How do I forget a flame war?
October 6, 2008 10:32 AM   Subscribe

Flame war burn victim asks: how do *you* perform soul grafts after a devastating flame war?

I got into a huge flame war on an internet message board after an ad hominem attack. Dumb, right?

Well, it was a community that I was a big part of, that I identified strongly with. And I followed their ad hominems with my own ad hominems. Bridges were burned.

Factually, my arguments were correct and my opponent was wrong. But in the court of public opinion, I was definitely a big loser. And because this community was a big part of my life, the hurt and shame hit very close to home.

I have bowed out of this online community as gracefully as I could, under the circumstances, and have tried to let it go, but it still bothers me. I no longer participate in the community, which concerned topics that are a very meaningful part of my life. I don't feel as if I can return there. It keeps me up at night, I find my unchecked inner dialogue composing replies to the original argument, wanting to bring up the argument with my friends and family so I know they 'back me up.' This is draining, and I want to let it go.

So, green, I *know* you've gotten into flame wars before, and have been both right and wrong. What are the best take-home lessons of the experience (and please, no 'special olympics' quotes, we've heard that one) that you can relate? How do you repair your soul after being burned on the internets?
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (19 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
Suck it up and apologize for your behavior without referencing your being 'right' or anything like that, and without re-stoking the argument.

Also, don't do that 'I'm sorry if you were offended' non-apology that people try to get away with these days--if you behaved deplorably, say "I'm so sorry I behaved deplorably."

Most people are pretty forgiving with a heartfelt apology, and you sound like you'll mean it.

You can try, nicely and without rancor, to make a better case for your argument another day.

(This is pretty much the same advice I'd give for a real-life, non-message board related problem of the same type.)
posted by A Terrible Llama at 10:45 AM on October 6, 2008 [2 favorites]

Also, if you were a jackass to a particular person, they probably need to be singled out for an apology and mentioned by name, in addition to the big fall-on-your-sword group apology.
posted by A Terrible Llama at 10:47 AM on October 6, 2008

I would find something new to do with your extra time. If you didn't know any of these people in real life, and no longer want to participate in the community, there is no reason to try to re-join in. Find a new hobby, preferably one that you can participate in real world events in. The time you'll spend thinking about the new hobby or interest will detract from the time you spend worrying about what might have been.
posted by jesirose at 10:53 AM on October 6, 2008

This depends entirely upon details which you can't provide here without compromising your anonymity. Depending on the community in question, the best tack may be...

Carrying on as if nothing happened. (If you're blowing your bad behaviour out of proportion.)

A public apology. (If you were - in fact - mean, but are a longstanding member of the community who wasn't previously disliked.)

Rejoining the community under a pseudonym and restarting from scratch. (If it's a big enough community that people won't immediately guess it's you.)

Finding a new part of the Internet to play in until everybody has calmed down. (If you were - in fact - mean, but are still blowing your bad behaviour out of proportion)

Finding a new part of the Internet to play in forever. (If you were - in fact - mean and have - if anything - understated your bad behaviour.)

If you go with the apology, get a third party to vet it for passive-agressiveness first. This is no reflection on you, just on human nature. You will desperately want to write "While I still feel I was right about Bananarama, I shouldn't have expressed my views in such strong terms. I apologise if anybody took offence." Whereas what you need to write is "On reflection, I've realised I was being a total dick about the Bananarama thing. I'm having some problems offline which were affecting my attitude more than I realised, but that's no excuse for making you guys suffer. Sorry everybody. I'm not normally like that." And then prove it, by NOT BEING LIKE THAT.
posted by the latin mouse at 11:00 AM on October 6, 2008 [5 favorites]

Depends on what your goals are.

If your goal is to begin participating in the community again:
- Apologize privately to the person in question.
- Apologize in public for being a jerk
- Carry on participating and walk placidly amidst the noise.

I will second the suggestion about having someone else vet your apology. Nothing puts nails in the coffin of public opinion like a weasel-worded apology.

I spent years being a huge douche bag on a Citadel BBS that's still around today(!!!). After coming to my senses, I apologized individually to the people who had the borne the brunt of my vinegar-and-water tirades. They were understandably cautious, but a long period of consistent decent behavior on my part (and a great deal of grace on theirs) healed those wounds to the point where I'd consider most of those people to be friends.

Be patient. Interpersonal wounds that take seconds to inflict can take months or years to heal.
posted by DWRoelands at 11:13 AM on October 6, 2008

It depends on the situation, but apologizing as A Terrible Llama said might work. It's also possible that you have generated enough hate that you can't re-integrate into the community. If it's that bad, you might want to consider emailing the forum moderators and ask if you can start fresh with a new account.

It keeps me up at night, I find my unchecked inner dialogue composing replies to the original argument, wanting to bring up the argument with my friends and family so I know they 'back me up.'

Combating this feeling is the key to a flame-free life. You need to be able to agree to disagree. The vast majority of the time, internet arguments reach a point where no amount of debating will reach any kind of happy conclusion or compromise. I hate arguing on the Internet in general, so I have the following rules for myself:

1. If I call someone out, I make sure to not be a jerk about it. I try to present my points as diplomatically as possible.

2. If someone calls me out, I defend myself in a straightforward manner, usually clarifying my original position. Again, I avoid any kind of personal attacks.

3. In either case, if the argument continues past that point, I only reply once or twice more. Even if the other person says something completely crazy in their third reply, I won't continue the discussion. I can't remember of any 5-10 round Internet argument that was at all productive before I started doing this, so I don't think I'm missing much.

For me, the key is to not start flame wars in the first place, and to stop whenever any discussion goes south. There are a lot of people on the Internet who say stupid things, or take dumb positions on issues, or attack people unfairly for no reason, but arguing with them ad nauseam is a waste of time.
posted by burnmp3s at 11:27 AM on October 6, 2008

I maintain friendships on a personal basis via e-mail and AIM, and am willing to cut loose from any online community at any time. It's just not worth it; it seems that the people who are most willing to write the most words online are the assholes, and they tend to carry the day in arguments.

Fresh pastures, sir.
posted by sonic meat machine at 11:49 AM on October 6, 2008

A correct apology must cover three points:

1. clarify exactly what you're apologizing for
2. clarify that you regret your actions
3. clarify what steps you shall take to make sure you don't reoffend

A final thought c/o my dad who saw serious combat action in WW2. "Peace is far more important than victory."
posted by philip-random at 12:17 PM on October 6, 2008 [2 favorites]

I know this topic is the cliche of internet cliches but:

Just for the hell of it, consider making a real effort to be decent to people on the internet in the future. Nicer than you have to be. Maybe you were horrid to these people, maybe they were horrid to you, maybe you were all horrid in a great big pile, but you could maybe contribute to that kind of thing happening less often in your little corner of the web. Or at the very least, invest (or re-invest) in your own sense of what it means to conduct yourself with integrity online.

I'm always seeing people brag about how they 'wouldn't be bothered by the sentiments of a bunch of anonymous strangers on a message board' and crap like that. I don't think a willingness to hurt the feelings of strangers is the finest thing the internet has given us, or that an ability to pretend that the words on the screen aren't written by an actual person is doing anyone much good.

And I say this as someone who came to Metafilter from Reddit "Where discourse goes to die/Vote UP if you can't go five minutes without calling someone a douchebag" .com.

Also, for the record, everyone acts like an asshole now and again--it's recognizing our own asshole behavior (as opposed to recognizing the delicious-to-point-out asshole behavior of others) that allows us to grow.
posted by A Terrible Llama at 12:21 PM on October 6, 2008 [2 favorites]

Call me old-fashioned, but the fact you keep referencing your "soul" as a part of you that was injured during interactions in an on-line forum suggests to me that you might need to take the internets a little less seriously, take a time-out. Maybe this attitude is due to my coming to age before the Internet, but to me the web works much better as an accessory, not a center, to life.

So you could re-connect with the boring ol' Real Life. Read some quality paper books, or watch some classic movies at a movie theater with other live humans. Go for a hike in the woods and breathe deeply. Have some long face-to-face conversations with smart, nice people over your choice of herbal tea, beer, or good food (if you're short on RL friends and need a place to start, look for a Mefi meetup in your area).

That's where the health of your "soul" (assuming we have one, otherwise insert "peace of mind" or "inner mind") will come from. After doing this RL therapy for a while, re-assess how grave all those flame-war insults really were to you. All of the advice so far on apologizing and humility are good if you end up trying to re-join the community. Good luck.
posted by aught at 12:31 PM on October 6, 2008 [4 favorites]

I realize part of the appeal about internet discussions is the veil of anonymity. People are very comfortable being really mean, immature, and snarky to other anonymous people when they don't have an identity attached to it.

Personally, I believe that everything is personal. That customer service representative or telemarketer on the other end of the phone is also a real person.

What if you just acted like your best and most real self when getting into discussions online? You might not have these outcomes then.

But then again, I don't interact in many forums other than Metafilter so I really don't know much about this kind of interaction. It usually seems like a big waste of time.

And what are you really winning, anyways, if you win an argument? Anonymous King of the Internet?
posted by Flying Squirrel at 12:57 PM on October 6, 2008

But in the court of public opinion, I was definitely a big loser.

Maybe the public was right. Maybe they were wrong. One option is to evaluate your own behavior, learn from it, and move on with your life.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 1:08 PM on October 6, 2008 [2 favorites]

I would first make your peace with the outcome of the argument - you need to let that go and stop obsessing over it.

If you want to get back into the community and feel comfortable, first get over being right or not right. Then apologize (see above for good suggestions), sincerely.

Try to remember that no matter how important one segment of your life is, it's one segment and you have to balance it with the other facets of your life.
posted by KAS at 1:21 PM on October 6, 2008

I belong to a very peaceful internet community. Our flame wars are possibly too gentle to apply to whatever you went through, but some people have been banned or have left. My observation:
1) The ones who consistently made valuble contributions were greatly missed. When they apologised and came back, everyone was happy to see them again.
2) After they came back, the same problem would often occur, and they'd have to leave again.

Over the years I've been able to meet many of the people in this community in real life, including the "annoying" people, and I'm always struck by how people aren't necessary like their online personas. Some people are simply awkward in print. So think about how you come across in print, and try again.
posted by acrasis at 4:25 PM on October 6, 2008

Whatever you do, print this out and post it by your computer.

I suspect you're taking this all too personally still. Just go back and act like an adult this time and people will get used to you being one.

I once cut myself badly during a flamewar anger-management reaction. I still have the scar. I look at it every time I feel I may be taking something online too seriously.
posted by dhartung at 4:59 PM on October 6, 2008 [3 favorites]

Something I don't believe has been emphasized too much in the above comments: give yourself some time.

Don't jump right back into it. If you got into that big a flamewar, chances are that you still have hurt feelings. And if you care so much about that messageboard that you feel lost and empty without it, then you probably should take some time to assess its role in your life.

If something can make you so angry that you feel you've burned bridges from it forever but still feel a terrible loss without it, you can probably use some time to seriously evaluate your relationship with it.
posted by Ms. Saint at 8:15 PM on October 6, 2008 [1 favorite]

1. Slink away
2. Create new profile
3. Slink back
4. Don't participate in any more flame wars
posted by The Dutchman at 8:37 PM on October 6, 2008

You're still framing the debate as if there's a "right" and a "wrong." Without knowing what the debate was, it's difficult to comment, but generally speaking I don't think a universal right and wrong even exists for at least 99.9999% of topics that are debated. For example, to me over half of the 10 commandments are questionable, for example, and depend on circumstances, etc. So if you think you're without a doubt right, you're probably actually wrong.

You're wrong because what you were seeking was actually agreement and consensus, which is a social construct and totally different from a universal right or a wrong. You didn't achieve it because you used the wrong arguments, weren't convincing enough, didn't use debating skills wisely, etc. Probably things got out of hand because you got emotional as you're overly invested in the message board.

Therefore, my advice would be to accept that you were wrong. Not that your opinion on whatever the topic was is incorrect, but that since you didn't convince anyone of anything your arguments were not as solid as you claim they were - because discourse is not based solely on fact but on presentation.

I wouldn't go back to the message board anonymously, as if you're still thinking about the debate you obviously built up a persona there that is valuable to you. I would think for a while about whether you can actually reframe the debate in your mind as a failure on your part rather than other people needlessly ganging up on you. When you have, you'll know it because you'll no longer feel the need to explain things to people in real life and get them on your side.

Then, when you're ready, go back and sincerely apologize. But quickly get off the topic of what went wrong and start discussing the kinds of things you usually discuss on there. After a month of trying to get back into the swing of things, you'll know whether it's working or not. If not, give it up and find somewhere else to hang out. But most likely, if you're humble enough, it will work.
posted by hazyjane at 1:33 AM on October 7, 2008

What is the goal? Getting back in the community's good graces or finally winning the argument?

Getting welcomed back to the community probably requires an apology and limited, but insightful posting for several months. If you return and contribute to the depth of discussion people may welcome you.

Now if you just want to win, then you need to let it go. You cannot convince everyone of anything. That type of validation is not going to happen and needing it a sure path to desperation and unhappiness.
posted by 26.2 at 1:45 AM on October 7, 2008 [1 favorite]

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