Science Fair Project Encyclopedia
- This article is about the Internet meaning of the word "flaming". For other meanings, and meanings of the word "flame", see Flame.
Flaming is the performance "art" of posting messages that are deliberately hostile and insulting, usually in the social context of a discussion board (usually on the Internet). Such messages are called flames, and are often posted in response to flamebait. Flaming is one of a class of economic problems known as The Tragedy of the Commons, when a group holds a resource (in this case, communal attention), but each of the individual members has an incentive to overuse it.
Although the trading of insults is as old as time itself, flaming on the Internet started in the Usenet hierarchies. A flame may have elements of a normal message, but is distinguished by its intent. A flame is typically not intended to be constructive, to further clarify a discussion, or to persuade other people. The motive for flaming is often not dialectic, but rather social or psychological. Sometimes, flamers are attempting to assert their authority, or establish a position of superiority. Occasionally, flamers wish to upset and offend other members of the forum, in which case they are trolls. Most often however, flames are angry or insulting messages transmitted by people who have strong feelings about a subject. Occasionally a flame can also be used as a zenslap. Finally, some consider flaming to be a great way to let off steam, though the receiving party may be less than pleased.
Similarly, a normal, non-flame message may have elements of a flame – it may be hostile, for example – but it is not a flame if it is seriously intended to advance the discussion.
A flame war is a series of flaming messages in an electronic discussion group or message board system such as usenet, mailing lists or forums. There are a number of characteristics of electronic communication which have been cited as being conducive to flame wars. Electronic communications do not easily transmit facial expressions or voice intonations which may serve to moderate the tone of a message. Also, there is typically a lag time between the time a message is transmitted and the time a reply is read. These two characteristics can cause a "positive feedback loop" in which the emotional intensity of an electronic exchange increases to extremely high levels.
Alternatively, flame wars may be instigated deliberately by Internet trolls. Not all trolls are successful, though.
Jay W. Forrester described a phenomenon that often happens in flamewars whereby participants talk past each other. Each participant employs a different mental model (i.e. due to fundamental differences in their assumptions about what a particular word or concept means, they are actually discussing two different things).
Extended use of the term "flame war"
Sometimes, serious academic or technical disagreements online are described casually as "flame wars" even when the major participants are making useful and informative points and, largely, not flaming. This may have to do with the degree to which observers identify emotionally with the sides of the debate, or see esteemed leaders or role-models representing their own points of view powerfully.
For example, the Usenet discussion between Andrew S. Tanenbaum and Linus Torvalds on microkernel versus monolithic kernel operating system design has been described as a famous "flame war". Despite being designated a "flame war", the debate is quite informative: it has been studied by serious computer scientists and researchers, and continues to remain recommended and even required reading in courses on OS design and implementation.
Partly, terming such a discussion a "flame war" seems to be due to faulty or distorted memory of the discussion itself: it is easier to remember the (relatively few) insulting asides made -- such as Tanenbaum's comment that he would give Torvalds a poor grade for Linux's design -- than it is to remember the technical points. To continue the above example, Torvalds and Tanenbaum have both made it clear that they consider their famous discussion to have been mischaracterized.
Technical "advocacy" discussions, concerning the merits or flaws of a technology -- or especially of rival technologies -- can often seem "flamy" simply from the emotional intensity of hobbyists or professionals involved. Some have called the debates about the relative merits of Intel Pentium versus PowerPC, or Pentium 4 versus Athlon XP, or Microsoft Windows versus Mac OS X, or Apple's decision to go with NeXT over BeOS as "flame wars", even though the discussions are often highly technical and non-inflammatory.
Also, the debates on certain topics in theoretical physics, such as loop quantum gravity versus string theory between Lubos Motl and John Baez and Steve Carlip has been described by string theorist and Harvard professor of physics Lubos Motl as a "flame war" -- despite the fact that they were a source of fruitful articles on quasinormal modes of black hole physics.
It is also possible that the use of the term "flame war" for heated debates is used in anticipation of the debate becoming a actual flame war.
A holy war, in the sense used in hacker slang, is a protracted, sometimes heated, conflict or argument based on "religious differences" -- usually, personal preferences of one technology over another. Famous holy wars of hackerdom have included the Unix vs. ITS disagreement (which spawned The UNIX-HATERS Handbook) and the perennial editor wars between Unix programmers who use vi to edit source code and those who use emacs.
Whereas a flame war is usually a particular spate of flaming against a non-flamy background, a holy war is a drawn-out disagreement that may last years or even span careers. For instance, younger Linux programmers who today have strong opinions on vi and emacs may not even have been born in 1976 when these editors were released.
- A compilation of several guides to flaming
- Andrew Heenan's Guide to Flaming
- Netizen's Guide to Flame Warriors
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