Remembering the 90s flame wars: a simpler time of cyberbullying

Stephanie Buck on 2016-08-19

The glory days of net negativity

Flaming was born at a time when online interaction came with the assumption of anonymity. (SSPL/Getty Images)

Believe it or not, being a jerk on the internet used to be considered charming. Insults were simpler, more benign, a learning experience. It even had a different name: flaming.

Early Usenet groups (similar to chat rooms) revolved around niche interests and subcultures, such as classical art or basketball. Naturally, dedicated users passionate about certain subjects followed, becoming active members in the chat infrastructure of the early 1990s.

As the net grew and more people got online, they were eager to meet users from around the world. However, as these “newbies” hopscotched around the “town squares” of chat rooms, they often disrupted the routines of existing communities with inane queries or tangents, sometimes as simple as, “Hey! I’m new. Can someone tell me what this room is all about?”

It was the spirit of discovery many of us felt on the early net. And cyber gurus needed to punish it.

Thus flaming was born.

In an effort to “educate” newbies, a more seasoned user would send off a sarcastic, sometimes hurtful but often creative comment — known as a flame. Others could join in, starting a flame war against the original poster. Techies at MIT reportedly used the term in the electronic sense as early as 1969 at MIT. Some suggest they were referencing Chaucer, who wrote “the fleminge of the wrecches.”

Take the case of the 1994 user named Moby, who asked Usenet group alt.tasteless how he was supposed to bring a date home when his two cats were constantly puking or in heat.

One user flamed, “Get a sense of humor, or a life. In that order.” Other hurls from there included DIY spaying and beastiality. Silence from Moby.

Though there are several different types of flames and flame-bait, designed to provoke flame wars, what’s fascinating is that the act of flaming itself was revered by early web users. Unlike trolling, cyberbullying, and harassment, all of which imply abuse today, a good flame was first considered routine dialogue — sometimes even an art form.

Author Virginia Shea unpacks the “art of flaming” in a clever 1994 guide called Netiquette. “Although flames often get out of hand, they have a purpose in the ecology of cyberspace,” Shea argues, to educate and moderate discussion forums. The brute force is “half the fun.”

Sometimes likened to early forms of debate, a “good” flame doesn’t just cut, it creates — not unlike literary criticism or rap battles. Shea writes, “It takes diligence and creativity to pull off an artful flame.”

Before flaming, she suggests, give signals to warn users a flame is coming or ending. For example:

[FLAME ON]

300 words detailing why the chicken came before the egg

[FLAME OFF]

In this example and many others, tautological flames argue questions that cannot be answered easily, and appear to self-implode by their own logic. “I particularly enjoy reading the outrageous flames sent by readers complaining about the flame wars,” says Shea.

Interestingly, flaming wasn’t necessarily considered bad netiquette at the time, according to Shea. Neither was trolling, actually. Believed to originate in the late 1980s, web users trolled, or baited, newbies by posting questions frequently discussed by the group (seemingly in earnest) and seeing who would respond. A good example: “shaving hair causes it to grow back coarser.” A newbie might respond with a long argument against. Everyone else would silently watch.

Only later did trolling — named for the practice of fishing with a baited hook dragged through the water — become synonymous with harassment, though trolling purists still maintain the difference between their “art form” and genuine threats.

If flames did become truly abusive or bothersome, there were some options in the Usenet era. Users could report flamers to chat room moderators, use the news reader’s “kill file” to prevent further correspondence from the flamer, or rely on the old, non-electronic fallback: Just ignore them.

It was inconceivable that mods could manually remove hate speech and threats across thousands of AOL chat rooms in the 1990s, much less monitor the activity of 3 billion web users today. We still have few options to report abuse. Notorious troll zones Twitter and Reddit damage-control by shuttering offending accounts or subreddits, or moderating posts when they can get to them. Tumblr mainly restricts content and search terms that promote self-harm, such as anorexia and suicide. Most communities today rely on user-enabled filters and block tools. “Ignore it” remains the imperfect default.

[FLAME OFF]