Flame Wars in Residential Online Spaces

Not all Stanford dorm chat lists are quite as blessed with the feeling of personal safety as Junipero. While most dorms have no significant problems, a few do have breaches, resulting in flame wars. In a flame, not only are a contributor's ideas attacked, but the contributor himself is directly belittled, often in a vulgar manner, by another person. Flame wars are the product of multiple escalating flames, and can continue as long as the participants are willing to hurl insults at each other.

Dorm-specific Mediating Forces on Flame Wars

The incident described in the last section was a prime example of something that could have spun out of control into a flame war. However, consideration for the dorm community and that feeling of personal safety in its online spaces helped defuse the situation very quickly. This sentiment came up again on another hall's list. A very short flame war began, but after only one message from each person was exchanged, the participants quickly apologized. "I am writing to apologize for the disrespectful email I sent a few hours ago. ... I set a precedent which should not stand. ... we should do it in a nicer way" (Andersen, 2003). Not only did the sender admit his mistake, but strongly reinforced the importance of the feeling of personal safety.

Another strong mediating factor on dorm e-mail lists is the dorm staff. Dorm staff have administrative control of the list, and a responsibility for trying to keep the social life of the dorm intact. By shutting down the list for a matter of days, the staff can allow tempers to cool, or at least move the argument to a less public sphere. Later, at house meeting, they can address the issue in a more controlled fashion and reinforce the need for a respectful online environment.

Flame Wars as Social Development

Flame wars are not always, in the long run, wholly negative. For another dorm whose chat list had a protracted flame war, the general atmosphere on the list actually became more considerate since the event, even among those involved in it. In a paper on The Formation of Group Norms in Computer-Mediated Communication, it was stated that "Social identity is closely wedded to norms that define how group members should think, feel, or behave. Through a process called referent informational influence, the norms of the group are inferred from prototypical properties of the group. The prototype informs a group member what behaviors are typical and, hence, appropriate, desirable, or expected in the group" (Lea M, et all, 2000).

While many prototypical behaviors are apparant from daily interactions around the dorm, perhaps to a greater extent than with a group which solely uses CMC, it can take an extreme case, like a flame war, to develope a prototype for how to deal with sensitive issues in the particular social situation of one's dorm. After the flame war, residents had a much better idea of what approaches were acceptable to the community around them, and have therefore been much more able to respect those boundaries. It may be that a dorm's first flame war is just a step in building an effective and harmonious community.

Next: Conclusions

Content and Page Design 2003 Albert Andersen and Sonia Samagh.
Page last updated 6/3/2003