by Ellen Brandt, Ph.D.

Join in their volley of insults, they’ll continue to play as long as they can . Ignore them completely, readers could take them to heart. In the Flame Game, a quick victory – fueled by wit – works best.

Most people don’t visit websites, blogs, or group discussion boards intent on making trouble.

Most people respect the opinions of others and debate them, if they must, in the spirit of fairness and camaraderie.

Most people don’t embark on lifelong vendettas based on a few words posted on the Internet.

But then, most people aren’t Flamers.

I sometimes think of Internet Flamers as Locusts. They descend upon a target website quickly. Under suitable conditions, they breed rapidly and form a swarm. Their noise is so overwhelming, they can drown out everything else in the vicinity. And if left unchecked, they can do great harm, sometimes devastating damage.

Like Locusts, too, Internet Flamers seem to pop up spontaneously more or less anywhere. If you write or publish anything whatsoever on the Internet, even the most harmless-sounding, out-and-out innocent site or blog – on kitchen countertops, say, or miniature poodles – chances are that somehow, someday, when you least expect it, Flamers will swarm.

In Internet terms, Flaming is defined as a hostile or insulting interaction between or among users of a discussion board, chatroom, or increasingly, the Comments section of a website or blog.

But the expression of hostility or anger per se isn’t necessarily Flaming. It’s when such expressions are aimed at others – including authors or website owners – and are neither constructive nor clarifying to the progress of a discussion that true Flaming occurs. Often, these attacks go off on a tangent so extreme, they have only the most tenuous connection to the original material that supposedly inspired them.

I wrote about a classic Flamer – I called him “Herbie” – in my story about extreme malice on the Internet. (“I Don’t Like What You Wrote. You Should Be Poisoned, Garrotted, Stabbed With Stiletto Heels, Thrown Off A Tall Building, and Have Vultures Eat Your Liver” )

Herbie, supposedly a genteel gentleman in his 70s, somehow found the Comments section of a reprinted version of my quite-popular story, “Summer Camp for Seniors,” which talks about unqualified activities directors at assisted-living sites and their disrespect for elderly residents. (See )

On his first appearance there, Herbie made a statement along the lines of “There is so much that is horrible about this article, I don’t know where to start.” Already suspecting something – having worked for both the tabloids and women’s mags, I know a potential crazy person by instinct – I asked the site’s publisher to take down the comment and ban this fellow from his site. He didn’t.

So Herbie came back. And as I suspected he would, he quickly proceeded to make comments that were totally unrelated to the story itself, but nevertheless – without any citations from the text – called it untrue and unsupported and elitist and . . . I dunno, possibly seditious and definitely fattening. After which he went on to lambaste me – someone he knew nothing whatsoever about – as an unfit writer, scholar, dancer, chef, electrician, Olympic athlete, and Mayoral candidate. (All except the first two are, of course, accurate.)

Even Without an Audience, Determined Flamers Flame Away

With the unfortunate lack of civility in our public discourse these days, silly – but often hurtful – attacks of this kind are an everyday occurrence. Until recently, though, Flamers’ targets tended to be celebrities of some kind – actors, politicians, sports figures, or Jay Leno.

Now, if you breathe – particularly if you both breathe and write – you’re potential prey. My friend Elizabeth contacted me just the other day, horrified that her simple act of posting a news story from a UK publication on a message board attracted a vicious Flaming attack. She didn’t even write the story – for Goddess’s sake! – but her Flamer ripped into her with a “People like you don’t know what you’re talking about” diatribe that had scant threads linking it to the story in question and no threads whatsoever linking it to Elizabeth.

“People Like You” is a common kind of Flamer opener, by the way, mostly because it’s so versatile. “People Like You – (Baby Boomers, Lawyers, Moroccans, Bowlers, Meat-Eaters, Satanists) – should be condemned because you – (Own Two Cars, Don’t Recycle, Have Freckles, Talk Too Fast, Remind Me of My Cousin Jimmy, Have Bodies Buried in Your Backyard) – and therefore need to be (Censored, Quarantined, Tithed, Sent to an Optometrist, Drawn-and-Quartered, Forced to Read Marketing Copy).

In nearly every instance, Flamers like to jump quickly from attacks on things – articles, movies, music, games – to attacks on people responsible for those things – authors, directors, composers, athletes. That’s because things don’t have feelings and can’t get hurt. People tend to get hurt pretty easily.

To be sure, if you’ve been the target of Flamethrowers often enough, you develop a sort of immunity. Personally, I’m not prepared to run for president yet. How candidates – or even Britney and Lindsay – take it is beyond me. But in the case of my Baby Boomers-The Angriest Generation series, which has been the constant target of a group of Crazed Millennials who think I’m out to incite a rebellion of We-Won’t-Be-Bullied-Into-Retirement middle-class businesspeople – (Yes, of course, they’re right) – I now fully expect the attacks and have begun to find them rather funny.

The funniest was clearly an attack I endured when I posted one of my Angriest Generation articles – I believe it was “No Gold Watch When You Work For Pariah Corporation” ( ) on one of the News feeds at a film-related group at Linked In.

Minutes after the story was posted, a tag team of Flamers – let’s call them Manny and Moe – bit into the Comments stream with relish. Not that they even mentioned the article itself. They first began with the standard “Boomers Are To Blame For the Ills of the World” harangue, which has been permeating the Internet the past few months and which I talked about in my story on Anti-Boomer propaganda. (See “You Have Cooties – Go Play Golf” at: )

According to this so-predictable-it-has-to-be-scripted spiel, Boomers are to blame for not only our current economic malaise, but also for the Biblical Flood, the Black Plague, the Wars of the Roses, and Cholesterol. Moreover, both Bill Clinton and George W. Bush are Boomers, which proves . . . absolutely nothing, but they think it does.

I responded to the first barrage of Flamelets – (for my Fight-Flamers Game Plan, see below) – with a link to my Anti-Boomer propaganda story and several of my own canned answers for dealing with criticism aimed at Boomers.

Predictably, Moe and Manny went on to attack me – my integrity, my scholarship, my ancestry, my hairdo, and my taste in breakfast cereal. Actually, their main attack centered on the fact that one of these two gentlemen – I believe it was Moe – had attempted to post a couple of Flaming Anti-Boomer comments on my blogsite, and I zapped him, which is my right as a website owner.

I made one additional post specifically aimed at this Fireball, stating that not only do I moderate my own blogs, I strongly suggest that others do the same. And I pointed out that M&M’s hero, President Obama – also a Baby Boomer, by the way – now moderates all of his websites at the White House. So call me Obama-like in my decision.

Manny and Moe disregarded the analogy and went on Flaming – but I decided not to participate further, nor did any other poster. So for the next two weeks, Moe and Manny continued their Flame-throwing dialogue, talking to each other, possibly without a single outside observer, and turned their Flamefest into a hundred-comment extravaganza. Alas, it’s been removed from the site now, or I would gladly link you to it, as a sort of relic.

Bring in the Clones

An even funnier Flamefest is in motion right now, at the date of publication of this story. I don’t think I’ll tell you where – think of it as a Treasure Hunt – but the venue is a political discussion board at a social media site. The topic which started this particular Comments thread is by now lost in prehistory, but the thread has now reached the 80-plus posts point. What makes it so hilarious is that there are – as in the Manny and Moe scenario – now only two posters left in the stream, trading virulent insults with positive glee. The twist is that these two “opposing” Flamers are almost certainly the exact same real person. A Man and his Clone, together at last.

The “Man” in question – I’ve confirmed he does exist – is quite intelligent, a Harvard grad in his early 30’s. The “Clone” is his Avatar, in the three-dimensional, rather than graphic, sense: a distinct Internet personality created by its user to represent him/her/it in Web interactions. Avatars like this are the essence of Virtual World-type communities, like Second Life, and various multiplayer games, like World of Warcraft.

I’m sure that the Man and the Clone are one in the same, because He/They have made multiple verbal slips in their Flame-Party-A-Deux. Sometimes, the Man (let’s call him Ralph) claims credit for remarks the Clone (let’s call him Rafe) has made and vice versa. Or Rafe insults Ralph insults Rafe for characteristics of “background” or “opinion” formerly attributed to the other.

Possibly, this is all preparation for a Hollywood blockbuster – or a political coup. One can’t be sure.

The moderator of this discussion board may have declined to intercede in this split-personality Flame thread because (s)he found it entertaining and/or mind-boggling. The moderator of the Manny-Moe Flamerama inspired by my article probably should have intervened and doused – i.e. deleted – the conflagration as soon as it included malicious insults.

As I have said elsewhere, most discussion board and other group moderators don’t take this facet of their responsibilities seriously enough. They don’t consider the emotional distress Internet bullying, sometimes escalating to character assassination, can cause, even among we sane and stable adults who make up the majority of Internet participants.

And by not choosing to Just Say No to Nastiness, they may be encouraging Flamers to continue in their dubious careers of Cyber-Sadism.

But We Who Have Felt the Burn can certainly do our part to douse the flames.

The Little Man Behind the Screen

Remember the denouement of the Wizard of Oz? Toto kicks over a screen to reveal the Wizard as a shriveled up, rather pathetic-looking little man, whose manifestations of power are nothing more than magic tricks.

Flamers are just junior Wizards, whose power is illusory, based as it is on a certain facility to string hurtful words together, reinforced by what are clearly sociopathic tendencies.

Your concern as a writer or website owner isn’t with the Flamer or Flamers, anyway. It’s with your audience of readers, potential readers, or website visitors. You don’t want to have them shun you because of lies and character assassination coming from your attackers. But you don’t want to participate in a “volley” of exchanges with your Flamers, either – because if you do, it may go on for years!

On your website or blogsite itself, there’s the simplest of solutions: Insist on moderating your own Comments streams. Allow in comments which disagree with your text or ideas, if they are made honestly in the spirit of discussion and debate. But simply zap comments which are irrelevant to your text, insult entire groups of people, or insult you.

“I find a logical flaw in your argument about aardvarks with leprosy,” is OK. “Dentists are aardvarks with leprosy,” “Romanians are aardvarks with leprosy” or “You are an aardvark with leprosy” are not.

In a social media discussion thread or the Comments section of a News feed, the situation is more difficult, because you don’t moderate the site. You can try appealing to whomever does moderate it to delete posts from Flamers. Good Luck! I have found that most site moderators either don’t care, are too busy, or – quite often – believe that a Flame Exchange brings new readers to their group and is therefore positive.

Your real concern is that Flamers might be taken seriously enough by the rest of the group that they’re persuaded not to read your article or visit your website.

So I suggest you post once – sometimes twice – politely but firmly stating why you believe whatever the heck they’re saying is all wet. If you can deflate them with wit or humor, that is a definite plus:

“No, our site was not designed by a ten-year-old. Stanislaus is 43, lives in Cleveland, and won the Website of the Century award last year.”

“There are 80 million Baby Boomers in the US. Surely, you’re not suggesting all of us are cannibals?”

“My parents are not a gangster and a chorus girl. Dad is a veterinarian, and Mom owns a dress shop.”

Then, painful as it is, just walk away.

Possibly, they’ll say more cruel, nasty things about you. Possibly they’ll continue saying them for weeks, like Manny and Moe, or Ralph and His Clone.

But you won’t be there to hear them.

What Do You Think?

Have you been the victim of Internet Flamers? OK – Of course, you have! But tell us about the most interesting, horrible, or funny incidents.

Should moderators of social media groups and message boards be compelled by top site management to delete posts that insult or damage the reputations of group members?

Should web security organizations or law enforcement agencies step in and stop the activities of perpetual Flamers?

What do you think motivates the typical Flamer? Does their existence indicate greater problems on the Internet or within our society?

Should Ralph and his Clone be given a Hollywood contract?

For the Introduction to the Media Revolution series:

For our story about False Spam Accusations as Political Weapons:

For Ellen’s popular article, “Will Boomers and the GOP Save Twitter?