Fire Practice: Handling Flames
By The Small Lady
What are flames?
A flame is a hostile message. Flames can occur via e-mail, in guestbooks, in forums, bulletin boards, newsgroups...almost anywhere a message can be posted.
Why do people flame?
People do it for many different reasons. People flame because they are angry, opinionated, bored, attention seekers, troublemakers, jealous, wanting a reaction, wanting to distract from something, immature, hateful...the list goes on and on. Flaming is not linked to particular ages, genders, or topics (yes, flaming does happen outside of the Sailormoon community!). Flamers are not always bad people. What I am saying is that anyone is capable of flaming. In fact, a majority of web surfers probably have flamed someone else at least once in their lives, though they may never want to admit to it.
Why do people flame me?
If you have any sort of opinions that you express through your website, in discussion groups, on forums, in chat rooms, odds are that you will get flame at least once in your life. You need to accept the fact that you will not be able to please everyone, and there will be some people who will disagree/dislike your opinions or your work. Flames are a fact of life on the internet.
What do flames look like?
You'll be able to easily identify 85% of the flames out there just by looking at them. They are nasty, heated messages, which may have one or more of the following elements in it: hostility; profanity; vulgarity; alt caps; all caps; using large fonts; racial, gender or other personal attacks; or other inflammatory elements.
The other 15% of the flames out there are harder to spot because whether they could be considered to be flames is subjective based on the recipient. People have different tolerance levels, and a message that offends one person may not offend another. Unfortunately, negative feedback/disagreement can sometimes falls into this 15%. Some people are open to negative commentary and take it constructively; others see it as a personal attack. This is not to say that you can't ever be honest with a person and tell them that you disagree with something or you don't like their site; but there is a right way and a wrong way to do it. Common sense should help you dictate how to compose constructive negative criticism without flaming.
What do I do if I am flamed?
Stay calm. Keeping your cool in the face of flames is invaluable, because it will help you deal with the flame properly, instead of following knee-jerk reactions which may only make the situation worse and may even make YOU look bad.
From here, you have a couple of courses of action:
Ignore it: Most of the time, flames are nonsensical; the flamer merely wants to get a rise out of you, or they want to get attention drawn to themselves. The best way you can handle many flames is to delete it. If you are flamed by e-mail, or on a mailing list or newsgroup, do not respond to the flame. If the flame occurred in your guestbook or forum, you may want to edit or remove the entry (and since it is your guestbook/forum, it is your right).
Report it: If someone is repeatedly flaming you, is making threats against you, is derogatory, or otherwise makes you uncomfortable, your can consider reporting the flamer.
Then the final, most important step of all:
Let it go: Being on the internet should be an enjoyable experience. I don't imagine that tracking down every single flame that you receive is enjoyable or even productive, especially when all that time you're wasting on detective work won't prevent flames being sent to you in the future. Deal with the flames you have to, ignore the rest, then let go of it all. Don't let flames grow any bigger in your mind than they have to. It's only the internet, not the entire world. Don't let it spoil your fun.
How can I report flames?
E-mail: Report e-mail flames to the internet service provider (ISP). Most ISPs have a special e-mail address to deal with flaming problems; usually it is firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com. Check the Help Section of your ISP's site to determine where to forward a copy of flame to. Be sure to include a brief message stating that you are reporting this flame. The same also applies for web-based e-mail providers such as Yahoo or Hotmail. The ISP will handle it from there, either by reprimanding, revoking privileges, or in the worst instances, canceling their account.
Mailing Lists, Newsgroups, or Forums: Report the flame privately to the Administrator of the organization. Do not report it publicly through the organization. If you have a good Administrator who is involved and checks in frequently, they will probably already be aware the flaming and have even dealt with it, but you should still report it as a good measure. Administrators will take care of the matter for you.
Guestbooks: Many guestbooks give you the ability to block specific e-mail addresses or internet protocol (IP) addresses. You may want to consider using that if you have a repeat flamer.
I don't know who flamed me because they don't have an e-mail address!
If you don't have a valid e-mail address to work with (this is usually the case in guestbook and forum flaming), try to get the IP number of the flamer. E-mail, forums, guestbooks and newsgroups often routinely capture the IP number of those who post messages. Once you have the IP number, you can use a lookup service such as icestorm.com or OSI-LAB DNS Lookup to look up their domain name (if one is available). Once you get a domain name, you can send a copy of the flame and the IP number of the flamer to the domain's webmaster.
A word of caution here about IP numbers. IP numbers, while handy, are not foolproof. There are two types of IP numbers: static (which stay the same constantly) and dynamic (which don't). Popular dial-up ISPs such as AOL issue a new dynamic IP to your computer every time you log in, and you probably won't end up with the same IP number each time you log in. Static IP addresses suffer from a similar problem. For example, a library computer connected to the internet may have a static IP number. That computer will be used by many different people but the IP address won't change, so all users essentially have the same IP number. Therefore, the 126.96.36.199 you find in your flame and the 188.8.131.52 that signs your guestbook three days later can be two entirely different people in two different locations, or the messages from 184.108.40.206 and 220.127.116.11 are actually the same person.
This is not to say IP numbers are worthless; they are quite valuable, actually. They are not 100% concrete, but they can help narrow the field down.
What NOT to do when you are flamed:
Accuse directly: Cases of mistaken identity happen all the time. The internet is a very large, very anonymous place, where you can have 25 different people with the nickname Chibi-Usagi running around; confusion from time to time is bound to happen.
Even scarier, it's easier than you think to spoof someone's identity on the internet. E-mail addresses and IP numbers can be faked, names changed, accounts hacked, and programs which mask identities employed. To directly accuse anyone of flaming, with or without any concrete proof, is asking for trouble. They may deny, they may be hostile, they may flame even more, they may claim that you are harassing them, they may give you all sorts of grief...just let the ISP or Administrator handle it.
Flame back: This makes you look bad; it tells the flamer that you're willing to stoop to their level, and they may continue to flame you. It may also agitate other people into participating and making things worse. Lastly, a flame-back is still a flame, and someone could report YOU for flaming.
Post the flame on your site: I know that flame sections are popular on sites, where site owners post flames and their responses to them. I think people mean for it to discourage flames, but in my experience, I've found that flame sections encourage more flaming than discourage. It offers the flamer what they want: attention. Having such a section up is almost like posting an invitation to them to flame you, because they see that if they do, you will pay attention to it. Another side effect of a flame section is that you may find that other people (flamer included) who disagree with your response to the flame, which leads to more flames coming at you. It also gives people clues as to what ticks you off, and malicious people may be tempted to take shots at you and rile you up.
Personally, I have found that the most effective way of dealing with flames is to dismiss them. That conveys the message to the flamer that you think they are unworthy of your attention, your time, your effort; basically that they are insignificant. It also conveys to the rest of the internet that you are above such behavior and don't encourage it further by acknowledging it.
It may be a very hard thing to do, but it's a very classy way of handling flaming that will always make you look like the winner.