This Christmas I tried to beat the economic downturn by opting for DIY replacement of the rechargeable battery in my iPod rather than purchasing a shinier newer model. This, on the face of it, seemed pretty straightforward: order the battery online and, once it arrives, pop the case open and swap it out. But many things are easier said than done, and as I sat there wrestling with the thing without success, I was forced to resort to an internet forum for advice. There I came across the following posting from a fellow frustratee:
Bruce_1956: "I'm trying to replace the battery in my iPod but I don't understand the instructions. Can anyone out there explain it to me?"
There it was; a cry for help in the cyber-wilderness from someone sharing my problems, the perfect example of how strangers can summon and receive assistance from virtual Samaritans. And from this exchange I too would benefit, thus sharing in the virtuous circle of internet bonhomie. "Who needs Christmas," I thought, when there's this much love in the broadband.
But the bubble of peace and goodwill was not to last. I scrolled down the page to look for a helpful response, only to find this:
I'mNotSpartacus88: "Dude I can help explain why u don't understand the instructions. It's coz ur a complete f***ing idiot. LOL."
LOL in this context stands for Laugh Out Loud, just in case anyone was unclear as to the tone of I'mNotSpartacus' missive.
This is what they call "flaming"; it is defined as an act of outrageous rudeness, involving the exchange of insults between internet users via email or in forums. Its etymology is linked to a superhero by the name of Johnny Torch, who had a habit of bursting into flames whenever he got a bit upset. He could also make other people burst into flames, thereby, one assumes, upsetting them too. That a word describing an act capable of causing so much wailing and gnashing of teeth finds its root in a comic book strikes me as strangely impressive.
These communications contrast sharply with the gentler language to-ing and fro-ing in the letters pages of our academic journals. This, I would suggest, is not a reflection of the superior breeding of those who contribute to peer-review journals. Stripped of the cosy blanket of anonymity enjoyed by their internet chatroom counterparts, academics must orchestrate barroom brawls more carefully. Moreover, it takes a remarkable effort to get something genuinely insulting past the editorial staff and their lawyers.
And so they use different language. It is similar to flaming, although more akin in character to dismantling someone with a fencing foil than clouting them with a claymore. The onset of an onslaught is often signalled with the words "I read with interest", which usually means "You're a fool and I lost interest extremely quickly." It may include the words "with all due respect", and follow with a pseudo-polite tirade featuring precisely no respect at all.
An academic slight, in comparison to its internet equivalent, can be beautifully sublime, with the best surviving not only the argument but the combatants themselves. "If I have seen a little further," Isaac Newton once famously wrote to Robert Hooke, "it is by standing on the shoulders of giants." It is alleged that this was a veiled 17th-century broadside to the vertically challenged Hooke.
But the internet, with its dangerous cocktail of anonymity and informality, is a free-fire zone. And sometimes a limited exchange of jaw-droppingly crude unpleasantries isn't enough. When this occurs, a flame war can ensue, with rotating attacks, sometimes involving whole armies of individuals, spun out over many years.
Researchers have gone so far as to monitor and catalogue the phenomenon of flaming, subcategorising and theorising upon its nature and function. Some regard appropriate flaming as a necessary evil, a way of preventing the uninitiated from wasting precious cybertime and cyberspace. Others regard it as a fact of internet life, a sort of virtual school of hard knocks. One author went so far as to suggest that the act of flaming in part reflects and shapes society.
That's all very well, but if you are still enjoying the afterglow of the Christmas spirit, then a look at flamewars.net will utterly obliterate it. Here infamous flame wars are archived. Much of the content is unprintable anywhere outside of the web; most of it makes you despair for humankind. One famous spat ends with the author signing off with "until then, die in a fiery accident and taste your own blood". If flaming does mirror the world in which we live, we're in a lot of trouble.
I started my very brief investigation into the art of flaming thinking that the stilted phraseology of journal correspondence pages could do with a bit of spicing up. I thought that providing better facilities for spleen-venting might even be therapeutic for the community. But having witnessed the Armageddon that results when unbridled egos are connected to keyboards and emoticons, I have changed my mind.
Let's cast our attention back to Newton. It is unclear whether the-shoulders-of-giants thing really was a pop at Hooke. I'd venture to suggest that Newton, although idiosyncratic and easy to enrage, was above that sort of thing. I think it better that we remember instead another of Newton's memorable utterances: "Tact is the knack of making a point without making an enemy."
And so Happy New Year to you, I'mNotSpartacus88, wherever you may be