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|This article possibly contains original research. (March 2013)|
Flaming usually occurs in the social context of an Internet forum, Internet Relay Chat (IRC), Usenet, by e-mail, game servers such as Xbox Live or PlayStation Network, and on video-sharing websites. It is frequently the result of the discussion of heated real-world issues such as politics, religion, and philosophy, or of issues that polarize sub-populations, but can also be provoked by seemingly trivial differences.
Deliberate flaming, as opposed to flaming as a result of emotional discussions, is carried out by individuals known as flamers, who are specifically motivated to incite flaming. These users specialize in flaming and target specific aspects of a controversial conversation.
Many social researchers have investigated flaming, coming up with several different theories about the phenomenon. These include deindividuation and reduced awareness of other people's feelings (online disinhibition effect), conformance to perceived norms, miscommunication caused by the lack of social cues available in face-to-face communication, and antiprocess.
Jacob Borders, in discussing participants' internal modeling of a discussion, says:
Mental models are fuzzy, incomplete, and imprecisely stated. Furthermore, within a single individual, mental models change with time, even during the flow of a single conversation. The human mind assembles a few relationships to fit the context of a discussion. As debate shifts, so do the mental models. Even when only a single topic is being discussed, each participant in a conversation employs a different mental model to interpret the subject. Fundamental assumptions differ but are never brought into the open. Goals are different but left unstated. It is little wonder that compromise takes so long. And even when consensus is reached, the underlying assumptions may be fallacies that lead to laws and programs that fail. The human mind is not adapted to understanding correctly the consequences implied by a mental model. A mental model may be correct in structure and assumptions but, even so, the human mind—either individually or as a group consensus—is apt to draw the wrong implications for the future.
Thus, online conversations often involve a variety of assumptions and motives unique to each individual user. Without social context, users are often helpless to know the intentions of their counterparts. In addition to the problems of conflicting mental models often present in online discussions, the inherent lack of face-to-face communication online can encourage hostility. Professor Norman Johnson, commenting on the propensity of Internet posters to flame one another, states:
The literature suggests that, compared to face-to-face, the increased incidence of flaming when using computer-mediated communication is due to reductions in the transfer of social cues, which decrease individuals' concern for social evaluation and fear of social sanctions or reprisals. When social identity and ingroup status are salient, computer mediation can decrease flaming because individuals focus their attention on the social context (and associated norms) rather than themselves.
Generally, then, a lack of social context creates an element of anonymity, which allows users to feel insulated from the forms of punishment they might receive in a more conventional setting. Johnson identifies several precursors to flaming between users, whom he refers to as "negotiation partners," since Internet communication typically involves back-and-forth interactions similar to a negotiation. Flaming incidents usually arise in response to a perception of one or more negotiation partners being unfair. Perceived unfairness can include a lack of consideration for an individual's vested interests, unfavorable treatment (especially when the flamer has been considerate of other users), and misunderstandings aggravated by the inability to convey subtle indicators like non-verbal cues and facial expressions.
Evidence of debates which resulted in insults being exchanged quickly back-and-forth between two parties can be found throughout history. Arguments over the ratification of the United States Constitution were often socially and emotionally heated and intense, with many striking at one another with local newspapers. Also, such interactions have always been part of literary criticism. For example, Ralph Waldo Emerson's contempt for Jane Austen's works often extended to the author herself, with Emerson describing her as "without genius, wit, or knowledge of the world." In turn, Emerson himself was called a “hoary-headed toothless baboon" by Thomas Carlyle.
In the modern era, flaming was used at east coast engineering schools as a present participle in a crude expression to describe an irascible individual and by extension to such individuals on the earliest Internet chat rooms and message boards. Internet flaming was mostly observed in the Usenet hierarchies although it was known to occur in the WWIVnet and FidoNet computer networks as well. It was subsequently used in other parts of speech with much the same meaning.
The term "flaming" may originate from The Hacker's Dictionary, which in 1983 defined it as "to speak rabidly or incessantly on an uninteresting topic or with a patently ridiculous attitude". The meaning of the word has diverged from this definition since then.
Over the years the term flaming has become almost obsolete, and the term trolling has become a familiar phrase. Trolling is similar to flaming in that it can include, but is not limited to describing the way that people interact on the Internet. People will often use the term trolling as a way to describe the way that a person is behaving, whether that is online or offline. Flaming was a way to describe a very aggressive way of interacting with other users on the Internet, where as trolling is a way to describe actions that are at times annoying but not usually aggressive. Flaming is normally used to describe when people are in an argument, or are debating some controversial issue. Trolling is normally used to describe the way that a person is pulling a prank on someone, or is just giving someone a hard time.
The act of trolling is something that has come from this idea of flaming. Flaming was one of the first ways to describe the behavior that would occur between people over the Internet, and trolling was another word that was developed because of this. Trolling has become a large part of the way that young adults are seen to act toward each other on many social media websites. An example of how young troll, many will be found changing one of their peers’ information on a social media page as a way of trolling. Another way for young adults to participate in this action of trolling, is for these young adults to comment, like or share one of their peers photographs with the intent of giving that person the most amount of notifications as possible. Many young adults will participate in this act of trolling rather than the act of flaming because it is harmless and usually done because it is entertaining for the troll.
Flame trolling is the posting of a provocative or offensive message, known as "flamebait", to a public Internet discussion group, such as a forum, newsgroup or mailing list, with the intent of provoking an angry response (a "flame") or argument over a topic the poster often has no real interest in. While flaming can occur as a result of legitimate debates or grievances, flame trolling implies the intentional posting of inflammatory, grossly offensive or menacing rhetoric or images for the fun of it in order to cause others harm.
As stated, flame trolling can stem from a variety of issues, including misunderstandings, frustration, and perceptions of unfairness. One motive (from trolls especially) is the desire for attention and for entertainment derived at the expense of others. Posted flamebait can provide the poster with a controlled trigger-and-response setting in which to anonymously engage in conflicts and indulge in aggressive behavior without facing the consequences that such behavior might bring in a face-to-face encounter, a fact parodied in a YouTube video by Isabel Fay. In other instances, flamebait may be used to reduce a forum's use by angering the forum users. In 2012, it was announced that the US State Department would start flame trolling Jihadists as part of Operation Viral Peace
A flame war results when multiple users engage in provocative responses to an original post—while the original post is usually flamebait, this is not always the case. Flame wars often draw in many users (including those trying to defuse the flame war) and can overshadow regular forum discussion if left unchecked.
Resolving a flame war can be difficult, as it is often hard to determine who is really responsible for the degradation of a reasonable discussion into flame war. Someone who posts a contrary opinion in a strongly focused discussion forum may be easily labeled a "baiter", "flamer", or "troll".
An approach to resolving a flame war or responding to flaming is to communicate openly with the offending users. Acknowledging mistakes, offering to help resolve the disagreement, making clear, reasoned arguments, and even self-deprecation have all been noted as worthwhile strategies to end such disputes. However, others prefer to simply ignore flaming, noting that, in many cases, if the flamebait receives no attention, it will quickly be forgotten as forum discussions carry on. Unfortunately, this can motivate trolls to intensify their activities, creating additional distractions.
"Taking the bait" or "feeding the troll" refers to someone who responds to the original message regardless of whether they are aware the original message was intended to provoke a response. Often when someone takes the bait, others will point this out to them with the acronym "YHBT", which is short for "You have been trolled", or reply with "don't feed the trolls." Forum users will usually not give the troll acknowledgement; that just "feeds the troll".
Incorrect spelling and grammatical mistakes are also very frequently the subject of flames, particularly if a flame war has already started. In such a situation, the flamers may try to impugn their opponents' intelligence by highlighting any errors in their adversaries' grammar or spelling. This has given rise to the term spelling flame for a flame that excoriates an earlier poster over their spelling errors. Posters who censure the grammar of others are often called Grammar Nazis – this may cause great offence due to the association with Nazism, but this label is also used ironically and is proudly self-applied by many Grammar Nazis.
Any subject of a polarizing nature can feasibly cause flaming. As one would expect in the medium of the Internet, technology is a common topic. The perennial debates between users of competing operating systems such as Windows, Mac OS, or the GNU/Linux operating system and iOS or Android operating system, users of Intel and AMD processors, and users of the Wii U, PlayStation 4 and Xbox One video game systems, often escalate into seemingly unending "flamewars", called also software wars. As each successive technology is released, it develops its own outspoken fan base, allowing arguments to begin anew.
Popular culture continues to generate large amounts of flaming and countless flamewars across the Internet, such as the constant debates between fans of Star Trek and Star Wars and fans of Naruto, Bleach and One Piece. Ongoing discussion of current celebrities and television personalities within popular culture also frequently sparks debate.
In 2005, author Anne Rice became involved in a flamewar of sorts on the review boards of online retailer Amazon.com after several reviewers posted scathing comments about her latest novel. Rice responded to the comments with her own lengthy response, which was quickly met with more feedback from users.
In November 2007 the popular audio-visual discussion site AVS Forum temporarily closed its HD DVD and Blu-ray discussion forums because of, as the site reported, "physical threats that have involved police and and possible legal action" between advocates of the rival formats.
Flaming varies in severity and as such so too does the reaction of states in imposing any sort of sanction. Various laws generally regard any message or post that threatens, harasses, or degrades another user as [social promotion] and as such can be considered criminal in some jurisdictions. While "school laws" are not illegal, so long as they remain ad hominem, threats and insults said within them may break cyber laws, which can vary from country to country, but computer crime, which can result in harassment may force [social promotion] to take action to prevent a spiral of silence.