Monday, August 15, 2011

Guest Blogger Allison Gamble

Guest blogger: Allison Gamble is a writer for Psychology Degree. Thank you Allison for sharing this piece.

Psychology of flaming

Beware: the playground bullies of your past have found their way onto the Internet. How many of us have posted on an online community only to notice an aggressive poster attempting to start a war of words between users? Not only do the insulting posts disrupt conversation, it doesn’t take a psychology degree to know that they can be annoying and offensive. The world of flaming and trolling has gained more and more attention in the last few years as the internet has become a bigger part of our lives. Psychologists theorize that there are motives behind these faceless bullies.

Flaming is an aggressive or antagonistic interaction between Internet users, frequently on message boards, blogs, game servers and in chat rooms, and exist mainly to act with hostility and insult other posters. Deliberate flamers are cyber-bullies who enjoy getting a rise out of others by focusing on heated issues like politics and religion, or by personally attacking others. Their main goal is to disrupt the flow of conversation between others and provoke conversation instead about the flame. Trolls are of a similar vein and intentionally practice flaming by writing obvious, insulting, and often off-topic remarks to start a “flame war.” While many people have encountered flaming and trolls, most people are unaware of their motives. What causes an Internet user to want to provoke another user? Who wants to embroil themselves in the middle of an argument? Recent work in psychology has yielded a few theories.

Peter J. Moore and his colleagues have done extensive research on flaming. In Moore's 2010 study "Flaming on YouTube," one of the major findings was that by communicating over the Internet, flamers experience de-individualization and have less of an awareness of people's feelings than they would in a face-to-face interaction. Moore also found that while many flamers deliberately incite problems, flaming is "more often intended to express disagreement or as a response to a perceived offense by others."

Moore and other social psychologists have found that the lack of social cues in online communication can cause uninhibited behavior. Users feel anonymous and believe that they will face no consequences for their words and actions. Without being able to hear a sender's intonation or hints of sarcasm, often times receivers may take a message as insulting, when in fact it was meant to be a joke. This miscommunication can make flaming and trolling appear more rampant than it is, and posts and messages are often taken out of context. Non-verbal cues and facial expressions play an integral role in face-to-face communication, all of which are lost in text.

According to a BBC article, flaming can actually have much simpler causes. Again, due to a lack of non-verbal cues and intonation, many flamers believe that they have been attacked and feel the need to defend themselves. Ranting is another form. While prior to computers when one needed a good rant, the complaints were relegated to diaries, family, and friends, now individuals can use Internet forums to air their grievances. These angry, rambling rants are often times seen as a form of flaming, though they are usually unintentional. Flaming can also come in the form of complaints. When an individual feels that they had poor customer service or a product was not what they expected, they'll sometimes write inflammatory posts in the reviews sections or on message boards. Others, enjoy the challenge and flaming is a way to lure another user into a debate or argument.

Dr. Andrew Campbell wrote in a recent article that certain personality types are drawn to flaming and trolling. Campbell theorizes that people who lack power in face-to-face social situations often find flaming to be an outlet. While in the real world these people may fear criticism and feel awkward, online they can be socially combative with no repercussions. He also found that many flamers and trolls are young teenagers, and that teenagers are testing their boundaries and social skills. Their immaturity is evident in their inflammatory posts.

Whatever the cause, flaming and trolling can put a damper on our Internet experience. While most social psychologists link the phenomenon with anonymity and a lack of social and visual cues, some flamers and trolls are genuinely angry and enjoy instigating others. Try to avoid flamers and trolls by ignoring them, responding with a concise, rational argument or by explaining to the flamer that your comments were taken out of context and you did not mean to insult them. Keep your computer communications stress-free by avoiding those who intentionally try to bait you.