Flaming: More than a Necessary Evil for Academic Mailing Lists
*********** WANG ******* EJC/REC Vol. 6, No. 1, 1996 *******
FLAMING: MORE THAN A NECESSARY EVIL
FOR ACADEMIC MAILING LISTS
University of Vermont
Abstract. Although Internet gurus advocate
that users refrain from flaming, it is nonetheless
true that flaming permeates the Internet. This
paper explores the nature of flaming -- its
characterists and its forms -- in academic
discussion groups. Despite the appearance of
destructiveness, the author argues that flaming
educates the ignorant, tames the uncouth, deters
violaters of rules, inhibits commercial
advertisers, and promotes effective communication.
Flaming permeates the Internet culture. Although
refraining from flaming is advocated by all Internet gurus
and warily observed by many rank-and-file users, from time
to time flaming messages shoot up. In some cases, this
behavior escalates from a "mild scorch" to a "roaring blaze"
(Thompsen, 1993). Academic mailing lists may see less
egregious type of flaming found in other situations, yet,
even there it abounds in various forms.
Flaming never stops. A close look at the
characteristics, the forms and the nature of this
distinctive Internet phenomenon reveals that flaming exists
for a reason. Despite its outwardly intrinsic
destructiveness, flaming educates the ignorant, tames the
uncouth and deters potentical violators of rules upheld by
specific academic discussion groups. In fact, flaming is
the only means to enforce the "netiquette", a set of general
etiquette developed for Internet users. Flaming also scares
away commercial advertizing, which, in general, is
vehemently opposed by most academic mailing lists. In its
unique way, flaming can be argued to promote good writing
and effective communication. To see flaming in perspective,
therefore, is to understand the positive role it plays in
keeping the discussion groups working the way they are meant
Flaming and Academic Discussion Groups
Flaming constitutes a distinctive characteristic of
electronic mail. Definitions vary, but it generally means
"attacking someone personally for their posting" by using
"insults, swearing, and hostile, intense language" (Krol,
1992, p. 150; Walther, 1992). In the academic environment,
"flaming refers to computer-mediated communicative behaviors
that are interpreted to be inappropriately hostile"
In analyzing the forms of flaming, David Plotnikoff
listed five basic kinds: Ad-hominem attacks flame; the
surgical-strike flame; the spelling grammar flame; the you-
have-no-business-being-here flame; the sneak flame and the
anti-flame flame (1994).
According to Plotnikoff, "the surgical-strike
methodically and mechanically refutes each tiny point in the
previous post or e-mail. The on-line equivalent of
disassembling your enemy's car one bolt at a time (p. B1)."
In explaining sneak flame, Plotnikoff compared the sneakers
to someone who did not throw down the gauntlet until the
last moment. Using the disguise of a friendly opening, the
sneaker holds his attack until the finishing line where it
might read: "I'm not expecting you to be able to fathom any
of this, so I'd suggest you get the one person down at the
trailer park who did graduate from high school to read it
for you." Hostile messages like this one are not hard to
find in a mailing list.
A mailing list is an organized system in which a group
of people are sent messages pertaining to a particular
topic. An academic mailing list, by extension, are formed
by scholars and professionals interested in intellectual
discussions and professional exchange of ideas. Academic
mailing lists focus on academic and scholarly subjects, yet,
they are not immune from flaming. In academic mailing lists
flaming differs only in depth and severity.
Flaming Characteristics of Professional Discussion Groups
Flames in the academic setting act like insects. Some
flaming messages bite with venomous remarks; some sting with
sarcastic barbs; others simply pinch with black humor.
Personal attacks boomerang in the cyberspace. In a
rush response to a posting that is viewed in some way as
offensive, well-educated professionals may say things they
later feel sorry for. Periodically, an offended party
lashes out at message senders by calling them names and
piling up insults. Instead of addressing the issue at hand
or arguing on a professional level, these flamers attempt to
choke the massengers. They shoot to kill.
When a corporate researcher named JM posted a message
looking for ideas to help his employees learn the knack of
advertizing, a professor saw red. He declared to "flame in
the spirit of the new bourgeois public sphere, the
information superhighway" (Fox, 1994). Angrily, he
condemned: "I deeply, deeply resent JM's facile,
disingenuous comparison between the project of his
henchmen...and the project of professional, scholarly
ethnographers...and I don't give a f*** about your
'potential employers and clients,' JM... why don't you go
join a USENET newsgroup where ignorance of the subject under
discussion is a virtual pre-requisite for participation?"
Here and there, hatchet jobs haunt academic mailing lists.
Most people do not flame to see others bleed. Many
just use flaming as a rude wake-up call, not without humor
sometimes. Wondering why a discussion group has been quiet
for a while, a member sent the message: "I haven't read
this group for quite some time and now I see there have been
very few posts. Question: Is this group brain dead or just
comatose???" (Kerling, 1993). Soon someone replied:
"Sheeez, what a dork, this was supposed to be posted to
alt.human-brain." Without being too vitriolic, this message
reminded the members of the netiquette to be
followed--posting appropriate questions to appropriate
groups. Critical messages of this nature border more on the
side of teasing than hostility.
One of the rules people follow in socializing others is
to withhold uninvited advice. If this is difficult for some
people to observe in their daily life, it is even more
difficult for many communicating in the cyberspace where
"reminders of the presence of other people and of social
norms" remain at a minimum (Sproull & Keisler, 1986, p.
1501). For lack of direct human contact, people on Internet
admonish, rebuke, reprimand, and reproach much more
uninhibitedly than they would under other circumstances,and
leave behind a much longer trail of troublesome or even
irksome electronic seeds than when they communicate with
people face to face. Not surprisingly, many e-mail messages
are provokingly didactic and are viewed by many as
Why Flamers Flame
Others Are Totally Wrong
People flame when others violate the rules and the
customs of the Internet culture. Often, commercial
advertisers bear the brunt. When two Arizona lawyers broke
the rules by sending an uninvited advertizing message to
6000 newsgroups, they infuriated the whole Internet world.
As a result, a flood of nearly 30,000 flaming messages
poured into their email account and crashed the computer
system that provided them with the Internet access.
Internet users use flaming as a punitive mechanism to punish
and scare away rule breakers.
Flaming also occurs when others are not quilty of
violating any rules. Value differences can kindle an
electronic war. When people suffer from what Spradley and
MuCurdy called "ethnocentrism" (1990) and fail to understand
that others' different behavior can be motivated by a
different set of cultural norms rather than an intentional
violation of accepted conventions, they tend to react more
intolerantly on the Internet than they would in a
A recent skirmish over Proposition 187 in a professional
discussion list illustrated this point. An anthropologist
in the group opposed this proposition and called upon others
to boycott their professional conference in California as a
protest. At the end of his appeal letter, he listed all
those people who had signed up for the protest. Another
member in the electronic group, categorically against such a
letter, called every signer "a fool," believing that he
alone held the key to wisdom.
Misunderstanding occurs for two reasons: the sender of
a message fails to make clear what is intended; or the
reader reads too much into what is not there. When a
message equivocates, it forces the reader to read between
the lines and make assumptions about the intended meaning
based on the readers' own value systems and moral judgement.
Once a message is misunderstood, the reader takes offense
where no offense was intended. "The lack of nonverbal
communication, of being unable to hear inflections and see
facial gestures," Professor Thompsen concluded, "makes it
difficult to detect the emotional content of a message"
(1993, p. 63).
Misunderstanding poses such a serious problem that
people have to deal with the situation by inventing a series
of devices called "emoticons" or "smileys." A smiley is a
small drawing, using only regular keyboard characters,,
intended to add facial expression to a message. The most
frequently used emoticon consists of a smile :-). Others
convey surprise :-0, displeasure or sadness :-<, or teasing
;-) (one needs to turn the head sideways to see the faces).
People use smileys to assure clarity of their electronic
messages, to indicate irony and to communicate the subtle
nuances of another culture's humor. Putting a smiley at the
end of a sentence is sort of like saying "just kidding"
(Hahn, 1994, p. 203). All these efforts, however, do not
remove misunderstanding, and misunderstanding sparks and
How to Understand Flaming
Educate the Ignorant
Flaming does not exist for destruction only. Often
times, it serves to educate those who know little about the
customs and rules of the Internet culture. Each academic
mailing list, for example, has its distinct purpose and
declared scope of topics for coverage. Common interest
keeps the electronically connected members together.
Interlopers with an comment, question or request deemed
unfit for the culture of the group infuriate the puritans
for breaking the rules and offend others for wasting their
time and energy with trivia beyond their interest.
Intruders get punished the same way irresponsible and
careless students do in taking an exam: they flunk not
because they have nothing to say, but because they give
answers that have nothing to do with the questions.
For academic mailing lists, people who send
inappropriate messages are guilty of "the red herring"
fallacy, and have trodden on professional taboos. Flaming,
then, will serve two purposes: educate the ignorant and
discipline the trespassers. While a soft-spoken message of
admonition might also coax the defiant into conformity,
accusing messages of strong language, many believe, work
faster and better. For one thing, flaming really hurts, as
Tom Maurstad (1994) reported. Once burnt, the uncouth
become shy, and the academic mailing lists, free from
interruptions and distractions, happily assume their normal
Enforce the Rule
For all its magic, Internet is still a wilderness where
chaos outruns order. "Anyone with the technological tools
can post anything he or she wants," observes Elizabeth Dow
(1994), an Internet Gopher manager. The same is true with
academic mailing lists where anything can happen. A message
can be sent 100 times to the same group; anyone can pick up
an age-old "thread" that has already bored everyone else to
death. A harangue may ramble for 20 screens with nothing
substantial to tell, and, worst of all, it can all be in
capitalization! It is a rare person who can put up with
such an eye-sore. Reading it is worse than having Cher
screaming at you at the top of her lungs. For all the
invention of netiquette, the rules apply to only those who
choose to comply.
Compliers, sadly, do not have many cards to play in
their game to control the offensive behavior of those
oblivious of netiquette and Internet codes of conduct. In
fact, they have only one shaft in their quivers---flaming.
Shooting an electronic arrow at someone in Internet is the
only thing they could do to police the group. Although it
bears the semblance of an uncivilized warrior, flaming, like
flogging in Singapore, helps curb the electronic graffiti.
The lesson is that "anyone who chooses to flagrantly
disregard the customs and laws of a culture will get all
they deserve" (Walker, 1994). Flaming, correctly handled,
helps to keep the "participatory democracy" of the Internet
The following message from a professional testifies to
the effectiveness of flaming: "the reason the messages say
'send replies to me rather than the whole list' is because I
have been flamed enough about sending out requests for
information about 'trivia' (and other less attractive
descriptions) that I'm a bit fearful of continued fall out
(but not yet fearful enough to quit asking altogether)"
Facilitate Effective Communication
If flaming hurts, no one wants to get flamed. Since
flaming can result from misunderstanding, message senders
will strive to speak with clarity and straightforwardness.
They will try to avoid ambiguity, obscurity and vagueness.
Double entendre and double speak, therefor, have little
place in electronic communications. For fear of getting
flamed, many writers go extra miles to explain their
messages where ambiguity looms. While discussing political
correctness, a member said: "The following is the way I
feel about it. Your mileage may vary. Please consider the
second- person 'you' below as third person." (Bach, 1994).
Out of fear of being flamed for misunderstanding, he makes
himself more clear. Strange as it may sound, flaming
encourages clear writing.
In professional discussion groups, flaming messages of
personal attacks are very rare. More are those which aim to
taunt and satirize. This type of flaming makes people more
candid. With fewer inhibitors in expressing themselves in
an electronic milieu, writers have become more direct and
honest with each other than they normally are. In real
life, constructive criticism is losing ground to the
practice of "going along to get along," and positive
thinking may go to the extreme of narcissism. The
everything-is-great mentality reigns over the American
culture. The emphasis on being positive is so heavy that
criticism and confrontation have almost become endangered
species in our daily life. Flaming, however, is changing
Reshape the Society
In his book _Future Mind_, Edward Lias explored the
aspects of changes brought forth by new media. He believed
that communication through networks "will make life
different, publicly and privately" (1982, p. 27).
Lias argues that new media cause underlying social
values to change. "One value change resulting from the
general use of the computer medium may be that people will
have less rigid, more accepting attitudes to social
conventions and ways of doing things...it could reduce one's
prejudices or beliefs that certain ways are the only ways"
(1982, p. 187). Internet, as a new communication device
introduced into our culture, will certainly bring changes
along with it and flaming, a distinctive feature of Internet
culture, will impact our way of life in its own way.
In the electronic world, exchange of opinions happens
immediately. Contradictory comments are explicit. "Let's
talk turkey" is more a practice than a cliche in discussion
groups. Circumlocutions seldom sell. Before we know it,
electronic communication might change the way we define
politeness and the way we socialize. People might become
more straightforward in dealing with each other and, as a
result, more tolerant of negative criticism and challenging
comments. "Such tolerance," Lias pointed out, "does not
imply that one has fewer values or standards, but rather a
more honest consideration and appreciation of other cultures
and personalities" (1982, p. 187). "Accentuate the positive
and eliminate the negative" may still flow from mouth to
mouth, but people who say it might have a different
understanding of what is positive and negative.
Flaming as an Internet phenomenon both mirrors and
reshapes the society we live in. History tells us that
"human behavior is modified by the addition of each new
medium in the social environment" (Lias, 1982, p. 188).
Today, with more than 30 million users regularly accessing
Internet in 146 countries (Calcari, 1994, p. 54), and with
the Internet's growth rate at a staggering 20 percent per
month (Markoff, 1993), it is highly likely that Internet
will alter the values and relationships of life. Flaming,
too, will have its role to play in the change.
Flaming is a fact of life for Internet users. It might
be frowned upon, but it never goes away. As a unique part
of the Internet culture, it has special roles to play in
academic mailing lists. As a punitive measure, flaming
educates the ignorant, polices cyberspace and brings order
to the group. It scares away unwanted commercial
On a more positive note, flaming encourages clear
writing and no-nonsense communication. Properly handled, it
serves as a workable tool to monitor the participatory
democracy rather than a weapon for mob rule. More
importantly, flaming reflects the change of some human
behavior resulted from electronic communication. At the
same time, it illuminates area of life significantly altered
by our acceptance of computers. How flaming modifies human
behavior and our way of life merits further investigation.
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Author Information: Hongjie Wang
Health Science Reference Librarian
Dana Medical Library
University of Vermont
Communication Institute for Online Scholarship, Inc.
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