Flaming and Trolling Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything

Flaming and Trolling

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Flaming and trolling are two linked terms that refer to types of behaviour on the Internet, and most notably derive from Usenet and BBS (bulletin board systems) systems. This type of behaviour is still fairly common in IRC (Internet Relay Chat) and at sites such as Slashdot.org.


The term 'flaming' is defined slightly differently depending on which site you're on, but generally it means the same thing wherever you go. h2g2 defines it thus:

Flaming means posting something that's angry and mean-spirited - the online equivalent of flying off the handle.

... whereas, according to the Jargon Dictionary, the term 'flaming' originates at MIT1 from the phrase 'flaming a.....e'. The definition of 'flame' on this site goes on to define flaming in the following four ways:

  • To post an email message intended to insult and provoke.

  • To speak incessantly and/or rabidly on some relatively uninteresting subject or with a patently ridiculous attitude.

  • Either of senses 1 or 2, directed with hostility at a particular person or people.

  • (n) An instance of flaming. When a discussion degenerates into useless controversy, one might tell the participants 'Now you're just flaming' or 'Stop all that flamage!' to try to get them to cool down (so to speak).

Interestingly, the Jargon Dictionary also goes on to speculate:

It is possible that the hackish sense of 'flame' is much older than that. The poet Chaucer was also what passed for a wizard hacker in his time; he wrote a treatise on the astrolabe, the most advanced computing device of the day. In Chaucer's Troilus and Cressida, Cressida laments her inability to grasp the proof of a particular mathematical theorem; her uncle Pandarus then observes that it's called 'the fleminge of wrecches'. This phrase seems to have been intended in context as 'that which puts the wretches to flight' but was probably just as ambiguous in Middle English as 'the flaming of wretches' would be today. One suspects that Chaucer would feel right at home on Usenet.


For many years, Usenet was the dominant form of online communication. It defined 'trolling' in three ways:

... a posting designed to attract predictable responses or 'flames'; or, the post itself. Derives from the phrase 'trolling for newbies' which in turn comes from mainstream 'trolling', a style of fishing in which one trails bait through a likely spot hoping for a bite. The well-constructed troll is a post that induces lots of newbies and flamers to make themselves look even more clueless than they already do, while subtly conveying to the more savvy and experienced that it is in fact a deliberate troll. If you don't fall for the joke, you get to be in on it.
... an individual who chronically trolls in sense 1; regularly posts specious arguments, flames or personal attacks to a newsgroup, discussion list, or in email for no other purpose than to annoy someone or disrupt a discussion. Trolls are recognisable by the fact that the have no real interest in learning about the topic at hand - they simply want to utter flame-bait. Like the ugly creatures they are named after, they exhibit no redeeming characteristics, and as such, they are recognized as a lower form of life on the net, as in, 'Oh, ignore him, he's just a troll.'
... [Berkeley] Computer lab monitor. A popular campus job for C[omputer] S[tudies] students. Duties include helping newbies and ensuring that lab policies are followed. Probably so-called because it involves lurking in dark, cave-like corners.

Trolling is generally recognised as being an occupation rather than an occurrence, ie while people can (and do) flame for the sake of flaming, flaming can often simply be a manifestation of someone's overreaction to something someone else said. It is for this reason that while flaming is, almost without exception, frowned upon, trolling is more looked upon with scorn than its erstwhile counterpart. The website Slashdot.org, mentioned above, even goes so far as to have a method of forum moderation which allows postings to be classified as 'troll' (as well as such other labels as 'interesting', 'funny', and 'irrelevant'). Users who troll in situations like this generally troll for bait, as mentioned in the definition above.

Methods of Flaming or Trolling


IRC channels are regularly inhabited by a set of channel 'regulars', a situation which can lead to a fair degree of in-fighting and argument, especially since many IRC channels grow to be fairly big. In the late 1990s, as IRC Channels grew even more sizable and the Internet's user base grew exponentially, conduct in IRC channels on the whole took a turn for the worse; even amongst smaller channels, IRC's vibe was not what it used to be prior to the start of the Internet boom. As Michael Lawrie explains in his history of the #gb IRC channel from 1994 - 96:

There was so much in-fighting on the channel that none of these were successful, but it did drive more and more people away for no sensible reasons. The channel was still being used by Internet staff during the daytime but when the cheap-rate crowd came on after 6pm, #gb was at its worse. There was huge amounts of bigotry, people weren't allowed to hold any views that contradicted with the clique who thought they owned the channel and since it would be rather difficult to hold views that did agree with theirs a general screen full of channel activity would have one line of message text to a screen of status messages (joins, ops, deops, kicks and bans). One thing that did thrive over these two years was the 'off IRC' socialising, once a month or so until most people came to the conclusion that they couldn't actually bear one another and they soon vanished into meets of just three or four lost souls.

As IRC grew larger yet, IRC networks such as Dalnet were forced to implement services to safeguard people's channels and nicknames not only against flaming and trolling, but against the theft of their identity and channels. There are channels on EFNet (which has never implemented such services) that are still unusable after having been taken over years in the past by trolling users who weren't abided by the channel operators and ended up banned. Countless more lie empty, their user base fragmented and dissipated. Flaming and trolling became especially common in help channels - of which there are many on IRC - and the character of IRC has changed accordingly.

Usenet / Forums

With the increasingly popular use of web forums and Usenet, flaming often becomes a cause of public humiliation. Potential targets are people with obscure viewpoints, outmoded opinions or over-inflated value of self importance. Trolling in order to cause people with strong opinions of this kind to flame back is also fairly common, and once peer groups begin to become involved, this can lead to a 'flame war'. There are certain areas of Usenet which are inhabited by virtually nothing but people in search of pornography and trollers and their victims.

As one Researcher recalls:

I take the peak of flaming from personal experience, when I was at college and it was everywhere for about six months. Then people started clamping down on it (all colleges in the highlands are linked through the UHI (University of Highlands and Islands) system) and we laughed so hard when every student in Orkney got banned from the email/posting system. They were flaming everyone.

Another relates:

I've been party to many things on the Internet, but flame wars are among the least satisfying of all my experiences. When you let your emotion take over online, it is easy to say things that you truly do not mean because it is a way to vent frustration or anger. The trouble is that in online conversations, emotion does not always carry over as intended, and your flame is either magnified a great deal, or lost altogether because tone and expression are not easy to convey with text. The good thing about a verbal argument is that one can catch all the subtleties that make up a statement, along with the textual component of that statement: When discussing something online, all the non-textual portions of your comments are lost.

Especially in forums well-frequented by such behaviour, it's fairly common for a comment which someone makes to be taken in the wrong way and for trigger happy moderators to act accordingly. However, it's equally common for trollers to follow up with excuses such as:

Sorry, I didn't mean to start an argument. My posting has been misconstrued. I didn't mean to cause offence.

As such, it's hard to catch the clever troller out. Other, less subtle, troll messages are easier to spot, for instance messages which centre around topics such as gender relations, politics, sex and religion.

Reasons for Flaming/Trolling

The troll has but one purpose, to inflame the people who read it and draw them into an argument, and as such is a deliberate attempt to provoke. Aside from sheer immaturity, there are many reasons for the flame, such as:


Most people feel the need to have a good rant or vent at someone, usually after frustration at lack of service, an unsatisfactory experience or just general bad mood. It is not unheard of for pupils to anonymously flame their teachers. Most people feel the need to have a good rant at some point, but usually restrict their outburst to friends, family or even a diary.


Unsatisfactory service, poor customer care, lack of information, or late delivery of a product can all result in a flame to the company. Most are simply complaints with 'colourful metaphors', but some are plainly abusive, and many companies operate a zero tolerance on this, even in emails, and will ignore/delete the message.

It should be noted that abusive comments do not make companies want to deal with them any faster. Customer advisors will sometimes deliberately 'misdirect' the customer's comments to the wrong department, although most reputable companies do deal with complaints correctly. On the contrary, a polite, professional, and pointed phone manner works wonders with first-level agents (the staff who initially ask phonecalls), and their supervisors. It isn't unheard of for a canny customer to have him/herself escalated to second-level employees (who are generally better equipped to handle queries) by a supervisor, or even the third level (in IT, generally the staff who designed the product or have something to do with the development team).


Many flames are just insulting emails or messages. Usually the person sending the flame had little reason for flaming, it may even be as trivial as a long delay for an answer they need.

The insult can be a joke between friends, such as:

Hey donkey brains! Fancy a pint tonight?

But even this can get out of hand. As the recipient has no emotional clues to go by (tone of voice, slight smile, etc), the flame can be misinterpreted as a genuine insult. Emoticons or 'Smileys' can help (a smiley face to denote humour or a 'winkeye' smiley - ;-) - to denote irony or playful malevolence both work wonders). However, these are not foolproof - many people dislike the use of emoticons as they are sometimes used to mask genuinely unpleasant comments with pretences of friendliness.


Few pleasures in life are greater than a lively, cordial debate and a troll can often get one going. More scathing trolls, however, are likely to provoke a so-called domain (or site) war. These have a tendency to get seriously out-of-hand and drag everyone in, as sooner or later everyone has an online friend who has been insulted, flamed and/or trolled.

Generally, a flame or troll is an unpleasant (intentional or not - though usually intentional) message which lambastes the recipient.


The worst flame of all. This is one that the sender never meant to direct at the recipient. It is usually either an email sent to a friend that is accidentally sent to the wrong person (or every person, using the 'Send All' or 'Reply All' button accidentally) or is passed on from the recipient to someone else.

Offices are the usual location of this faux pas. Usually someone complains about their boss to a friend via email, but accidentally sends it to the whole office, or the friend passes it on until it reaches the boss. It demonstrates the dangers of email, as many people send off a message while still angry, without thinking. The best advice on this is; never send anything via email that you wouldn't shout across a crowded room.

How To Deal With A Flame or Troll

Choosing how to deal with a flame can be a difficult choice. The wrong one can lead to further flames, insults and even exclusion.

Ignore It

Usually the best method, but not always appropriate for flames. Public (newsgroup/forum) flaming needs some sort of response, even if it's just a friendly request to tone the language down. Moderators will normally do this, either through regular monitoring, or through a reporting service.

Ignoring a troll is almost always the best policy. Since no-one rises to the bait, the troller will get bored and go away. Users in newsgroups and forums frequented by trolls often swiftly append to any such thread (or in reply to a baiting message) a warning like: 'Do not feed the troll'. Some online communities have measures in place to deal with offensive and ill-spirited content, such as Userfriendly.org, which deletes inappropriate messages. Other sites have moderation or complaints buttons in place in order to deal with inappropriate content, whereas, as mentioned previously, the technology news site Slashdot.org has a system in place for randomly-nominated users to rate messages, either through votes out of five or by character - including 'troll'. The default forum view in slashdot.org excludes messages with ratings beneath a certain level (ie, messages that have received a handful of 'moderator points' from randomly-nominated moderators).

Respond Rationally

Also quite a good method, and one that has the advantage of making the flamer look irrational and testy, is to respond to any baiting calmly and rationally. However a troll can be a direct challenge to your authority. They are difficult to ignore, although a reference to an earlier posting that answers all or most of the troll's points can be a good defuser.

Flame Back

A bad idea generally is to return fire. It never accomplishes anything except to leave a lasting record of your own suitability for trolling and a general bad atmosphere on the forum2. Flaming back almost always only serves to provoke the flamer, as most people love a good argument.


It is always useful if you can remain calm, although this is not easy in all situations. Reply to the flamer, indicating that the flamer has misunderstood what you were saying, and offering a re-explanation of your comments. Particularly on forums, it has the advantage of making the flamer look irrational, that they have 'flown off the handle' without checking facts first. This also works quite well with trolls.

1Massachusetts Institute of Technology.2It's generally a bad idea to use colourful metaphors or insulting language in any response.

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