Monday, March 17, 2008

Fighting in the Blogosphere: A Major Web Difference

Flaming: The phenomenon of progressively crazier, angrier, and scarier statements in the comments section of websites. You can find it in blogs on sports, politics, law; and I’m pretty sure it exists on blogs about cute little kittens. Flaming is so pervasive—the phenomenon can be seen on just about every blog without the phrase “comments turned off”—that it is hard to believe it is subject specific. Rather, it is the very nature of commenting on blogs that enables the vitriol. There are a number of reasons that blog commenting helps people connect with their inner-name-caller. First and foremost, people can comment anonymously, which diminishes the fear of retribution. Questioning the virtue of someone’s mom to their face might lead to immense physical pain. The consequence of doing so in a blog comment is…an angry rebuttal that might be more harshly worded, but cannot break any bones.
The anonymity of the blogosphere, or at least the perception of anonymity, feeds flaiming in another way: it dehumanizes the other commenters. When you are engaged in a heated debate with some one in person, you can see them. You see their face, their body, their humanity. Thus, even if you might disagree with their ideas, your anger is tempered by your shared humanity. Blog debates lack this human touch. Anyone who posts something contrary to your position, is only vicious, only moronic, only wrong. They do not feel human. Consequently, many blog posters have less motivation to treat their opponents civilly.
So anonymity makes it easier to be vicious on the blogosphere. But there is another factor at play as well. Every negative comment is responded to with an angrier comment, and the viscous spiral continues downward until some truly repulsive comments are made. The blogosphere enables this degradation of rhetoric because commenters are often responding to each other in real time, with no time to calm down, no time to breath.
Now, often the angry words of flamers often have no immediate consequence. The combatants often don’t know anything about each other, a fact which makes it difficult for people to take their conflict from the web world to the real world. But they are still harmful. They allow people who harbor hateful thoughts to learn that they have allies; they encourage people to think vicious thoughts about opposing viewpoints, rather than learn from them; they essentially cheapen discourse.
Is there a solution? Many websites have taken to monitoring their comments sections and screening out the most heinous posts. As long as only the most despicable comments are censored, then monitoring by individual websites might be helpful. But I believe we should avoid governmental monitoring. For as detrimental as flaming maybe, a government driven overcorrection could impair our most vital freedom: speech.

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