The Unbearable Lameness of Flaming

Why must the price of posting be the wages of singe?

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Senior Writer

Published June 24, 1996 5:44PM (EDT)

my psyche is pretty well-lined with asbestos. I've been hosting, both
here in Salon's Table Talk
and over on the WELL, for a while now, and I understand that getting flamed
on a regular basis is part of my life. I'm used to it.

But a few weeks ago, I was going through a particularly ugly trial by flame. It disturbed me, impervious though I thought I was, to find myself the object of such public scorn and such personal insults -- and from people who wouldn't know me if
they mugged me on the street. I'd been called a priss, a Victorian, a
hypocrite, cyclops, Nurse Ratched, Mary Bethetic, Miss Priggy, and of
course that old standby, bitch. I was getting knots in my stomach every
time I turned on the computer. I was waking up in the middle of the night
wracked with anxiety.

The line between free speech and abuse is a fine one, and those of us who work with online communities grapple regularly with the moral dilemma
of having to figure out which is which. And whenever you have a forum for
a group of individuals with wildly varying notions of what is acceptable
communication, those who have the final say in the matter are sitting ducks
for the kind of animosity usually reserved for meter maids and umpires.

So there I was, caught in the crossfire, armed with a set of posting
guidelines and a big bottle of Mylanta. Were we flying in the face of the
First Amendment to even try to make guidelines and to make them stick?

-- who literally wrote the book on "The Virtual Community" -- says, "I think anybody who wants to run an online service as a business has a right to make their own rules. There's a definite difference between advocating a mode of communication that one considers civil and
advocating laws that enforce some standard of behavior. Censorship has to do
with making laws. If there's a free market, then people who want to go to
sanitized discussions will go to them and people who want to go to those
other places will vote with their fingers." Lately, I'd been feeling that a
few have been voting with their middle ones.

I took solace in Miss Manners. Judith Martin's new book, "Miss
Manners Saves Civilization," lays down a few radical concepts for
getting along, online and off. Martin believes that there is a world of room
between chaos and legally mandated restrictions. She eschews extremism, and
champions self-restraint and tolerance. Perhaps nowhere is that needed more
than the online world, where it's hard to say anything without somebody
calling somebody a Nazi or evoking Orwellian nightmares. Martin notes that
"trading insults prevents and substitutes for -- rather than constitutes --
free and open discussion of ideas," and humbly suggests that "you do not
have to do everything disagreeable that you have a right to do. Nor do you
have to bring everything you do to public attention. Controlling yourself to
avoid causing unnecessary jolts to others is the trade-off we make to live
in communities."

And yet to many the very mention of even self-imposed limits on
behavior sets off a fury of it's-my-party-and-I'll-flame-if-I-want-to
indignation. The Net teems with folks who can't believe their luck in
finding a public forum for their every dark and derisive thought. It's like
the slice of fame that going on Richard Bey gives, with the safety of
anonymity that comes from hiding behind a computer. Fuckin' A!

Michelle Fox, conferencing
coordinator of the WELL
, says, "Online, people don't necessarily have to
take responsibility for themselves. It is very scary that people will forget or not care that there's a human being on the other
end of the computer screen, because they don't have to look at somebody when
they burst into tears. A lot of it can be political -- people who want to
make a scene for themselves will say things or blow things out of
proportion. And people who are abusive do sometimes gain notoriety, whereas
people who are prolific and intelligent don't get as much attention. It's
almost a publicity stunt." As a friend who's an online veteran once observed, "The Net is the most self-indulgent medium ever invented."

The public give and take of ideas can be a wonderful thing; it's
one of the greatest attractions of the Net. Some of my best online moments
have come in reading something from someone with a completely different
perspective than mine on a subject, and seeing it expressed so well that it
gives me a deep empathy for that point of view. I'd rather be intelligently
challenged than blankly agreed with any day of the week.

But when the free exchange of opinion and information is drowned out
in petty vituperation, that kind of communion isn't possible. So what's a
mannered person to do? Sometimes, you've just got to back off. As Rheingold
says, "It pays to say to people, 'Maybe I didn't really understand what you
meant, could you rephrase that differently?' Why not just assume good will?
Why not make an extra effort? If I see that it's not a miscommunication, then
maybe this isn't a fruitful way to spend my time, so I'm going to withdraw.
The thing that took me the longest to learn is you don't have to get in a
pissing match."

There's pissing matches a-plenty to be had if you want them. The Net
is like a candy store for the unmannered and the socially inept. You can ask
girls you don't know for naked pictures, or send them long detailed letters
about your sexual preferences. This kind of behavior isn't merely impolite
and highly presumptuous; it's creepy and gross. Calling somebody stupid for
having a different opinion is also rude, but at least it's a quick way of
letting the rest of the online audience know you really don't have anything
to offer the discussion in the way of a real argument.

Maybe we're all just getting hot under the collar because we're
so isolated that negative contact is better than none at all. We're stuck in
apartment buildings where we don't know our neighbors, working as
consultants and temps and in fields that offer us no real colleagues -- and,
for socializing, we're sitting in front of computer monitors typing to strangers, "You're an asshole." It's ugly, but at least it's interaction.

So where's the warmth, where's the courtesy? It's out there, if
you're willing to look and to invest some time in a place. I've seen people
reach out and volunteer their time to visit fellow online denizens who were
sick and needed caring. I've seen them offer to replace books when someone
posted about losses sustained in a fire. And I've seen people offer job
leads to the unemployed, romantic guidance to the lovelorn, and child-care
advice to frantic parents.

With 10,000 users, many of whom have been around for several
years, the WELL is in many ways a model of self-regulating civility. As
Michelle Fox explains, "The WELL is small enough that people are community
trained. The regulars will send e-mail or guide people to let them know what
they're doing is great or not great. People will say, 'Hey, you're new here;
this is not usually accepted -- try this.'"

Unfortunately, on the bigger services, mailing lists, and Usenet, that kind of indoctrination doesn't often occur. People come and go so quickly and under so many guises that it's harder to build a community. And in places without a group of regulars who care about the tone of the conversations and are willing to speak up,
it's easy for everything to go to pot.

I routinely deal with people who stamp their virtual feet and hold
their cyber-breaths at the very idea that some kinds of communication are
not OK in some situations. These are people who, I suspect, don't go
around telling grandma to suck their dicks or the boss to eat shit. I could be
wrong. Maybe they do. But most of us understand that in the real world, when
we're in large groups, we control our impulses to blurt out whatever pops
into our heads. Put some of us online, however, and, because we're typing
instead of talking, we seem to develop some kind of online Tourette's syndrome
that impels us to write perfectly shocking things.

One guy announced, in a Table Talk conversation denser with sniping
than an episode of "Melrose Place," that he liked these kinds of discussions
because they were more "real," more like "the street." What a horrid notion.
First of all, it implies that kindness and civility are less "real" than
insults and anger. And worse, it suggests that brutal frankness is somehow
desirable. When I walk down the street and some punk yells, "Hey, mama, I got
something for you," I don't think, "Wow. Free speech is such a beautiful
thing. I am so glad he felt comfortable sharing that."

As a fellow online host is fond of saying, "Thoughts go on the
inside, dear." I usually assume that if I went ahead and told
everybody everything on my mind at any given moment, I'd get my ass kicked.
And rightly so. It occurs to me that, (a) as a host I need to set an example
of restraint, (b) my most uncharitable thoughts are potentially hurtful to
other human beings, and (c) when you back someone into a corner, he's going
to have to fight his way out. If you don't give a person at least the option
of ducking out with some dignity, you're never going to stop fighting.
But there's one argument that's even more compelling: Flames are simply not that interesting.

It just doesn't take a lot of gray matter to call somebody a
jerkoff. The times in life I'm most tempted to flame, what I usually want to
say is, "God, you're SO BORING." It's not just discourteous to monopolize a
conversation with tirades, it's downright soporific. Maybe the first time
you see a flamefest, it's mesmerizing -- you're struck by the awesome power
of a really big fight. But live through a few and it starts to get less
exciting. Live through several, with the same players again and again, and
you'll be begging for mercy.

Some skirmishes, of course, are pretty cool -- the ones that aren't
mud wrestling so much as fencing matches, with well-aimed thrusts and
parries. You get a pack of really bright people lobbing opinions back and
forth, it's exhilarating. A spirited debate full of passionate thinkers is a
thing of beauty. But there are some people who just don't know how to fight
fair, and who can't separate a discussion of ideas from a battle of

The central problem I have with people who say that anything less
than total anarchy is an infringement on their free speech is that anarchy
itself is an infringement on free speech. When someone's afraid that at best
he won't be heard above the din and at worst he'll be flamed within an inch
of his life for expressing a thought, that's not democracy in action -- that's
the tyranny of bullies. Howard Rheingold explains, "No discussion is
valuable if people are afraid to contribute to it because the level of
civility has dropped. One should encourage people to treat each other
civilly; one should explain that it makes the medium more valuable for

"Well," say those with strong stomachs and heavy artillery, "if they
can't take the heat they should stay off the Internet." The implication is
that one person's boorishness is everybody else's problem, that the capacity
for being offended makes a person weak. I find that deeply lame and entirely
unconvincing. The notion that having the biggest mouth makes someone the
winner doesn't wash. It might give you a TKO, but it's a pretty hollow
victory -- like winning a debate by whipping out billy clubs. If you can manage to scare everybody else away, congratulations, but don't kid yourself that it makes you a persuasive conversationalist.

Most of us who hang out a lot online find ways of dealing with our
pent-up frustrations and hurts. We post in other spaces in conversations
with names like "the strange e-mail I received today" or "what I really
wanted to say." We forward pointers to our friends with questions like, "Is
it me? Am I crazy here?" We write e-mails we'll never send, compose long and
devastating rebuttals that we'll never hit the accept button on. We go walk
around the block. We pet a dog.

One of the people I regularly call when I need reality checks is
Molly Ker. Molly's the general manager of ECHO, a New York based online service with
a decidedly cosmopolitan clientele that (usually) maintains its civilized
aura through a policy of no attacks and no hate speech. She also knows
her way around more corners of the newsgroup and mailing list world than
most and was a prominent anti-censorship speaker on several panels during the
big CDA hoo-hah this spring. I called her up the
other day to ask her where she draws the distinction between acceptable
discourse and bad manners, and why rudeness is so pervasive online.

"People seem to feel that on the Net they can say things they would
never say in public," she said. "That's a good thing sometimes, but it's
overshadowed tremendously by the amount of things that people say online
that are hateful or vitriolic or inane. It's easier to be construed as a
psycho online because it's so easy to react and think later, and when you do
that you tend to let manners fall by the wayside."

I asked her how she, as a
nice, civilized lady, dealt with it. "If a mailing list has one or two
people who are flame-heavy, I just resign. It's unfortunate but life is too
short. I've learned how to get up from the keyboard and walk around; I've
learned distance. Some people are always going to be jerks." She added,
"It makes me sad that people are so unwilling to see more than one
side of things."

I got off the phone and thought, how depressing. Molly's tired,
wants to move on -- she gave her notice at ECHO last week. Howard Rheingold is
saying things like, "I'm scared shitless about the legions of assholes out
there." Still, ever the optimist, he adds, "I continue to have faith in the
people who want to build something here."

I'm less sure. I feel drained, and the space between my shoulder
blades is throbbing. I wonder sometimes why I don't just do a Cliff Stoll
and unplug. If the online world is full of people who have seemingly limitless time and psychic energy and don't even want me in their neighborhood, maybe a permanent move offline isn't such a bad idea.
But then I remember -- Molly, this sane, smart, sweet girl I just spent a half hour commiserating with -- I met her online. Bev, Julie, Jill, Jeffrey, Rick, Rob, Andrew,
Tony, Fawn, Marjorie -- some of the brightest, funniest, and yes, most
gracious individuals I know I found by hanging out on the WELL, on ECHO, in
Table Talk. They're people whose posts make me think, whose e-mails make me
laugh, and whose real-world friendships I treasure.

Are the rewards of posting worth the risk of inciting frighteningly
contemptuous and often bottomlessly persistent responses? Is community online worth
headaches and sleepless nights? I'm still trying to figure that out. But at
least I've got company.

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Mary Elizabeth Williams is a senior writer for Salon and author of "A Series of Catastrophes & Miracles."

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