Definition (Urban Dictionary) "A flame war is a heated argument between two individuals that results in those involved posting personal attacks on each other during or instead of debating the topic at hand. Most forums have rules that forbid flaming. This is because the quality of conversation on a forum can be seriously degraded by a flame war.”
I have a long history as an active participant in social media forums of all types. I was blogging almost from the day it was invented, way back in the dawn of time. (Well maybe not quite that far back.) But in all this time I’ve had only passing involvement in the murky world of unfriending, unfollowing and the topic of this discourse, flame wars.
mouthy outspoken and sometimes taking positions that sometimes seem awry to others, I also have a conciliatory side. That more often than not sees me wanting to keep the peace rather than disturb it. So challenge me, call me names and I’ll likely offer you a coffee and a dozen Timbits.
I know. I’m boring
But shit happens and once in a while I get singed by a flame war. Happened just this week in fact. Sure it bugged me that someone thousands of miles away chose to say unpleasant things about me in a public forum (twitter) but even more that I dove in and responded.
There are few winners in flame wars after all. They are by definition about disagreeing with not a trace of middle ground in sight, even though it’s likely there for the taking. And, let’s face it, there is something whacky about debating serious topics in 140-word sound bites. Worse though, flame wars are notoriously short on respect, do little to advance either side’s argument and just feel plain nasty.
Chances are a flamer and a flamee will never see eye to eye in that time and place. There will be no victors, although both the flamer and flamee will likely be convinced they won.
Anatomy of a flame war
Last week on twitter I noticed I had got raked over the coals for something that happened while I was in Ottawa that previous weekend. Some of the issues discussed there were difficult. Not for the first time, I had taken the position that national agencies who advocate for the rights of people living with HIV - in this case the Canadian AIDS Society (CAS) – should not include Hep C in their mandate, despite the links between the two conditions.
True, that position flies in the face of the fact that funding sources now invariably lump HIV with HepC and other blood born infections (think (STIs) and that many agencies, including my own in Peterborough Ontario routinely provide programs and services that cover Hep C and STIs – have done for years in fact. I approve that they do. But my contention was that when it came to a national voice for those of us living with HIV, a more focussed approach works best. So it has always seemed to me that when it comes to representation of our interests at the national level, people living with HIV are best served by an organization devoted to HIV - and just HIV. Not Hep C.
Not that that position is all that extreme. It has in fact been adopted by the Ontario AIDS Network, and won the approval of the majority of the people living with HIV in the room at the CAS event, But it’s a position which, expressed less than expertly, lends itself to accusations of stigma and discrimination against our brothers and sisters with Hep C
So that’s the background. See the potential for good and bad arguments on both sides? Let the flame wars begin
“Really disheartening to see @ruraltweeter from @PositiveLiteCom not make the meaningful connections b/w #hiv and #hcv activism”
“Even more disappointed to see @ruraltweeter participate in lateral stigma at the Canadian Aids Society in #ottcity - #HIV #stigma.”
And so on. And yours truly alternately being conciliatory and stirring the pot.
Thing is, it’s hard to be a really good flamer/flamee when you understand, and even share, part of the other party’s position. In this case, he’s an eloquent and passionate guy, the kind whom I admire, who uses anger as an activist tool. (Nothing wrong with that at all.) And his point, as he made in this tweet of his “As a member of target populations in the #aso #hiv movement - i have risk for #hepc - my health is linked directly to #hepc.” is of course, correct. But then, if we are to be pragmatic, I’m thinking so is he vulnerable to depression, to addiction, to a huge list of co-factors, each with their own user group and with their own representation at a national level. So a key issue of contention is whether those group members should be at the table at the Canadian AIDS Society. I say no, he says yes. We both say it more harshly than we probably should.
I acknowledge that HIV/HepC co-infection falls in the bailiwick of any national AIDS organization’s mandate, but that doesn’t appease.
We are, of course, both no strangers to concepts like inclusivity, inter-connectedness and respect for the individual. We as a community tend to like each other, even (mostly) play well together. Few of are even close to being a bigot. We hold many, many common values dear. We are fighting the same war. But this feels like we are at each other’s throats.
Things liven up. “Really sad and disheartening to hear that #poz folks are stigmatizing and enacting violence against #hepc folks at CAS” he has said earlier. He’s talking about me, and I’m not liking it. So I throw a few barbs his way about the need to tone down the language and that he’s exercising poor tactics to make his point. He doesn’t like that either.
I want to wrap this up before we both become entirely unlikeable vestiges of our true selves I offer to give him a voice on PostiveLite.com (no dice there), even to meet him and chat. He’s still annoyed with me, but seems to be lowering the volume a bit.
That semi-gracious ending and the fact neither of us unfollowed the other, which act is almost de rigeur in these situations, suggest neither of us has entirely perfected the art off flaming. Nor is it the most egregious example of this phenomenon by any means. Read on for how the pros do it.
Why do we flame?
The point of this column was not to debate the Hep C angle but to ponder this peculiar twenty-first century version of how we sometimes choose to communicate with each other. How we can be quick to use overblown rhetoric at the drop of the hat without much thought for its consequences. How we have no qualms about causing hurt. How sane arguments quickly degenerate into invective. How pointless it all is. How rare is anything worthwhile iachieved.
Flame wars do not bring out the best in us...
The guy who flamed me is not an ass - far from it. He is bright, articulate and likeable. (It’s possible, on a good day, I may be some of those things too.) But reading our conversation we both seem to come off a little short of a full deck iin the smart and wily AIDS activist department. We both sound a bit pompous too.
Why do we do this? Professor Norman Johnson, a social scientist who has studied the issue says “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 in-group status are salient, computer mediation can decrease flaming because individuals focus their attention on the social context (and associated norms) rather than themselves..
Certainly the Prof. is on the right track. Removing face to face interaction changes a conversation’s mechanics completely. But then too there is the need for both sides to score points with the unseen audience (in this case the twittersphere) that both flamer and flamee are playing too. It’s absurdly simple to turn a private argument in to a globally visible one, or to try to garner the support of allies, or to turn a hurt, or a perceived hurt, in to a full-blown fight, a clash of wills. But it’s just as easy to turn off those who either don’t agree with you or dislike this mode of communications. Few people actually like flame wars after all, despite their flourishing on sites like this one, which caters to aficionados.
Of course, for people REALLY into it, there is Flamewar, The Game!
Flame wars are often the product of double-sided anger. But in the words of Dr. Laurence J. Peter “When you are angry – you’ll make the best speech you’ll ever regret.”
That’s not to say anger isn’t an asset in any activist's armoury. I admire it immensely. My flamer had it. Good for him.
Professionally, though, I tend to keep well away from flame wars. Not just because they are non-winnable but like a night of drinking, they leave a bad taste in the mouth. We here at PositiveLite.com are in fact remarkably flame war-free, although once in a while the comments section can get lively and lights up, as in the exchange following this widely argued post from our Marc-André LeBlanc.
Personally too, it’s rare that I get drawn in. I’m not adept at throwing insults at the drop of a hat (advancing age means I need more time for everything) and chances are I’ll lose every flame war I venture into. True, the internet is well populated with learning opportunities like Top Ten Internet Flame Wars where one can learn and hone the craft but it’s not for me. Nor is Flame War Forum.
You just won’t find me there anymore. I’m flaming burgers today instead.