Since the outset of the online world, the most defining aspect of online group discussions has been the uninhibited way that participants let loose with their anger. "Flaming" is almost as integral to the Internet today as linking.
Some individuals are more predisposed to flaming than others. Here's a sample of one anonymous poster's shorter flames in one online group:
As you would expect, such talk isn't conducive to warm and fuzzy feelings about the particular discussion group or the Web site or organization that hosts it. In response, people and organizations have tried various means to minimize if not eliminate these nasty personal attacks and related epithet-filled diatribes.
Because flaming is aggravated by the anonymity made so easy by the Internet, many of these attempts try to persuade or force participants to post using their real names. This is what's behind a recent change by the Web site of Mother Jones magazine (www.motherjones.com). No stranger to heated opinion as a result of the issues it tackles, Mother Jones recently started requiring commenters to have their email addressed verified.
Any Internet user who's been online more than about a week knows that such a tactic can be thwarted by creating a "throw-away" email address at one of the free Web email services such as Gmail, Yahoo Mail, and Hotmail.
Still, according to the magazine, email verification has helped. Though it caused a 22% decrease in comments, it also led to a 45% decrease in comments the moderators were forced to delete. Overall, wrote staffer Kevin Drum, "The tone of the comments section seems much more civil."
A number of other sites have recently started requiring commenters to log in using their Facebook or Twitter logins. It's possible as well to create a throw-away Facebook or Twitter account, but anecdotal reports indicate that fewer people do this than with email accounts.
As repugnant as flaming is at its worst, it's interesting enough a phenomenon to have promoted study at the university level. Beginning back in the 1980s, researchers at Carnegie Mellon University looked at online flaming in detail.
They found that people talking online, compared to talking in person, are more uninhibited, more often express extreme opinions, vent anger more frequently, and are more likely to curse one another. One obvious reason for this is that an insult levied online, particularly anonymously from behind a "handle," isn't likely to get you get fired, embarrassed in front of your friends or family, or punched in the nose.
But don't think anonymity is absolute. A number of ways exist for experts to unmask those who try to hide and do bad things. This mostly plays out when someone is stalking or harassing another person, when someone has legally libeled another person, and when someone has revealed a company's trade secrets.
Despite their frequency today online, personal attacks via the written word aren't unique to the Internet or to our times. Most people think of George Washington as being beyond reproach, despite his acquiescence at the time to the societal evil of slavery.
Yet fellow founding father Thomas Paine in an open letter once denounced Washington as "treacherous in private friendship... and a hypocrite in public life." With even more vitriol, Benjamin Franklin Bache, grandson of Benjamin Franklin, suggested in a newspaper article that Washington didn't support the independence of the United States and had been bribed by the British.
The reality is, some people today, as they always have been, are filled with anger and hate. The Internet gives them a ready outlet to vent it. As one anonymous poster said chillingly, "Hate is a thoroughly satisfying emotion, 100% complete in a way that love or friendship never can be. When you hate somebody, really hate 'em, you can hate every single G-D thing about them."
Despite their best efforts to reign in flaming, Web sites as well as those who frequent them need to expect a certain level of cyber rough and tumble when hosting or venturing into online discussion.
Reid Goldsborough is a syndicated columnist and author of the book Straight Talk About the Information Superhighway. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.