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Science

The Secret Cause of Flame Wars 389

Posted by CmdrTaco
from the i-thought-it-was-because-you-suck-at-life dept.
Mz6 writes "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."
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The Secret Cause of Flame Wars

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  • Sadly, Slashdot readers have known this for years.

    Kids, this is why it's so important to properly use your <sarcasm> tags and your emoticons!
    • by muyuubyou (621373) on Monday February 13, 2006 @10:32AM (#14705562)
      Was that sarcasm? or are you just being a smartass?








      </sarcasm>
    • Whatever dude, use your own *sarcasm* tags. I'm tired of people always blaming the sender. To be offened you have to choose to be offended, irritated, upset, whatever the hell the receivers problem is. Quit trying to lay your mental instability on me!

      (Note: This is my attempt at humor, if you don't like it you can KMA!)
      • (Note: This is my attempt at humor, if you don't like it you can KMA!)

        Cool! New Acronym! That's "Kill My Aunt", right? Said, done.
      • I'm tired of people always blaming the sender. To be offened you have to choose to be offended, irritated, upset, whatever the hell the receivers problem is.

        Humor or not, you do have a point. In formal communications it has always been considered important to maintain the best of manners and to always give the sender the benefit of the doubt. Otherwise, a fairly harmless letter exchange can quickly turn into a long slew of misunderstandings.

        Once the Internet came along, senders and receivers alike began to believe that a formal tone was unnecessary to the otherwise informal communications. The result was that users began deciding the tone of the message by how new the sender was to the forum. If he was new, then his tone was automatically assumed hostile and his content full of stupidities. If he was old, then the tone was automatically seen as friendly and smart. This led to the situation of new forum members being forced to walk on eggshells until they were accepted by their peers.

        ---

        As an example of of how important the tone is to a conversation, consider this real life situation: People who run into each other on a campus (such as college or work) regularly engage in a simple greeting exchange like this:

        "How are you today?"
        "Fine, thank you!"

        Such greeting are ingrained into us as the way things are. But what if someone changes the message but uses the same tone? A story that was related to me was of a college student who amused herself with this exchange:

        "How are you today?"
        "Fine! To hell with you?"

        Since she used the exact same tone as someone replying politely, very few individuals caught on to her rather rude retort. (Which, of course, produced no end of amusement for both her and her friends.)

        ---

        Thankfully, there is one popular location on the Internet where formalized communication is still expected. (No, it's Slashdot.) If you have ever visited Wikipedia, you'll find that they encourage people to allows assume the best in their exchanges, and be careful about taking offense. If a communications breakdown occurs, then volunteers provide mediation to help to the two parties come to a better understanding of what each other is trying to say. In this way, miscommunications are usually kept from starting outright flamewars. Without these procedures, Wikipedia would have long ago devolved into nothing more than massive editing wars.
      • by PFI_Optix (936301) on Monday February 13, 2006 @12:44PM (#14707275) Journal
        I'm tired of people always blaming the sender. To be offened you have to choose to be offended, irritated, upset, whatever the hell the receivers problem is. Quit trying to lay your mental instability on me!

        I don't think it's fair to say that everyone chooses to be offended. I am rarely offended by internet posts, but occasionally someone does manage to sneak one in that raises my ire. "Righteous indignation" might be a better word for it...I don't know.

        I think it's justified to be offended by someone who assumes you are an idiot for whatever pointless reason. For example: I'm a Christian. That does not in itself say much at all about my character, my mental capacity, or any personality traits I might have. Yet any time that comes up on one of the debate forums I frequent, there's some bigot who thinks that my faith invalidates any points I might have. I find such mindless hate offensive, whether it's directed at me or at someone else.

        Because of that, one might occasionally misinterpret a sarcastic/satirical post as being sincere, and take offense. Two intelligent people can sort that out easily enough without things escalating by simply saying "No, you misunderstood me." It's when one or both choose to be idiots that things get stupid.

    • My in-depth study* of internet flame wars have shown that the root causes can be traced to these four men: 1 [tuxjournal.net] 2 [tomgpalmer.com] 3 [microsoft.com] 4 [aciprensa.com]

      As a fun game, can you guess which one thinks he is the Son of God? (Hint: There is more than one answer.)

      *By "in-depth study", I mean smart-ass remarks I thought up over my morning coffee.
    • Kids, this is why it's so important to properly use your <sarcasm> tags and your emoticons!

      Well, when you're communicating with Americans, certainly...

      semicolon right parenthesis
    • Kids, this is why it's so important to properly use your tags and your emoticons!

      Sadly, I"ve seen a lot of examples of someone correctly using meta-tags and emoticons to convey the intent of a particular message, and someone still goes off on them.

      People either skim them too quickly to notice the emoticons, or have become so spoiled by things which inject a graphical smiley, they're completely incapable of recognizing an old-school character one.
  • by eldavojohn (898314) * <.moc.liamg. .ta. .nhojovadle.> on Monday February 13, 2006 @10:24AM (#14705491) Journal
    I think that because we are using advanced forms of technology to send information, we feel the need to make things develop more quickly.

    If you and your friend are having an argument through e-mail, you probably feel that you have to cover the whole spectrum of abrasiveness with each e-mail you send. In real life, you would have the social tact to start out with statements and leave room for yourself to retract what you've said or to give a little ground and end up mutually agreeing on something.

    What seems to be my problem with e-mail is that I send a message and I run the topic into the ground in that first e-mail (saying everything about it). Now, that's written in stone like a Slashdot comment. No backsies.

    And the fact that he might not get the e-mail for a while makes me want to accelerate the severity of the issue since we don't want to take two weeks discussing it. Had we been more gradual at accelerating the argument, things said could probably have been avoided.
    The Secret Cause of Flame Wars
    Secret? Not quite. I might end an e-mail with "...screw Oasis and Weezer, every Beatles' album is far greater than all of theirs combined." Now, in real life, I'd say that with a malevolent shit-eating grin on my face signaling that I know it's not true. But my friend might read it and imagine me with a stone faced militant music-nazi expression and my finger pointing into his chest. What ensues is a standard flame war. The cause of this is no secret.
    • What seems to be my problem with e-mail is that I send a message and I run the topic into the ground in that first e-mail (saying everything about it). Now, that's written in stone like a Slashdot comment. No backsies.

      I don't have that problem, because I'm always right to begin with.
      • I don't have that problem, because I'm always right to begin with.
        Although you may have said this in jest, I believe people with this attitude experience these problems the most.
  • Paranoia in theory (Score:3, Insightful)

    by Neo-Rio-101 (700494) on Monday February 13, 2006 @10:27AM (#14705513)
    Just goes to show that you should never assume that anyone is mean or out to get you, or react in such a way... or they will become VERY SOON!

    Self-fulfilling prophecies, anyone?
  • by Toreo asesino (951231) on Monday February 13, 2006 @10:27AM (#14705516) Journal
    "I love Linux. It's great."

    Serious or sarcastic? 10 euros for correct guess.
  • "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,"

    On it's face, this statement is incompatible with:

    "In fact the recipients got it right just over 50 percent of the time."

    It's no better than chance. It is better than Chance.

    Nice going..
    • Another major flaw (Score:2, Insightful)

      by LeonGeeste (917243)
      This study took essentially random, disparate topics, from multiple boards, and sent them in emails, isolated from the context. Of course people are going to have a hard time ascertaining sincerity when they don't see the context! An meaningful study would have measured people's perceptions of posts on boards they regularly go to. The conclusion may be the same, but at least then it would be well-grounded.
    • Well, actually, chance can get heads 100 times in a row of a coin flip. He probably meant it was within the margin of error.
    • if it's relatively close to fifty percent they can be forgiven the linguistic gloss. what bothers me more about that statement is the implication that CHANCE would get the tone correct 50% of the time. are there only two possible tones an e-mail can have?

      • Yup, it's ridiculous. Even if there were only two tones an e-mail could have, this also seems disconnected somehow from a rather obvious point of how well-written the messages were. Language use that is well thought out and well constructed would definitely improve the chances of the 'correct' tone being conveyed to the reader. Most of the misunderstandings I've seen in online discussions were simply the result of poor writing skills. Or poor reading skills, for that matter. This study also doesn't seem to

      • are there only two possible tones an e-mail can have?

        No, but the sample emails used in the study could have been selected on the basis of being either predominantly serious or sarcastic.

    • A message's tone was only accuratly guessed half the time, but the guesser believed to have accuratly guessed 90% of the time. In other words about half the time the guesser believes they have divined the tone of the message and are incorrect.
    • It's no better than chance. It is better than Chance.

      I would imagine that the difference from chance was statistically insignificant, even if it was marginally positive.

      In any case, the real objection is extrapolating these numbers from a contrived data set to real world emails, with much more context, and also more than two possible interpretations.

  • by precize (83096) on Monday February 13, 2006 @10:28AM (#14705524) Homepage
    ...will flamebait comments on this story be considered informative?
  • Waaan (Score:2, Funny)

    by VAXGeek (3443)
    This is the best article I've seen posted in years! I thought /. was on the decline, but clearly it is just reaching its stride.
  • CowboyNeal solves all of my computer woes!

    Choose:
    A) Serious
    B) Sarcastic
  • by DeltaHat (645840) on Monday February 13, 2006 @10:30AM (#14705536) Homepage
    You suck!
  • 2 Rules: (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Opportunist (166417) on Monday February 13, 2006 @10:30AM (#14705544)
    1. Use emoticons and know how to read them.

    2. When there are 2 ways to read something, assume the other end didn't want to offend you unless you have very good reason to assume they did (i.e. when the flame war is already running to the joy of the general audience).

    Then again, if everyone knew those 2 rules and took them serious, trolls would probably go out on the street and set fire to real life objects... Maybe the world's better the way it is.
    • by PIPBoy3000 (619296) on Monday February 13, 2006 @10:43AM (#14705657)
      Sorry, couldn't resist.

      At work, I find myself peppering my e-mails with these damn cute smiley emoticons even though I feel like a teenage girl (which I'm not, even on the Internet). Sometimes I'll respond with a terse message that basically says "I fixed your damn user error", and then add a smiley face at the end.

      I think it means that I'm secretly passive-agressive, trying to cover it up with cute little characters.

      :P
    • Re:2 Rules: (Score:5, Funny)

      by dJOEK (66178) on Monday February 13, 2006 @11:11AM (#14705902)
      I'm taking the 50/50 chance here that you are a Simpsons fan:

      "There is no emoticon for what i am feeling!"
    • Re:2 Rules: (Score:5, Insightful)

      by Mikey-San (582838) on Monday February 13, 2006 @11:40AM (#14706358) Homepage Journal
      1. Use emoticons and know how to read them.

      Is this a solid solution for the problem? I see this as, perhaps, a workaround; a crutch for what may actually be an increasingly lacking reading comprehension skillset in modern society. How will leaning on emoticons make you a better writer or reader?

      Instead of emoticons, use complete, structured thoughts and sentences, and know how to read them. Learn when and how to use word variants and punctuation to pace your sentences. Understand the difference between passive and active voice, and know when and why to use which. All of this seems to be a far more solid approach than emoticons.

      We should be concerned with deterioration of language to the point where we need emoticons to interpret other people's written communication. Resorting to requiring smilies for correspondence surely cannot help to reverse any possible erosion of language arts skills that prompted the requirement in the first place.

      It's good to know how to interpret other people's emoticons, as so many people who communicate via the Internet use them, but it's probably not a good idea to lean on them yourself.

      Now, this is simply my opinion--I could be completely off-base. Are there any English teachers in the Slashdot audience who might have an opinion on the matter?
      • Re:2 Rules: (Score:3, Insightful)

        by geobeck (924637)

        ...use complete, structured thoughts and sentences, and know how to read them.

        Amen. Consider the following:

        Your wayy off think about now not ancint history. RTFA befor postin sh1tz0r liek that.

        ...and compare it to this:

        Thaks for your input, but you seem to be talking about the historical context, whereas I'm talking about the way things are today. If you read the article, about halfway through it talks about how things have changed recently, and nullifies your point.

        Of course, it takes more

      • Re:2 Rules: (Score:4, Interesting)

        by AeroIllini (726211) <aeroillini@NOspam.gmail.com> on Monday February 13, 2006 @01:22PM (#14707828)
        Learn when and how to use word variants and punctuation to pace your sentences.

        Although, overuse, of, punctuation? is, highly; distracting.

        Understand the difference between passive and active voice, and know when and why to use which.

        Active voice (taking responsibility):
        We made an error.

        Passive voice (shifting responsibility):
        An error was made.

        We should be concerned with deterioration of language to the point where we need emoticons to interpret other people's written communication.

        I find it amusing that the deterioration of our language in many cases is cause by an overabundance of vocabulary. I think more words, with very subtle shades of meaning, can allow more depth in our communication. However, most people use these words with slightly different meanings almost interchangably, and that confuses the reader. What, exactly, is the difference between "paradigm," "model," "precedent," and "situation?" If you don't know the difference, don't use the words.

        Resorting to requiring smilies for correspondence surely cannot help to reverse any possible erosion of language arts skills that prompted the requirement in the first place.

        This is a chicken-and-egg problem. Were our language arts skills weakened by our poor typing skills (the main reason emoticons were developed in the first place--they are easier to type than words if you're not a touch typist), or were our poor typing skills a reflection of our weak language arts skills?
      • Re:2 Rules: (Score:3, Interesting)

        by Spaceman40 (565797)
        Well, IANAET, but I think the problem with tone is that IM/email is a cross between a phone conversation and writing letters. On the phone, tone isn't a problem because you can hear it. In letters, usually the writer is formal enough so tone isn't a problem, but also it takes enough effort (and enough time) that the receiver can cool down before writing back.

        In summary: you can't hear the other person, and it's quick and easy to insult them back.

        The problem with gaining writing skills is that it won't hel
  • No surprise... (Score:4, Insightful)

    by PornMaster (749461) on Monday February 13, 2006 @10:31AM (#14705550) Homepage
    That much of communication is non-verbal is quite known. When it comes to business communication, it seems like the treacherous part of this is that so many people are using e-mail and IM for informal communication, and insert so much of our personality into our messages. They're simply not nearly as professional as letters were in the past.
    • They're simply not nearly as professional as letters were in the past.. Absobloodylutely. Flamebait is clearly not what it used to be. Once upon a time flamebait [agniart.ru] was proper flamebait.
  • 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 i
    • Actually, sarcasm aside, you make a good point. It's a very small sample, and they didn't do a control test with the same group talking to eachother out loud to compare it to - maybe they just picked 60 Americans. (Now, Americans can assume I'm being sarcastic and everyone else can know otherwise - you've got to love articles about sarcasm, so much scope.)
    • by Vellmont (569020) on Monday February 13, 2006 @10:54AM (#14705737)
      Well, if you really did make that post without the disclaimer there's really no hint of sarcasm in your post. If you're making a snide comment it's really your job to convey that. If someone takes it the wrong way and you didn't make some kind of effort to convey tone, that's really your fault in not communicating properly.
  • by Tango42 (662363) on Monday February 13, 2006 @10:32AM (#14705559)
    Being able to correctly interpret messages in text form is a skill, if you're good at it you can get far more than 50% right. My rule of thumb is simple - assume the best, in other words, only be insulted if you're sure. Or put another way - "If you're in any doubt about whether or not I intended to insult you, I didn't. If I had, you'd know it."
    • Of course the problem is that people are usually not in doubt even when wrong. In which case your rule won't help.

      • This (people not being in doubt) is one point of the study (users thought they were right 80% of the time) and it's at the root of a lot of disagreements, both IRL and online.

        One of the reasons I don't read the "politics" section of slashdot is that people on both sides of any issue are so damn sure they're right. Generally they don't bother to think about (or perhaps even read) the responses from the other side. I can't understand how anyone can be as certain as people seem to be when discussing things onl
  • by Anonymous Coward
    That all flame wars erupt from somebody misunderstanding another persons tone in email.

    In most of my experience, most flame wars kick in because of old fashioned beligerance. People see somebody that disagrees with them, and has the courage to say things that they wouldn't say to the other person's face, by virtue of being separated by miles of network cable.

    Now everybody that disagrees with me is a G4Y A55FUK3R!
  • by H4x0r Jim Duggan (757476) on Monday February 13, 2006 @10:34AM (#14705579) Homepage Journal
    Actually, most flamewars are caused by Vim being much worse than Emacs.
  • by ettlz (639203) on Monday February 13, 2006 @10:34AM (#14705582) Journal

    Since the end of World War 2, a clandestine, shadowy organisation known colloquially as "The Illuminati" has been secretly instigating and orchestrating all major flamewars. Conflicts such as the Tannenbaum Crisis, and the ongoing battles at comp.os.ms-windows.advocacy were all sparked by this bunch as part of their twisted plan to control the world packet flow through decreasing the SNR on the Internet, and when it finally collapses, replace it with their evil commie New World Protocol. Fight the evil!

    You know who they are.

    They know who they are.

    Don't you people ever read Indymedia? It's all in there!

    • Illuminati suck ! As any sensible conspiracy theorist will tell you, you should ONLY ever use the time-tested, tried-and-true Freemasons in your conspiracies ! Illuminati are such a joke, they were fashionable for exactly 2 mins back in the 70s and then everyone realised how much they blew. Freemasons run circles around Illuminati ! Illuminati make your computer slow and give you bad breath ! ILLMUNIATI ARE TEH SUXXORZZZZZ !!!!111!!1!!! FREMEAS0NZ REWLLLLZZZZZ !!!1!1!!!!!!!!!!!

      (What, I'm just trying to brin
  • This just in... (Score:2, Insightful)

    by boldtbanan (905468)
    Simple statements with little or no context (and statements taken out of context) are misunderstood ~50% of the time.

    --Captain Obvious
    • Re:This just in... (Score:3, Insightful)

      by macklin01 (760841)

      Mod parent up.

      From what little details can be gathered from the article, the 20 statements were read and rated in isolation. Context is important in determining the tone of any statement, regardless of whether its spoken or written. Of course, in spoken language there's body language and, well, tone, to help, but the context is still very important.

      In fact, the tone of an isolated statement can also contrast with the overall tone of the conversation, so the tone of the isolated statement may not be helpfu

    • I agree, mod parent up.

      I'd love to read the study, but the way it sounds, the subjects were given pre-built statements, an order to "be serious" or "be sarcastic", and told to send their pre-built statements to their partner while either "meaning" or "not meaning" it. If that's really the way it went down, then they're not testing for conveyance of emotion, they're testing for ESP. Given the fact that the recipients did "no better than chance" (the wording from the article) indicates to me that that's the
  • In Usenet groups with a relatively small number of regular contributors, you frequently have a couple of individuals who have disagreed over an issue in the past and will immediately shoot down anything the other says out of principle. Likewise, you get the obvious interloper from another group who will post deliberate flamebait occasionally; the uk.rec.cycling and uk.rec.driving groups have long been plagued by this.

    I'd love to name names, but I won't ;-)

  • When talking to another person, typically more information is conveyed non-verbally (including body language and spoken tone) than through the meaning of the actual words that are spoken.

    This is one of the reasons why, for any profession where communication is important, it is difficult to replace face-to-face meetings with telephone calls or emails.

    Of course, although body langauge and tone provide additional information, specific factual information must be conveyed by words and/or diagrams.
  • We have been writing epic stories for hundreds, if not thousands of years, and in which we've had to express complex emotions... So why can't we do the same over e-mail and or IM?

    If you ask me we can't because everyone isn't an English grad' and likes to use as few words as they can get away with. Emoticons can help, giving indications to the meaning ...

    I like Microsoft's now dead cartoon chat, in which your 'character' displayed emotions for you -- like emoticons but to an extreme. Too bad it never took of
  • For centuries, the "tone" of written litters, has been fairly easy to ascertain. My guess is that because letters took some time to arrive, because instant communication wasn't possible, that writers took great pains to make their intent absolutely clear. Any corrections or clarifications would be a long time coming, so extra effort was merited. Now, however, writers can be sloppy - if they weren't clear in the first place, they can quickly send multiple follow-ups explaining things.

    The recipient is also to
  • Is more sarcastic than I care for, foo! shame! flame!
  • by sielwolf (246764)
    This is why you use emoticons, you dumb bastards ;p

    When reading we use a dry voice for internal monologue that lacks any of the subtle registers we use in conveying emotion in our conversation. So anything we read comes off very stark. The problem is that most people writing completely ignore this and use a bunch of ironic or sardonic elements that get read as harsh vitrol. This is one reason why you should wait 24 hours after writing a harsh email: when you reread it, it will lack any of the subjectivi
    • I disagree. When I read, I do endow what I see with expression and inflection based on the context and punctuation I see around it. Writing can come off very stark, but if you put yourself in the reader's shoes as you write and if you're a little choosy about your words, you can end up conveying the right emotion most of the time.

      I do agree, though, that an emoticon here and there (at least in informal online messages) really helps.
  • by LarsWestergren (9033) on Monday February 13, 2006 @10:41AM (#14705638) Homepage Journal
    Another reason for flame wars online, especially with regards to games, and on Slashdot, programming languages -

    A friend who studied psychology talked to me about the "crafty consumer" phenomenon. If we have purchased something we have looked forward to, we will disregard negative things about this and might even become angry if friends point out flaws in the product to us. This is because we all want to think that we are crafty consumers who have made the smart choice. Of course, WE would never fall for advertising, we think. So when evidence mounts that the purchase wasn't as good as we thought, we resist facing it until the evidence is overwhelming. Then it is a blow to our self-esteem and might even cause a depression ("Maybe I'm not as smart as I thought I was... and all that money wasted...").

    This can be even more amplified here on Slashdot when someone criticizes something that we have spent a lot of time and intellectual effort to grasp. When someone bash our favourite language, we think our anger comes because we feel "love" for the language, but it has probably more to that with the fact that it is a blow against our major source of pride - our intellectual capabilites. And if the language is not as good as we thought, it might take a long time to learn a new language as well. So in time of economic downturn the stress of increased job insecurity, we get angrier and defensive more easily. See my sig... :-)
    • If we have purchased something we have looked forward to, we will disregard negative things about this and might even become angry if friends point out flaws in the product to us. This is because we all want to think that we are crafty consumers who have made the smart choice. Of course, WE would never fall for advertising, we think. So when evidence mounts that the purchase wasn't as good as we thought, we resist facing it until the evidence is overwhelming.

      The heck with things we buy; you should see

  • Hmmm,...50-50? It appears Charles Dickens was no fool. That explains his following CYA:

    "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity...."

    And in the same paragraph, he predicted Slashdot:

    "...its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only."

  • I guess all those times when I think the chick was interested at me was only a 50-50 guess...

    Never be deceived by those ^^;; or :D or whatnot, because she might just be doing that for her own amusement.
    • I guess all those times when I think the chick was interested at me was only a 50-50 guess...

      50-50? Pah. I can tell with very nearly 100% accuracy whether a girl's interested in me - and the accuracy is the same whether it's by email, IM, or face to face.

      The decision method?

      if 1=1(
      girl_is_interested = false
      )

      It's been running for many years and has yet to throw a false positive that I've been aware of.

  • It's even simpler than anyone gives it credit for: it's an outgrowth of competitiveness. Flame wars occur usually because two people, polar opposites on an issue, come to loggerheads over the issue and begin lobbing verbal grenades at each other. This leads to bystanders joining in the fray and pretty soon even people who have no idea what started it or what it's about are firing their ill-thought sarcasm at others like a TOT artillery barrage.

    I saw it on USENET for years before the modern incarnation of

  • I find this hard to believe. In fact, I'd say the "karma" system here is a good indicator of why it's hard to believe.

    I don't think most people are shocked at what the moderator action is to any one of their particular posts. This is why some people preface what they are about to say with, "Mod me as you will...", or "I know I'll burn karma for this but...". People know.

    The problem isn't with being able to convey intent with email (words). The problem is with SEMI-LITERATE PEOPLE trying to convey, and c
    • I agree wholeheartedly. Perhaps the survey is correct anyway since the vast majority of people writing and sending these emails are semi-literate. A huge number of people graduate from college in the U.S. who have the reading and writing skills (and often manners) of a sixth grader. There should be another study conducted among the literate.
    • So, basically you're saying that anyone who misunderstands or maybe even disagrees with you is a moron.
      That's my interpretation of what you said, at least.
      Either you're trolling or you've just provided more proof that the article is true.
    • by aug24 (38229) on Monday February 13, 2006 @11:20AM (#14706055) Homepage
      "Huh?"

      "What?"

      "Did you just call me a moron?"

      ;-)

      A fifty-something bloke once cycled at me on the pavement. I asked him "does your mother not let you ride on the road yet?" as he passed. He turned round, cycled back and hit me, for "saying something about my mother"! It took me an age to work out that he simply did not understand what I was getting at.

      I vote we all use emoticons, and then ban people without typing skills from the net. And the pavement.

      Justin.

  • Writing (Score:4, Insightful)

    by Apreche (239272) on Monday February 13, 2006 @10:48AM (#14705694) Homepage Journal
    It is difficult for most people to ascertain the tone of written communication due to their poor reading skills and the poor writing skills of the sender. Idiots need to go back to elementary school to learn something about grammar.

    Can you guess the tone of this comment?
  • PRECISE DICTION (Score:5, Insightful)

    by stealth.c (724419) on Monday February 13, 2006 @10:50AM (#14705711)
    This is why precise diction--speaking and writing clearly--is necessary. It is often just as much the fault of the writer as it is the reader when a message's tone is misinterpreted.

    There are devices such as certain words, punctuations or even emoticons that can help you give your message the flavor of meaning that you want it to have, provided you know how to use them correctly.

    The skill to write well is a thousand times more valuable today than most people give it credit for. In a time when so much of our worldwide communication is written, we have to know how to properly build a written message instead of simply writing what we would speak and assume the reader will "get" it. You never know when you might offend someone.
    • I recommend that anyone vaguely interested in this problem should read "less than words can say [sourcetext.com]" (available online), by Richard Mitchell.

    • Re:PRECISE DICTION (Score:3, Interesting)

      by Anonymous Coward
      "There are devices such as certain words, punctuations or even emoticons that can help you give your message the flavor of meaning that you want it to have, provided you know how to use them correctly."

      I'm sorry, but I have to take exception to this statement.

      My issue with it is that the more specific and correct I get, the more often I am misunderstood. Too much of the American version of English has been twisted with emotional (and frequently regional) baggag
  • is that we're so stupid we jump to the conslusions that read insulting insinuations into things people write, and what's more we're so immature that we unthinkingly escalate the situation with hostile and sarcastic responses.

    It's good to know our social "scientists" are spending our tax money on such important "research".

  • Because all of my emails consist entirely of pre-selected statements that I've been given, and none of the people I communicate with have developed an appreciation of how my writing style changes when I'm being sarcastic.
  • by ScentCone (795499) on Monday February 13, 2006 @10:56AM (#14705753)
    The English language (and even more so, in some other cases) is well equipped with nuanced words and structures that can accurately convey meaning, intent, tone, and information both simple and complex. Of course context is vital, but one of the most important considerations in any form of communication is an ability to preview what you're about to convey from the audience's point of view. When you send an e-mail to an informed co-worker, the circumstances surrounding the note probably make sense... but may not to the person to whom she forwards it.

    Most folks simply don't have the skill, or take the time, to craft a message that carries its context with it. The ironic flip side to this is that when someone does take more time to write a more solid, contextually portable note, people not used to digesting that sort of thing presume it's either pretentious, condescending, or just verbose for the sake of verbosity. This is a cultural thing, and speaks to the continuing erosion in critical thinking skills and the obligation families feel to pass them along to children.

    Anyone good with rhetoric knows how important it is to put yourself in your audience's shoes before opening your yap. The clearest communicators I know are the ones that are the most broadly exposed to the world at large, and take a deep breath before saying/typing anything, the better to ask themselves: will the person about to receive this e-mail get it? Five extra seconds can save hours of backpeddling, re-explaining something, or salvaging that business/personal relationship. But we've switched to celebrating speed and quantity of noise over quality of actual communication. This isn't going away any time soon, especially when entire generations are hitting their first email-enabled actual jobs thinking that "Dude" is an entire sentence.

    The plague that is the use of "like" among teenagers (and stunted-growth adults) is at the heart of this. When some 16-year-old encounters a friend in the mall and says, "So, I was like..." and rolls eyes in a re-enactment of experiencing the emotions surrounding some other social interchange, the message gets across. That even works on the phone ("I was like, 'oh no you did-unt'"). But when all of the social warm-and-fuzzies that a young person feels happen without the need for a multi-syllable vocabulary, we can't wonder why they suck at both investing rich meaning in, and parsing full meaning from the written word.
  • I disagree that this is the main cause of flame wars!

    2nd degree sarcasm since 1981
  • So what does it mean when the metamoderation thing says that 90% or so of the users agree on the tone, and the research says that only 50% of the time the tone is correctly guessed? Kinda causes a breakdown in the whole moderation system doesn't it? I suppose that also means that by attempting to post something that may get modded up, you really are doing nothing more than gambling. So the highest karma people should probably be checked into gambling help groups!
  • For me, flame wars start for one reason and one reason only. As Dr. Evil [imdb.com] put it so well:

    "Why must I be surrounded by frickin' idiots?"

    Claiming any other reason as a cause is naturally, ipso facto, evidence for the above. So there.
  • College students? (Score:4, Insightful)

    by 1369IC (935113) on Monday February 13, 2006 @11:03AM (#14705823)

    Maybe it's just me getting older, but they're making a pretty big claim when their test group was a bunch of undergraduate students. I mean, it's a cliche that college students are clueless, hung over, self-involved, etc., etc., etc., and cliches get to be cliches for a reason.

    More seriously, like any other skill, you get better at communication the more you do it (if you have any brains, and care at all what's going outside your own skull, that is). So I'd venture to say that a bunch of 30-year-olds would do better than those college students because they have moved out into the world and gotten smacked around because they didn't understand what people were really saying. 40-year-olds would do better and so on, up to some point at which the improvement would stop (probably when people started to think they know it all).

    And there's the writing skill component. College students are learning to communicate, and from what I've seen of college grads their success rate is pretty spotty. It would presumably be easier to parse the tone of an e-mail sent by somebody who has more communications skill.

    I could go on, but I think this is just confirming the experience of too many people, blinding them to the study's weaknesses.

    Or maybe I just missed the point...

  • Hang on...they tried to get a bunch of Americans to try and spot sarcasm?! Well, isn't that ironic...
  • by wealthychef (584778) on Monday February 13, 2006 @11:57AM (#14706629)
    I agree that interpreting tone of email can be problematic, but no way is it just the same as chance. That's just obviously wrong by experience, think about it.

    One huge gaping problem in methodology here is the apparent researcher request that students essentially fake the tone of their email. So this study is in large part measuring how well the sender *acts* "sarcastic" or "serious." From my observations in theatre, most people are not very good at faking their "tone", compared to when they actually *want* to be sarcastic or serious. A better study would have asked students to write on subjects and send the emails to their friends, then asked the sender and recipient of the tone of the email, then compared the results, without asking the sender to fake their feelings. I'll bet the percentage would go way, way up.

  • by blair1q (305137) on Monday February 13, 2006 @12:15PM (#14706889) Journal
    >no better than chance

    Um, no. 50-50 is not "no better than chance" when it comes to the tone of emails. That would imply that 50% of emails are friendly and 50% are unfriendly, and readers are getting half of both wrong.

    Given this utter lack of understanding of probability and statistics, I'm going to have to doubt everything else the author says.

    He'll probably take that as an insult. Well, fuck him.
  • That's Why . . . (Score:3, Insightful)

    by Dausha (546002) on Monday February 13, 2006 @12:20PM (#14706951) Homepage
    That is why God gave us emoticons! :-) So people would know what our mood or tone is.
  • by backlonthethird (470424) on Monday February 13, 2006 @12:51PM (#14707389)
    People writing emails, intentionally trying to convey tone, have only a 50/50 chance of actually succeeding at it.

    I used to feel silly having "writing" as one of the skills I put on a resumé. Not anymore. Thank you, internet, for boosting my self-esteem.
  • by russotto (537200) on Monday February 13, 2006 @06:47PM (#14711608) Journal
    The study says nothing about being able to ascertain tone in real e-mail messages where cues for tone may actually be present. It says that it's impossible to ascertain the state of mind of people sending canned e-mail messages which (having been composed by someone other than the sender) have no cues for tone. Probably should have been published in the Annals of Improbable Research instead of a serious journal.

Truly simple systems... require infinite testing. -- Norman Augustine

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