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The Secret Cause of Flame Wars

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Skye Nott
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The Secret Cause of Flame Wars
February 15, 2006 01:09AM,70179-0.html?tw=rss.index

The Secret Cause of Flame Wars

By Stephen Leahy | Also by this reporter
02:00 AM Feb, 13, 2006 EST

"Don't work too hard," wrote a colleague in an e-mail today. Was she sincere or sarcastic? I think I know (sarcastic), but I'm probably wrong.

According to recent research published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, I've only a 50-50 chance of ascertaining the tone of any e-mail message. The study also shows that people think they've correctly interpreted the tone of e-mails they receive 90 percent of the time.

"That's how flame wars get started," says psychologist Nicholas Epley of the University of Chicago, who conducted the research with Justin Kruger of New York University. "People in our study were convinced they've accurately understood the tone of an e-mail message when in fact their odds are no better than chance," says Epley.

The researchers took 30 pairs of undergraduate students and gave each one a list of 20 statements about topics like campus food or the weather. Assuming either a serious or sarcastic tone, one member of each pair e-mailed the statements to his or her partner. The partners then guessed the intended tone and indicated how confident they were in their answers.

Those who sent the messages predicted that nearly 80 percent of the time their partners would correctly interpret the tone. In fact the recipients got it right just over 50 percent of the time.

"People often think the tone or emotion in their messages is obvious because they 'hear' the tone they intend in their head as they write," Epley explains.

At the same time, those reading messages unconsciously interpret them based on their current mood, stereotypes and expectations. Despite this, the research subjects thought they accurately interpreted the messages nine out of 10 times.

The reason for this is egocentrism, or the difficulty some people have detaching themselves from their own perspective, says Epley. In other words, people aren't that good at imagining how a message might be understood from another person's perspective.

"E-mail is very easy to misinterpret, which not only triggers flame wars but lots of litigation," says Nancy Flynn, executive director of the e-Policy Institute and author of guidebooks E-Mail Rules and Instant Messaging Rules. Many companies battle workplace lawsuits triggered by employee e-mail, according to Flynn.

People write absolutely, incredibly stupid things in company e-mails," said Flynn.
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Pete Remner
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Re: The Secret Cause of Flame Wars
February 15, 2006 07:36PM
Wow, they really missed the boat with that study.

The major cause of flame wars isn't loss of inflection (tone of comments can be inferred from surrounding content) but the loss of *body language*, and the multiplicity of it all.. Specifically, nodding and grunting a "yup" or two.

Additionally, and even more relevant, the nature of online discourse is much different from "face time", in that instead of speaking conversationally with one person or a small group, a comment can be read by hundreds of people.

Someone posts something on a forum or mailing list. The only people who reply either have something further to add, or disagree outright. Nobody ever says "I agree with you" and leave it at that. This would get highly redundant very fast, and is usually discouraged. (Don't YOU hate it when a thread is full of 50 or 60 "me too" posts with no new content?)

So, the nature of online chatter is that of disagreement, almost by necessity.

- Pete (Of course, half the people reading this will think I'm wrong... smiling smiley )

Pete Remner
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Sofa King
Monika Hawkinson
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Re: The Secret Cause of Flame Wars
February 15, 2006 10:04PM
Pete Wrote:
> > - Pete (Of course, half the people reading this
> will think I'm wrong... )

No, Pete, I disagree.

Oh, wait, that didn't come out quite right, let me try again:

You IDIOT! You have ABSOLUTELY no idea what you're talking about!
Half the People will ABSOLUTELY NOT think you're wrong!

Is that ok?
Maybe I should use more expletives...
(insert smilie here)

Monika Hawkinson
Seattle, WA
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