Flaming and Trolling are patterns of behaviour which emerged shortly after mass communication became available to individual users on the Internet. It is a phenomenon believed to have evolved from the screamer, a type of caller to call centres who screams at the staff and verbally abuses them. It is, according to some psychologists, an electronic spanking.
To quote the H2G2 House Rules:
Please, no flaming or trolling. On h2g2, flaming means posting something that's angry and mean-spirited - the online equivalent of flying off the handle. It's not a pretty sight, and we recommend constructive discussion as a far more satisfying pastime. Trolls say deliberately provocative things just to stir up trouble - it's not polite, so please don't do it. h2g2 is an incredibly friendly place, so please help to keep it that way.
Flaming can be anything from a joke between friends to an abusive assault. The latter - for example, malicious email - can be taken sufficiently seriously to lead to prosecution.
Flaming is an insult to the person it is directed at. Trolling is a deliberatly provocative statement or question that is intended to cause argument and start a fight.
Methods of Flaming or Trolling
In the 1990s this was the most popular method of flaming, it is direct and to the point. There were even standard flame forms that could be downloaded and emailed to the recipient. They went along the lines of;
You are being flamed because:
Your opinions are idiotic
Your parentage is questionable
Your body odour is offensive
The flamer put an X in the appropriate box. This was before HTML and rich text mail was in popular usage. Flaming reached a peak in 1996-1997 when network administrators started clamping down on abusive account holders.
An example of a 'troll' e-mail would be:
Hey is President Bush the smartest/dumbest person in the world or what?
Regardless of the content, many people would reply to this email (especially so if from a contact which the recipient knows personally) , and it would be likely to spark a heated debate.
Newsgroups / Forums
With the increasingly popular use of web forums and newsgroups, flaming has taken on a new role: public humiliation. Potential targets are people with obscure viewpoints, outmoded opinions or overinflated value of self importance.
The disadvantage is that the flamer can get flamed back, not only by the person they flamed, but also by that person's friends. This can get out of control and lead to a "flame war".
Trolls in newsgroups are more common than flames. Flames are outright attacks on people, if sometimes unintentional. Trolls, however are attempts to start an argument, usually deliberately provocative with whosoever might choose to reply. Unfortunately trollers (those who troll) often get away with such behaviour - at least initially - by excusing themselves so:
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. These are topics so hot, it's hard to believe the message was unintentionally trolling 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. It is a deliberate attempt to provocate. Trolling is a form of 'baiting', a term familiar to people working in customer service as a situation in which a customer tries to draw you into arguing with them.
There are many reasons for the flame.
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.
Anyone with experience of working in any customer service capacity will know that the people who use abusive language in their flame will get dealt with last. 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.
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*, the flame can be misinterpreted as a genuine insult. Smilies can help, the two classics are :-) and :), however they are not foolproof.
Few pleasures in life are greater than a lively, cordial debate and a troll can get one going (although H2G2 prefers you to use AskH2G2 or start a conversation in an appropriate entry). More scathing trolls 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*) 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 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.
Usually the best method, but not always appropriate for flames. Public (newsgroup/forum) flaming needs some sort of response, even it's a friendly request to tone the language down. Moderators will normally do this, either through regular monitoring, or through a reporting service, like H2G2 uses.
Ignoring a troll is almost always the best policy. Since no-one rises to the bait, the troller will get bored and go away.
Also quite a good method, it has the advantage of making the flamer look irrational and testy. However a troll can be a direct challenge to your authority. The author is an authority on Star Trek physics and technology and has received his fair share of trolls on other forums and newsgroups. 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 de-fuser.
A bad idea generally. It never accomplishes anything except to make you feel better for a brief spell.* Flaming back almost always only serves to provoke the flamer, as most people love a good argument.
Never troll back with a message like:Who thinks user X is an idiot?
It just adds fuel to the troller.
Quite useful if it applies and if you can remain calm, but not applicable 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.