Flame wars in the 'hood

I called a man a "twit" the other day.

This isn't like me. Don't get me wrong, I can be as guilty of name-calling as the next purported grown-up. But, like most people, I prefer to spread my slurs in the usually safe zone behind the other man's back. If I get riled enough to go face-to-face with somebody, we've usually moved beyond the "twit" stage and into the shouting of unprintables.

But this wasn't a face-off. It was via e-mail. And this guy had said something so, so twittish that somebody had to call him on it.

The occasion arose on a mailing list called DorothyL, which is for readers and writers of mysteries. Delivered daily by e-mail, the list resembles an extended conversation about books among its 3,000 or so members.

One member is facing a serious illness, and asked others to send her messages that said they were burning candles for her. She was making a map with these "points of light" all over the globe as an inspiration to get well. Hundreds of us replied and it was going sweetly until one snarky guy complained that these messages had nothing to do with the topic of the list -- mystery stories.

Now, I don't know this guy. I don't know the ailing woman, either. So why did his message enrage me so? Within seconds, I was boiling. Within minutes, the message had been sent. Zoom, with all the speed of e-mail. Delivered to the list for all to see. Twit.

As is typical of these virtual conversations, a flame war quickly ignited. Some defended the twit. Others pounced on him, as I had. After two days of bickering, the manager of the list told everybody to cool it and was obeyed. Within a week, the list was in an uproar over some other slight and I cackled loudly while watching the battle from the safety of my home office. This time, I stayed out of it.

For those of us who work at home, such virtual neighborhoods can become too familiar. There are mailing lists and newsgroups out there on the Internet for every interest, everything from sheepdogs to Sherlock Holmes. What begins as a fount of information soon becomes a source of camaraderie. We develop virtual friendships. And, like kids on a playground choosing up sides, we make virtual enemies, too. Before you know it, you're calling somebody a twit. Or somebody's saying the same about you.

Because it's all said via e-mail, it carries the protection of anonymity and distance. Sure, you might attach your name to the flame, but there's no danger that the guy you call a twit is going to take a poke at you. The worst that can happen is someone who's wittier or meaner will get you back, that you'll become the butt of the joke or the target of the attacks. It may sting, but it's only e-mail, right? That's why computers come with a "delete" button.

The intriguing part is how something so remote becomes so emotional. I sometimes laugh aloud at others' posts. I was near tears when a distraught DorothyL member recently reported the death of a well-loved author. And I clearly can be moved to anger by the occasional twitticism.
None of it is real. We're all alone, all of us, sitting at our computers, playing at friendship and enmity and debate. Yet it feels like a cocktail party, clamorous with gossip and argument and inane chatter.

When pollsters ask telecommuters what they miss most about not going to a regular office, the answer usually has nothing to do with the work itself. Thanks to computers and modems and the Internet, most of us can do our work anywhere. What we miss is the office environment: the internal politics and the hearsay and the lunchtime conversations. We miss the water cooler.

And now the computer supplies that, too.

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