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Flaming is a slang term used to describe hostile and insulting interactions between Internet users, often as a result of a heated discussion or argument over a controversial topic.
The term “flaming” may have been derived from the 1977 comic strip CPU Wars, in which several hackers yell “eat flaming death!” when they are discovered by a pair of receptionists (shown below).
The earliest known definition of the word “flaming” as used in the context of Internet discussions can be found in the 1983 edition of The Hacker’s Dictionary by Guy L. Steele:
“To speak rabidly or incessantly on an uninteresting topic or with a patently ridiculous attitude.”
The “online disinhibition effect” refers to the loss of social inhibitions that are normally present when people see each other in in real life and has been cited as a possible explanation for the prevalence of flaming on the Internet. This bears many similarities to the Greater Internet Fuckwad Theory, which argues that normally well-adjusted individuals may display psychopathic or antisocial behaviors when given both anonymity and a captive audience on the Internet.
The earliest relevant Urban Dictionary definition for “flaming” was submitted by user Arch on March 12th, 2004.
“An online argument that becomes nasty or derisive, where insulting a party to the discussion takes precedence over the objective merits of one side or another.”
On September 5th, 2007, the pop culture blog Neatorama reported that a man burned down another man’s house after the two engaged in an online flame war. On September 11th, 2008, the technology website eHow published a guide on avoiding flame wars, advising Internet users to become familiar with a community, avoid taking flame bait and respect others in the group. On February 20th, 2010, the webcomic xkcd published a comic about a person unable to leave the computer because they are engaged in an online argument (shown below).
On October 5th, 2010, the tech news site Wired published an article about disruptive commenters in online forums. Two days later, the tech news blog Switched published a similar article titled “Putting Out the Flame War,” which discussed using automated bots to moderate forums. On December 16th, the YouTube channel MondoMedia uploaded a video titled “Dick Figures: Flame War,” in which two animated stick figures engage in a battle over a copy of a Internet forum flame war game (shown below, left). Within three years, the video received over 7.1 million views and 23,000 comments. On September 13th, 2012, the Machinima YouTube channel uploaded a video featuring a top ten list of gaming-related flame wars (shown below, right). Within the next five months, the video received over 130,000 views and 2,200 comments.
Flame wars are large confrontations between multiple Internet users surrounding a specific topic. Sometimes referred to as a shitstorm, flame war threads often have image macros warning viewers that an intense argument is occurring. Those participating in a flame war may try to insult their opponents’ intelligence by pointing out spelling and grammatical errors.
Flame trolling involves intentionally starting a flame war by posting a provocative or offensive message, sometimes referred to as “flamebait.” The flame troll may be motivated by the attention the post receives, or by the entertainment value provided by those who have been angered by the message.