Emotional arguments punctuated with name-calling, insults, and other abuse have been a part of online communication since the beginning. From the days when computer bulletin-board systems run by hobbyists ruled the online roost, people have shouted at and down each other using their computer keyboards.
The same applies today to the blogosphere, the worldwide network of Web logs, or blogs, where people let their hair down and often invite others to comment on the color of their roots. The comments aren’t always flattering. One snide thing leads to another, and before long the nastiness spills off the screen like a bar fight into the street.
Tim O’Reilly, tech book publisher and conference promoter extraordinaire, has stepped knee-deep into this muck with suggestions and an invitation for anyone interested to add, or even change, his Blogger’s Code of Conduct (http://blogging.wikia.com/wiki/Blogging_Wikia).
The suggestions are mostly good, commonsensical advice that you’d expect in a colloquy from one level-headed person to another, brimming with homilies about responsibility and mutual respect. But one downside to the upside of cyberspace is that there’s typically no pressing need for any kind of civility.
Unlike the dignified discourse of an old-time parlor or the lively give-and-take of a dorm-room bull session, online conversations take place with participants distant from one another in space and often separated by time as well. Nobody is going to get popped in the nose for insulting anyone’s momma.
Also missing are the voice inflections, facial expressions, and body language that can signal an attempt at humor rather than insult or announce the presence of a slight misunderstanding before it explodes into a major war of the words. Various means have emerged to approximate offline nonverbal communication (such as smileys: “<g>“ for “<grin>”) among many others. But they’re all abstractions of the real world.
Flaming is an unavoidable online reality. However, you do have the choice of ignoring it, jumping right in, or trying various alternatives in between.
Turning the other cheek or not dignifying a miscreant with a response can sometimes be effective ways to approach online hostility. It has been said that the best way to quash a flame war is to ignore it. It will eventually (usually quickly) run out of fuel. Flames don’t burn in a vacuum.
On the other hand, because of the Internet’s inherent interactivity, remaining silent can sometimes make you appear haughty or cowardly. If you’re representing an organization, a better approach, at the very least, can be to acknowledge the person’s gripe and to explore a possible solution if appropriate.
If you elect to jump into a flame war, you can go in one of two directions. You can gutter fight, snarling like a sewer rat. You can curse, make up lies, or attack another’s motivations, competence, lifestyle, or national, racial, or religious background. You can hound the person in multiple discussion threads and nitpick until you’re blue in the fingers.
All this, of course, just makes you look bad.
On the other hand, flaming can rise to a higher level if approached with wit and a spirit of fair play. It doesn’t happen online often, but it happens. You can score points by refusing to get dragged down into the mire of the personal. Instead of vitriol, you can use logic; instead of invective, information; instead of fury, humor.
Flaming can thus take on the quality of a ritual battle or sport. Participants employ different rhetorical tricks, looking for inconsistencies in their opponent’s arguments, bringing genuine research and logic to their own arguments, conceding points when necessary, praising impressive tactical moves made by their opponents, regarding it all with amused detachment—as a game, like verbal jousting.
Maintaining your perspective means finding a way to applaud your opponent if you win and laugh at yourself if you lose. The best part of sportsmanship is good sportsmanship.
It takes two to tangle in such a way for it to work. Otherwise you have a pro wrestler wannabe on one side grunting it out to the end and, more often than not, pulling down the entire exercise. Multiplied, it can make the Internet appear at times to be the ultimate refuge for sociopaths releasing years of pent-up frustration.
The rough and tumble, the anarchic lack of inhibition, just goes with the territory. If you understand where it’s coming from, and why, you can navigate your way through it, gaining from the positive while leaving the negative a pile of ashes.
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 or reidgold.com.