Revisiting Flaming: Blurting

I took a trip down memory lane today, reading studies of flaming.  For those of you who started using the Internet only since about the turn of the millenium, flaming might not be a term you have heard much before (I know many of my students haven’t heard it), but it was a major research concern in the 1990s. Flaming is sort of like trolling. Wikipedia (in an unusually weak entry) disambiguates “flaming” to include Flaming (Internet) as “the act of posting deliberately hostile messages on the Internet used mainly by a troll.”  It’s important to remember that flaming was much more significant than this.

Flaming was part of the “dark side” of online communication, even before the Internet. It was seen as proof that using computer-based technology to communicate dehumanized us. Made us less empathetic. Some researchers said it was because we lost the elements of face-to-face communication.  Others said it was because we could be anonymous — in fact, a quite important stream of research (SIDE) is based on this assumption.

I first taught about flaming back before the commercial internet, and before the modern-day GUI mail client or web browser. Back then, flaming was a topic for teaching net etiquette, aka netiquette  (another term that’s not used much anymore). Some of what we taught can more properly be understood as socialization into the emerging norms of online communication. Things like DON’T TYPE IN ALL CAPS EVEN IF YOU THINK IT IS EASIER TO READ (my father’s personal favorite) BECAUSE PEOPLE WILL THINK YOU’RE YELLING. Or, don’t use a lot of exclamation points, even if you just want to add emphasis, because people think you’re angry!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! We taught about using emoticons to convey emotions that couldn’t be conveyed in text (no kidding, these ubiquitous little beasties didn’t really enter general consciousness before the 1980s 🙂 😉 😛 ).

But I haven’t thought about flaming too much in the past decade, as online communication has been more deeply integrated into everyday communication, and the since the distinction between the online and offline self has faded. It came back to mind lately due to an article recently published in Communication Monographs, by Dale Hample, Adam S. Richards, and Christine Skubisz. The topic of the article is blurting.  Yes, you read that correctly.  Not typically a word you seen in scholarly research, but it is a very good onomatopoeia.  Blurting is the act of saying something without thinking and that, as soon as it leaves our lips, we wish we could take back.

The researchers asked what sorts of people were most prone to blurt, and this is what they found (yes, it’s from the abstract, but I swear I read the whole thing):

Blurters endorsed more messages overall [as appropriate] and rejected fewer because of harm to other or relationship; they saw interpersonal arguments in a less sophisticated way, and as less cooperative or civil, but more pointedly emphasized the utility, identity display, dominance, and play goals for arguing; blurters were higher in verbal aggressiveness, indirect interpersonal aggression, psychological reactance, sensation seeking, psychoticism, extraversion, and neuroticism; and they were lower in perspective-taking and lying. People were most likely to blurt when they believed they had high rights to speak in a situation, and were less likely when personal benefits and relational consequences were at issue, or when the situation made them apprehensive.

The worry that the internet would bring on hoardes of flamers never panned out. In fact, researchers had a hard time finding flames.  O’Sullivan and Flanigan  found less than 1% of all emails or discussion posts had objective characteristics we could identify as flaming. This led them to develop a contextual definition that identifies flames based on the perception of the communicators involved.  And though I generally agree with contextual approaches, this solution in this case left me unsatisfied.

So here’s what occurred to me as I read this article: what if flaming had less to do with the technology (or even context), and more to do with all of the psychological and cognitive traits identified by Hample and colleauges? What if flames were the online equivalent of blurting?  Writing or posting something that, in hindsight, we wished we wouldn’t’ve. Some of us do it because we read faster than we think, and our fingers are flying before our internal editing kicks in.  But what if the regular flamers–what we now call trolls–are simply blurters in a text based communication environment?

All of the consequences of blurting/flaming — flurting? — remain significant: relationships harmed, confidences broken, embarrassment, and so on. But we can look to the relationship between cognitive and communicative processes for understanding, rather than pinning it on the technology.

An important takeaway from this possibility: reinforcing that research should not be asking the Difference Question.  The DQ begins with a soft form of technological determinism — an assumption that the explanatory mechanisms for any observed difference is the technology.  In fact, such research sets up the study so that the point of contrast is online v. offline.

Flaming may have had little to nothing to do with the technology after all.  OMG WTF !!!  😀

References and for more information:

Hample, D., Richards, A. S., & Skubisz, C. (2013). Blurting. Communication Monographs, 80(4), 503-532. doi:10.1080/03637751.2013.830316

O’Sullivan, P. B., & Flanagin, A. J. (2003). Reconceptualizing “flaming” and other problematic messages. New Media and Society, 5(1), 69–94. doi:10.1177/1461444803005001908

Turnage, A. K. (2008). Email Flaming Behaviors and Organizational Conflict. Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication, 13(1), 43–59. Retrieved from

Tanis, M., & Postmes, T. (2003). Social Cues and Impression Formation in CMC. Journal of Communication, 53(4), 676–693. doi:10.1111/j.1460-2466.2003.tb02917.x

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