Flame Tempered

Online discourse can civilize as well as singe

October 9, 1994

By Scott Rosenberg

The first time I spoke up online was to reason with someone who had said I should be shot.

I was reading a discussion of this newspaper a couple of years ago on the WELL, the popular Sausalito-based computer-conferencing system, when a comment jumped out at me: "I would vote for having all of the Examiner's film critics, present and former, taken out and shot."

Till that moment, I'd pretty much been what the online world calls a lurker -- someone who scans comments that other people have posted without joining the fray themselves.

This, however, seemed to demand something more. I took a deep breath and posted a response: "As an Examiner movie critic," I wrote, "I'd really like to know why I should be shot."

It was just the textual equivalent of an ahem -- as if I'd walked up behind a group of people who were talking about me and let them know I was listening. But it quickly changed the nature of the discussion.

People weighed in with their diverging points of view on the nature of movie criticism. And the gentleman who'd expressed himself so vehemently backed down and apologized as soon as he saw my response -- explaining that it was mostly one of my predecessors whose opinions had aroused his thoughts of capital punishment.

I was quite entitled to my life. The predecessor, on the other hand, still deserved to be shot -- "or at least flogged."

I'm sure, however, if I had gotten said predecessor into the WELL discussion too -- if I did the online equivalent of dragging him into the room at the party -- the disgruntled reader would probably have altered his stance again: He'd no doubt want to argue movies, but he'd probably drop the death-wish. It's hard, unless you belong to humanity's small minority of genuine creeps, to make offhanded put-downs when their target can hear you.

Unfortunately, if you're not online yourself, by now you may have gotten the idea that the world of computerized communication is largely populated by members of that minority. One article after another -- like John Seabrook's New Yorker piece, "My First Flame" -- has warned the general public that anyone who steps into cyberspace may get "flamed" by the cranky folks who got there first.

Flaming -- the practice of using the online medium to abuse people -- happens. Then again, so does hate mail. But flaming is no more the online norm than voice-mail death threats are the telephonic norm. In my years as a newspaper critic, plenty of angry messages have made their way to me without any electronic assistance.

Certainly, the online world attracts its share of fanatics. One raises subject like gun control or abortion rights in an online forum with care. Then again, these are the same topics that tend to lead to brawls offline -- and at least the fights in the barrooms of cyberspace remain non-physical.

There are, nonetheless, important difference between conversation online and offline. One of them is that, in public forums like those of the WELL, the Internet's Usenet newsgroups, or commercial services like Compuserve and America Online, it's just about impossible to talk behind someone's back. Fire off a tirade like "this fellow should be shot!" and it will hang around for weeks and months -- and, sooner or later, the guy is likely to turn up and demand an explanation.

Although e-mail messages are private -- and thus no less or more likely to become vehicles for verbal abuse than older-fashioned media -- the doors of most cyberspace talk-rooms are open. Anyone with a computer and a modem can drop in. And the more people who do, the more likely it is that whoever you're talking about is going to be listening.

The result is an almost anthropological demonstration of how abstract hostility against an absent target usually settles down into a reasonable exchange of ideas when the target shows up and says hello.

It's happened twice recently in the WELL's Media conference, one of the service's two hundred or so discussion groups. A testy critique of Seabrook's New Yorker article on flaming quickly turned more thoughtful, and even friendly, when the author turned up -- first just to listen, then to participate reluctantly, and finally to discuss his piece in candid depth. An even more heated debate over a National Public Radio show on multiple personality disorder was turned upside down when the show's producer introduced its subject -- "Beth+," a woman who says she harbors many different personalities -- to the conference.

Her presence didn't entirely turn down the temperature of the debate; one skeptic turned his wrath directly, and personally, on both the producer and "Beth+." Others came to their defense. Simply placing them in the center of the discussion, though, insured that the participants would have to tangle with them as listening human beings, rather than remain in an abstract debate over psychological concepts.

This process can work in reverse, too. When a Los Angeles Times reporter posted his alarmist expose of a porn stash on a Lawrence Livermore Labs computer, he evoked a hailstorm of criticisms of its accuracy and tone. Then he failed to stick around to defend his work. In his absence from the online fracas, the rancor aimed at him only intensified.

The Buddhists have a precept called "right speech," that, among other things, forbids gossip, and one way to practice it is simply to avoid talking about people who are not present. The notion is that, when we discuss other people in absentia, we're usually tempted to say things we'd think twice about uttering to their faces. The presence of the person under discussion, on the other hand, invariably forces a tempering of one's talk, an abandonment of the easy put-down -- and at best a kind of compassion.

Some of the benefits of "right speech" are built right into the structure of online conversation -- even though, ironically, it's a kind of talk that happens without anyone being physically present.

Undoubtedly, the world of computerized talk can promote a giddy kind of semi-anonymity -- as in the now-celebrated New Yorker cartoon that showed a mutt at a keyboard and read, "On the Internet, nobody knows you're a dog." And within that cloak, people are often tempted to talk rashly or cruelly.

But it's also important to realize that, on the mushrooming, free-for-all, 24-hour talk-shows of the computer networks, anyone you mention may be in the room -- and will probably sooner or later hear what you say. In its own way, that may do more to civilize discourse than the much-publicized "flame wars" can ever do to barbarize it.

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