[Linguistic Anthropology] How Flame Wars Get Started

Alexandre enkerli at gmail.com
Sat Feb 3 15:41:55 UTC 2007

Please, don't flame me! ;-)
Though there is a specific context for this post, I prefer not talking
about it. For once, context seems to matter less! ;-)

Flame wars (FWs) are those personal confrontations which happen so
frequently online. FWs are seen as the bane of the online world. I
don't find them particularly appealing myself. Some FWs have been at
the centre of the collapse of some online communities. FWs may even be
related to some people's fears of communicating online (or offline!).

There's a wealth of literature on FWs. This post is mainly based on my
experience on (literally hundreds of) mailing-lists, forums, discussion
boards, and blogs since 1993. I did read some of the research on FWs
but this post is more about my own thinking.

Though it will probably sound more general than it should be, it's
based on something similar to an ethnography of online communication.
As such, I don't think so much on direct causalities but on different
patterns, linking FWs with other dimensions of the culture of online

Let's go.

Ostensibly, FWs come from breakdowns in communication. Moments in which
communication ceases to work properly. Note that the notion that
communication is a direct transmission of a signal is a very schematic
model and that I tend to prefer models which take into account diverse
goals of diverse participants as well as inter-subjectivity. Authors
that have influenced my thinking about those models include Gadamer,
Hymes, Jakobson, Goffman, Sperber, and Molino. (Luckily, all of these
authors are easy to find by their last names! Unfortunately, all of
these names refer to male speakers of European languages...)

Communication breakdowns (CBs) happen in a variety of contexts and seem
to be related to a large variety of factors. Differences in
communication norms are quite common, even in contexts which seem to be
fairly homogeneous in terms of "communities of communication"
(or "speech communities"). According to some, there are speech
communities in which gender differences imply such discrepancies in
communication norms, causing the "You Just Don't Understand!"
principle. Quite often, a communication event will break down when the
goals and expectations of different participants clash on the very
possibility of communicating ("We just can't be having this
conversation!"). In my experience, rarely does CB happen when people
simply disagree on a specific topic. There are many online groups in
which it is quite common to take disagreement "the wrong way," and get
angry because of what appears to be much of a challenge. Though such a
perspective on disagreement may contribute to communication breakdowns,
my observation is that disagreement alone doesn't cause CB. Though the
term "misunderstanding" («malentendu», «quiproquo») may seem to apply
to any CB, it could also be used more specifically to refer to the
(very frequent) cases in which discrepancies in the way specific
utterances are understood. The whole "this is not what I meant by my
use of the word 'banana' in this post on electrical conductivity!" and
other (funny to the outsider) examples of miscommunication.

In my experience, CBs are more the norm than the exception, in many
contexts. Especially in verbal-intensive contexts like discussions
among colleagues or fans of different teams. Quite clearly to me,
online communication is also verbal-intensive and a talkative
(garrulous?) guy like me takes to online communication like a fish to

Come to think of it, it's really an extraordinary event (literally!)
when two people fully understand each other, in a conversation. I mean,
when each of them really groks what the other is saying. On average,
people probably get compatible understandings of the communication
content, but the kind of "merging of horizons" characterising true
inter-subjectivity is quite uncommon, I think. Notice that I'm not
talking about people agreeing with each other. As you probably notice,
people often misunderstand each other more when they strive to make
sure that they agree on everything. In fact, such a "conflict
avoidance" attitude toward communication is quite common in certain
speech communities while it's ridiculed by members of other speech
communities (some people probably can think of examples... :-D). Some
communication scientists probably disagree with me on this matter
(especially if they apply a strict Shannon-Weaver view of communication
or if they hold McLuhan's view too dearly). But, in the speech
communities to which I belong most directly, disagreement is highly
valued. ;-)

If miscommunication is so common, it's difficult to think of CB as
the "root cause" of FWs. As so many people have been saying, since the
explosion in online communication in the early 1990s, written language
can be especially inefficient at transmitting "tone" and other
important features of a person's communicative intention. Online
communication is mostly written but attempts to fulfill some of the
same goals as oral communication. Instant Messaging (IM) and other
systems of synchronous, typed communication constitute an excellent set
of examples for the oral-like character of online communication. They
also constitute a domain in which communication norms may differ
greatly. Usually based on comparative age (most IMers are relatively
young, which may cause a "generation gap") and not, as far as I know,
based on gender (i.e., younger women and younger men seem to hold
fairly similar norms of communication in IM contexts). More interesting
to me than the tired tirade about the "poor quality" of IM language is
the fact that IMers appear quite efficient at transmitting more than
just information through a rather limited medium.

So, now, how do FWs get started? Is it just that older people don't
know how to communicate efficiently? Don't younger people have FWs?
Aren't FWs caused by (other) people's inability to understand simple
concepts? ;-)

To me, FWs happen mostly in difficulties in recuperating from CBs. When
a CB happens in face-to-face communication, there are well-known (and
somewhat efficient) methods of preventing an outright confrontation. In
some speech communities, much of those methods centre on "saving face."
At least, if we are to agree with Brown and Levinson. Whatever the
method, preventing confrontation is often easy enough a task that we
don't even notice it. Even in offline written communication, many
speech communities have well-established norms (including
genre-specific textual structures) which make confrontation-avoidance
an easier task than it can be online. To me, it wouldn't be unfair to
say that part of the issue with FWs is that specific strategies to
defuse conflict are not shared very widely. Some would probably say
that this lack of standardisation came with the democratisation of
writing (in Euro-America, a larger proportion of the population writes
regularly than was the case in the era of scribes). Not sure about
that. Given the insistence of some to maintain online the rules
of "étiquette" which were deemed appropriate for epistolary writing in
the tradition they know best, I simply assume that there are people who
think online writing had a negative impact when people forgot
the "absolutely minimal" rules of étiquette.

What happens online is quite complex, in my humble opinion. Part of the
failure to recover from CB may relate to the negotiation of identity.
Without going so much into labeling theory, there's something to be
said about the importance of the perception by others in the
construction of an online persona. Since online communication is often
set in the context of relatively amorphous social networks, negotiation
of identity is particularly important in those cases. Typical of
Durkheimian anomie, many online networks refrain from giving specific
roles to most of the individual members of the network (although some
individuals may have institutionalised roles in some networks). One
might even say that the raison d'être for many an online community is
in fact this identity negotiation. There might be no direct
relationship between an online persona and social identity in (offline)
daily life, but the freedom of negotiating one's identity is part of
the allure of several online groups, especially those targeted towards
younger people.

In a context of constant identity negotiation, face-saving (and
recovering from face threatening acts) may seem scary, especially when
relative anonymity isn't preserved. To those who "live online"
("netizens") losing face in online communication can be very
detrimental indeed. "Netizens" do hide behind nicknames and avatars but
when these are linked to a netizen's primary online identity, the
stakes of face management are quite high. Given the association between
online communication and speech communities which give prominence to
face (and even prestige) as well as the notion of communication as
information transmission, it is unsurprising to see such a pattern.

In my personal experience as a netizen, FWs are quite easy to avoid
when everyone remains relatively detached from the communication event.
The norms with which I tend to live (online or offline) have a lot to
do with a strategy of "not taking things too personal." Sure, I can get
hurt on occasion, especially when I think I hurt someone else. But, on
average, I assume that the reasons people get angry has little to do
with my sense of self. Not that I have no responsibility in CBs and
other FW-related events. But I sincerely believe (and would be somewhat
unwilling to be proven wrong) that taking something as a personal
attack is the most efficient method to getting involved in a FW. As I
want toavoid FWs as much as possible, my strategy can be measured for
efficiency. No idea what the usual average is for most people but given
the very large number of online discussions in which I have
participated in the last fourteen years, I feel that I have been
involved in relatively few FWs. Maybe I'm just lucky. Maybe I'm just
oblivious to the FWs I cause. Maybe I'm just naïve. But I live happily,
online and offline.

Posted By Alexandre to Linguistic Anthropology at 2/03/2007 10:39:00 AM
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