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 March 1, 1996

Internet communications bring out worst in people

Someone recently told me that the growth of the Internet will eventually lead to world peace, because it will facilitate communication between people of different nations, cultures, and beliefs.
People will make friends on-line; and if everyone has friends throughout the world, war will no longer be possible.
This seems a little absurd to me, but it’s nothing new. When telegraph was introduced, some people predicted the same thing; a new era of better communications would lead to better understanding and an end to war. Of course, a few decades later the world entered the 20th century, and we all know how close we’ve come to world peace since then.
Having friends in other countries will stop war? The royalty of Europe were all related, and it didn’t stop them getting into a good war every couple of decades — though maybe it’s easier to fight family than friends. And what about Bosnia? People living in peace — next door to each other — ended up killing each other.
I know for sure the Internet won’t lead to world peace. In fact, there are some days I think it may lead to world war. There’s something about electronic communications that brings out the worst in people.
I’ve been involved in a few flame wars recently. For the uninitiated among you, a flame war arises when people argue on-line, in Internet newsgroups or mailing lists. (See, so much for world peace; the Internet community needed a special term for fighting.) A “flame” is an e-mail or discussion-group message that is highly inflammatory.
I’ve seen the term flame defined as “a strong opinion or criticism of some idea or statement,” but that’s an understatement. Flames are often extremely abusive, containing personal attacks on another person. The message may suggest that the other person is unethical, unprofessional, a pervert, a wimp, stupid, born of a union between a woman and a lower mammal, or that he emits an unpleasant odor.
Flame wars are not an infrequent event, by the way. Spend a couple of hours reading newsgroup and mailing-list messages, and you are bound to run into a few. Or simply read one or two groups regularly, and you’ll see these wars ignite and then fizzle out; who knows, you may even get involved yourself. It’s not hard.
I’ve been involved in several. They always seem to start when someone disagrees with another person’s statement, and responds by making a personal attack on that person.
Here’s an example. I was taking part in a discussion about copyright law. The question was whether writers can take “snapshots” of World Wide Web pages to show as examples in their books. There was a range of opinion, and I decided to put in my two cents worth. I believe that a writer can do so because Web pages are publicly displayed, in the same way that a newspaper may use a photograph of a building or publicly displayed sculpture without asking permission.
Someone reading my message took great offense. But instead of answering my message by explaining why he felt I was mistaken, he decided a personal attack was more appropriate, and sent off a message saying that I was a hack, as only a hack would steal other people’s work.
Another war, one I witnessed: One participant said that he did product reviews in small periodicals so that he could advertise his consulting business and get software he needed for his business. Another participant disagreed.
Now, this other person could have sent a message saying something like “writing reviews in order to get freebies may appear to some as unethical,” a statement that would get his point across while remaining polite. Instead, he sent a message accusing the first participant of being unethical and unprofessional — a direct ad hominem attack on the other person. And the war began.
I’m convinced that people are prepared to say on-line things they’d never say in the real world. It’s easy to be rude when the other person can’t see you, and probably doesn’t even know where you are. People tend to be more tactful in the real world, couching their statements in language that softens the blow. In cyberspace, they just come out and say exactly what’s on their mind, without caring who they insult or upset.
Another problem is that statements are often misconstrued. Because you can’t hear the inflection in the other person’s voice, can’t see whether the person is smiling, laughing, grimacing, or crying, it’s sometimes hard to interpret what they are saying in an electronic message.
So, here are my guidelines for avoiding flame wars. First, when you write e-mail, read it over before you send it. Have you said something that might be misunderstood? Are you using irony, for instance? And will the recipient know it’s irony — and not rudeness — if he can’t see your face or hear your voice?
Remember that what you think is a witty remark may appear to be abusive to others. Have you made a personal criticism of someone? If so, can you restate your argument to criticize that person’s ideas or position, not the person himself?
When you receive e-mail, read carefully. If you come across a statement that appears to be abusive, remember that the other person may have thought it was witty. Before you send a rude reply, ask for clarification! And if you don’t like someone’s position in an argument, answer as if the person was sitting next to you. State why you think the argument is incorrect; don’t attack the person.
With a little effort, we can make cyberspace more tolerant. It may not bring world peace, but at least we can reduce the number of flame wars.Peter Kent is the author of Using Netscape 2 for Windows 95 (Que). He can be reached at 71601.1266@compuserve.com, or 303-989-1869

Someone recently told me that the growth of the Internet will eventually lead to world peace, because it will facilitate communication between people of different nations, cultures, and beliefs.
People will make friends on-line; and if everyone has friends throughout the world, war will no longer be possible.
This seems a little absurd to me, but it’s nothing new. When telegraph was introduced, some people predicted the same thing; a new era of better communications would lead to better understanding and an end to war. Of course, a few decades later the world entered the 20th century, and…

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