I first heard “flame” as a verb on Usenet sometime back in the Eighties. Flaming is now part of the landscape for anyone who lives in part online. It's ugly. Can we make it go away? Should we? What should we do about it?

This is a practical problem. To wit: one of the reasons that progress has been slow on refining and improving RSS (the technology that lets you subscribe to weblogs, the New York Times, and, increasingly, everything else worth reading) is that the community of interested parties includes several chronic flamers, with the result that communication has in essential respects broken down.

Why Flames? (The Secret Pleasure) · I suppose that a really savvy sociologist, prior to the rise of online discourse, could have predicted the ubiquity of flameage; when you can't see or hear the person you're talking to, all sorts of restraints melt away.

And let's be honest here; there's real pleasure in unleashing verbal napalm on someone who's really getting up your nose. I certainly can't claim never to have succumbed to the temptation, although I've usually regretted it soon thereafter. Unfortunately, my best-ever flame, which I never regretted at all, seems to have vanished from the Usenet archives. This was on rec.music.classical around 1990; some first-time poster popped up and explained that the university where he worked had just fired all their phone operators as a cost-cutting move and wanted advice on music to play to people waiting on hold, and they felt that classical music was consistent with the image a University ought to project, and could we help? Now there's a guy who deserved what he got.

But at the end of the day, flaming is part of the problem, not part of the solution, and just doesn't help.

Flames vs. Polemics · Except, of course, when it does. Nobody wants to live in a traditional-Japanese-management world where criticism and the word “No” are out of bounds. When important issues are under discussion, somtimes strong words are called for and appropriate.

Probably the best-known historical example is J'Accuse (the polemic against Dreyfus-trial antisemitism), but our own profession has a polemic tradition, beginning perhaps with Dijkstra's Go To Statement Considered Harmful, which also established the useful “... Considered Harmful” design pattern. By the way, if you dig into the very core of the Linux kernel, routines like read() and write(), you'll find lots of goto statements.

Here's another good example: James Clark on schema languages. There really is something impressive about someone who knows their stuff getting the enemy squarely in their sights, running out the guns, and letting go with a full broadside.

Note, however that neither Dijkstra nor Clark are ad-hominem; quite likely the authors of the work being discussed may have felt themselves under attack, but the attack was carefully limited to practices and formalisms, not the people behind them.

Career Damage · Most you probably already know this, but you youngsters that don't pull up your chairs and listen to hard-earned wisdom from a grey-bearded veteran of the online wars: flaming always causes damage, and the person it causes damage to is the flamer.

I can almost feel the vibration of all the old online veterans' heads nodding as they read this. We all know someone who's seriously fucked up their career by being thin-skinned and offensive on the record one too many times. And most of us have been through attempts at online collaboration, sometimes with potentially a very big payoff, that have been driven onto the rocks by inexcusable flaming.

Speaking for myself, there are a few who move in some of the same online circles as I, whom I consider to be pretty smart, and whom I'd gotten to know socially a little bit, but I just don't want to talk to any more, or relate to as a human, because they've flamed once too often.

I think most of us are ready to cut you some slack if you occasionally lose your cool in public, especially if you acknowledge later that maybe you shouldn't have. But if you're making a habit of it, trust me, you're paying a price, whether you know it or not.

It Ain't New · Here's a pretty robust flame recorded by one W. Shakespeare (in Henry VI, Part III) around the turn of the seventeenth century:

King Henry VI And thus I prophesy, that many a thousand,
Which now mistrust no parcel of my fear,
And many an old man's sigh and many a widow's,
And many an orphan's water-standing eye—
Men for their sons, wives for their husbands,
And orphans for their parents timeless death—
Shall rue the hour that ever thou wast born.
The owl shriek'd at thy birth,—an evil sign;
The night-crow cried, aboding luckless time;
Dogs howl'd, and hideous tempest shook down trees;
The raven rook'd her on the chimney's top,
And chattering pies in dismal discords sung.
Thy mother felt more than a mother's pain,
And, yet brought forth less than a mother's hope,
To wit, an indigested and deformed lump,
Not like the fruit of such a goodly tree.
Teeth hadst thou in thy head when thou wast born,
To signify thou camest to bite the world:
And, if the rest be true which I have heard,
Thou camest—

Mind you, the King, like many flamers, pays a price.

Gloucester I'll hear no more: die, prophet in thy speech.
[Stabs him]

author · Dad · software · colophon · rights
picture of the day
May 11, 2003
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