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Government Shutdown, Flame Wars, and the Culture of Righteous Indignation

Thirty-ish years ago in the early ‘80’s, I was just getting started on the Internet.  Not the World Wide Web, mind you, but email and UseNet, a peer-to-peer network of chat groups on food, sex, movies, UUCP, CCCP, and just about anything else you could imagine.

My wife and I were particularly struck by the “.signature” of Chuq Von Rospach (who is still alive and well on the web here): “Chuq von Rospach — I Don’t Read Flames”.  It became a trope in our household, and survives to this day.

A “flame” is a take-no-prisoners attack delivered typically in text form, although I suppose there’s no reason you couldn’t have audio or video flames, even Tweet flames, although it’s a circumscribed canvas.  It’s the online equivalent of an altercation developing into a brawl.

Flames, and flame wars, are endemic online, and my analysis of it affects how we understand the government shutdown battles as well as the generally flame-ish form that U.S. politics has taken.

Flames occur because the imaginary narcissisitc benefits of showing off for a huge audience outweigh the real benefits of preserving a relationship.  Online, you don’t have any (or much) relationship with your “opponent” on a chat, and of course don’t see him or her in the flesh.  What’s the benefit of preserving such a “relationship”?  Especially compared to the potent (if frequently imaginary) advantage of showing a large audience how clever you are at invective.  Flaming is likely whenver this ratio — between real benefits of the real relationship and imaginary benefits of the mass-audience relationship — get out of whack.  Online chats.  Mid-East invective contests.  Trash talking in sports.  And the halls of Congress.

What about the last?  It used to be (and maybe this is just nostalgia talking) that politicians needed one another because their constituents measured them on accomplishments.  Today a disjointed political audience narcotized by TV political ads is too addled to track accomplishments except in the form of generalized disgust at politicians.  At the same time, one’s own political audience tracks one’s own trash talk record and pays attention to sound bites.  A fertile medium for flame wars.

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