a person:
- you have to actually recognize that you are in a flamewar and that you should get out of it
- The Netiquette has already mentioned the number one rule for getting out of a flame-war: DissuadeReputation. Just ignore it.
- declare the conflict as a boring, often repeating process, explain its roots and its silliness
How to get out as a community:
- Realize that, in open communities, there often is no way to eliminate chronic flamers without becoming a GatedCommunity.
- Act as a community. Don't look at two people fighting. The members should defend each other, so they don't have to react on personal attacks themselves. This is much more effective and credible for the reader.
- Create value for TheAudience. Always think about the reader, it is their opinion that counts. Create pages and arguments that you can reuse in the next similar conflict. Its a big advantage of the wiki that this is possible.
- Don't overreact. A conflict is not 100% negative. It is also energy that can be used to strengthen the community, to make values and rules clearer, to improve arguments. You wouldn't without a need.
I used to get into a lot of flamewars with another guy who was a mod of the same forum as me (so DissuadeReputation would be effectively impossible). The problem, of course, came when he was offended by a remark of mine which was completely opposite to his worldview (this was during a period when we had an AbsentLeader and no recourse). Eventually I learned that most could be taken care of by tact (AssumeGoodFaith) and politeness (excessive politeness by most standards), and the rest would have to be manually resolved (if you could call it that!) by mediation by a third party, and paying a lot of attention to where we were each coming from in the conflict. This was a GatedCommunity so "in open communities, there is often no way to eliminate chronic flamers without becoming a GatedCommunity" would not be completely accurate. The admin there was very reluctant to use the banhammer, which rather negated this advantage. (Where I come from, by the way, banhammer is slang for HardBan.)
Incidentally - I don't use flameon/flameoff. I use [sarcasm] and [/sarcasm]. I also type in complete sentences, without abbreviations, because this usually gives me the extra three seconds' thinking space that allows me to avoid a pretty good majority of these situations. (Usually. It's nowhere close to foolproof but it works well enough for me.)
- NatalieBrown, who labels things to bring them out into the open by habit