Conversation | Fanning the Flames

Flaming ComputerHadas Goshen Adding fuel to the fire: the author ponders the place of civility on the Internet.

I forced myself further into the flames, my face flushed and finger burning above my touchpad— I read them all, every single scalding comment. All 20-something of them, following the new fires as they reached 30, then climbed to 40. And all I could think was, “I’m so glad it’s not me.”

Internet flaming is nothing new. Glowering into the glare of computer screens and cracking fists above keyboards, web users — safe in their basements or bedrooms — have been ranting in chat rooms and online forums for years. Miles and maybe countries away from her recipient, a flamer feels empowered to not only to speak her mind, but scream it — USING ALL CAPS!! Or employing smoldering, DESPICABLE, disgusted and APPALLING language or even $%@^&*#! to communicate the incommunicable!!!!

In the vast expanse of the World Wide Web, it used to be that the chances of an actual encounter between the anonymous flamer and flamee was slim to none. But on a hyper-local news blog in the East Village, a slender area spanning about 10 by 15 streets, the cyber-world reduces into a neighborhood, and things get more personal. Is it still O.K. to bash (on a community forum by and for local residents) the storeowner down the block on Avenue A, or that obnoxious woman you always avoid at Tompkins Square dog run?

As the Internet becomes increasingly more transparent, revealing the identities of writers through Facebook profiles and Twitter feeds, how removed from our pointed fingers can we really get? At what point does someone become a “public figure” worthy of unrestrained criticism—when one becomes a community board member, or a student blogger? The trend seems to be that as soon as one has an Internet presence, he’s fair game.

Fair game, it seems, was my classmate Greg Howard, whose opinion piece on 35 Cooper Square attracted comments so flinty, so pointedly caustic in their use of “greggy” and words like “vomit,” that it seemed as though the neighborhood had electronically morphed into a mob of angry, pitch-fork wielding villagers—East Villagers, ironically, one of the most definitive, tight-knit communities in New York City. And, it seems, one of the most divisive.

Though of course, many of the East Villagers who commented on Greg’s piece used a more traditional approach—ad hominem venom:

“You disgust us. Get it?? You epitomize so much that is wrong with the fabric of NYC. You are another bloggong spokesman for a generation of unoriginal posers in every way. You make me want to vomit you arrogant out of town, know nothing, know it all- kid.”

I still cringe when I read it. And I have to ask myself, if the writer of the comment had encountered the so-called “know-it-all kid” on the street, would he or she have been comfortable verbalizing the same caustic words?

Questing for answers on the psyche of the East Village and its online mentality, I contacted Elizabeth Singer, a licensed psychoanalyst on University Place who specializes in anger management. Ms. Singer raised her daughter in the East Village and has seen the East Village’s transformations first-hand, noting “The Greek diner where I fed my nauseated pregnant self is now the defunct “Recess” boarded up and ready for its next incarnation.” About 30 percent of her patients live or work in the community.

In conversations over the phone and via e-mail, Ms. Singer explained that “East Villagers are extremely protective because the small, diverse, quirky nature of the East Village is precious to us. We have seen its patina chipped away or swallowed whole by glass-clad buildings, and we ache at the sight of compromises like the façade of a church standing forlornly in front of an NYU building.”

Understandable, of course. But why did some readers direct their anger at the writer, and not at what he said?

“I think they smelled contempt. Not overt, the writer didn’t sneer. On the other hand, he didn’t seem to know much and seemed careless about not knowing. And suddenly, in the minds of some of the angrier responders, the writer became a symbol of what they perceive as the wealthy, destructive and dumb forces dismembering a historic and personally meaningful place. Contempt in one induces rage in the other. Verbal sadism is fun. The Internet cloaks identity so that one’s spew will never be traced. The weather’s fine for flaming.”

But hey, Internet interaction isn’t all grim, especially in local communities. According to recent studies by the PEW research center on social isolation and new technologies, “When the Internet is used as a medium for neighborhood social contact, participants tend to have very high levels of local engagement,” with 60 percent of those using online neighborhood discussion forums knowing “all or most” of their neighbors (compared to 40 percent of Americans). Furthermore, 70 percent on a neighborhood forum listened to a neighbor’s problems in that past six months, with 63 percent reporting that they received support from their neighbors (compared to just 49 percent and 36 percent of the general population).

That’s certainly cheerful news, especially for The Local’s contributors. But the question of flaming one’s neighbor on a community forum remains; is it an excusable part of community dialogue, just another way of bringing us all closer? And is it possible to justify flaming, with the assumption that web users process Internet interactions differently?

Ms. Singer says that despite the anonymity, some online accusations can be just as hurtful. “Posts can induce disorganizing shame and rage in readers. I hear about this in my treatment room. In person, one might see that one’s words induced a flush of humiliation and relent. In the blue glow of the computer screen, feedback comes visually, intellectually. One has no feel for the other, non-verbal cues are hidden. Our right brains are shut down.”

Join the conversation: So what do you think about online flaming on community forums? Do you feel that The Local’s articles and commentary has brought the community closer, or divided it further?