NS Internet column
Written 06 December 1999 for the New Statesman
At the end of the first millennium of the internet one thing can confidently be said about the future. Neither sex nor shopping will ever be nearly as much fun as simple ferocious argument, or flaming. That is what the medium was made for, and after twelve years online it is still what draws me back, time after time. Let's face it, even most the cantankerous old git in real life would hesitate to write like this "Let's get the quote straight: I said (in private email, not in a published piece) that if Andrew Brown were a friend of mine, I would not admit it--NOT that I would be "afraid" to admit it, and went on to add something along the lines of 'what a sleazy bit of trash journalism' The recipient of the email (a self-styled friend of Brown's) sent him the email, which he then decided to print, without asking my permission, on the dustjacket of his book--thereby demonstrating that he is, indeed, capable of acts of sleazy trash journalism. I can think of another, considerably sleazier."
But on mailing lists people do stuff like that all the time: the quote above came from Dan Dennett, a widely respected philosopher, writing to attack another professor of philosophy who had misquoted his original sneer at me. Naturally, he copied his opinion to another couple of hundred people: email makes this easy. Since he has refused to name the other acts of trash journalism I am meant to have perpetrated — if anything even sleazier than quoting him can be imagined — I'll never know quite what provoked this; but it hardly matters. It gives an insight into the way that academics really talk which is nowhere to be found in professional journals. The first time this happens it is a terrible shock. You write something fairly harmless and get in return some unbelievably violent condemnation from a complete stranger half-way round the world. It has a horrible intimacy and wrongness, like finding a jellyfish in your morning coffee.
If, like me, you read the newspapers as work, but check your email to tell you what is really important and interesting in the world, there is a double sense of unpleasantness in flaming. It seems an intrusion of public vulgarity into the private world. I suppose there is some poetic justice in this for a journalist since we are the only people paid to do in print what others must do from the badness of their hearts, unpaid, on mailing lists. I once had a letter from a man who asked why I had made his mother cry with my description of his efforts to sue the Archbishop of Canterbury. The only honest reply would have been "because you're an idiot" which shows how these flame wars get started. For had he had his letter printed in the newspaper, so we were having a public exchange he would have been more circumspect. I certainly would have been. since it was a paper letter I simply let it burrow into the festering mounds of rubbish which obscure both the desk and the conscience of a working journalist. But if we'd been doing it in email, I would have replied with brisk and truthful vigour and really given his mother something to cry over.
That was many years ago: it took me about ten years to understand that the best answer to a flame is to stay cool because the wonderful thing about a soft answer on a mailing list is that it does not always turn away wrath. It's nice when it does; I just had a perfectly civilised letter from the psychologist Nick Humphrey, who has concluded that I am not in fact a trash journalist, despite disagreeing with him fiercely. But there is also a huge pleasure to be had from the goody goody answer that drives your opponent into a screaming gibbering frenzy. This pleasure was known long before the Internet. It is the delight that my daughter shows when she walks home from school telling me all the terrible and stupid things that have happened in the playground that day. It's the special sort of childish pleasure that comes from an appreciative adult audience.
The Internet is not just an infantilising medium: only about half the fun comes from letting yourself revert to invective and gang warfare of the playground: Everyone being combative in these flame wars is showing off, I think, to a Daddy who listens to every detail the ebb and flow of battle. Everyone who manages to keep their temper can look innocently up at Mummy in the sky and say "Look what Daniel did! He's a very very naughty boy, isn't he, Mummy." And Mummy always answers 'yes'.
All this is curiously independent of technology. It does not matter whether you play it on the web or on a psion organiser. It grows naturally out of the fact that email is both personal and public so the writer performs to several different audiences at once. People say you can't gesture in ascii, but this is nonsense: you can learn to gesture and posture in any medium where there is such quick feedback from the audience. All it needs is a certain skill with argument, about you would expect from a philosopher, in fact.