E-mail flame wars (a torrent of angry, differing viewpoint exchanges) must be as old as the first listserv with more than 20 people on it. Whether you want to classify participants according to some phylum/species or not not, it is just human nature, and what happens in the loosely structured online environment. A reading of the chapter on “Perfection” in Small Pieces Loosely Joined (SPLJ) puts some good light on the mixture of people, their human behaviors, and what happens in open environment.

We have an interesting, oft repeated scenario going on now in our internal e-mail system. There are “distribution” lists that include all employees, and have been the bane for many as they feel they are deluded by announcements of things that do not interest them– offers for basketball tickets, announcements of art shows, peopl’s names getting changed, etc. Compared to the spam I get externally, these are hardly but blips to me, and I easily delete from the Subject line. But all are not me, so we have a vocal portion in our system that gets rather peeved by email they say as irrelevant to them.

So a new policy was formed, and what was once a list that was open to anyone to send announcements to was replaced by two lists- one for official announcements and the other for everything else. The “official” one has been set up so messages posted to it are held, and an email is returned to the sender to ask them to verify that their message truly meets the policies. It asks people to self police their behaviors, and ought to work… if we all were the same kind of people. The second list is still wide open.

The concept, which sounds good on paper, would be people can do more e-mail filtering, so they can elect in their e-mail client, to say, accept the official stuff, but send all the stamp club meeting notes, garage sale ads, and music show messages elsewhere.

I think it took 3 days to break down.

Someone posted to the “official” email list a message with much of personal viewpoint, opinion, and most likely, falls outside the stated email policy. It would be nothing problematic sent to friends, or posted on a weblog. I laughed, deleted, and started the stop watch for the flames to start up.

And they did. In predictable cycle, there is a flood now of people claiming they are violated, or the first amendment rights of the author are trampled, and a lot of people saying they are tired of getting so many messages, yet their message just piles on top of the flood and furthers the issue it complains about. There should be more soon of “TAKE ME OFF THIS LIST” blasted to everyone.

So tensions will run high, people will spend inordinate amounts of time hammering out their own arguments, and in a few days, ti should simmer down as we move on to other matters.

I have seen it hundreds of times, and never expect it to change. That does not bother me, because for how many safeguards, systems, controls, policies are established, we are a species that tends to find a way through, around these structures. This is basic human nature, and while irritating or odd to observe, this is part of the SPLJ notion that the Web by design is imperfect, as it shows its human traits, and that the yin in the open-ness of the net the spawns creativity, innovation,e tc, has a yang that includes email flame wars, “vermin”, rich spammers, etc.

The post "Warming The Hands Over the Flames of Email" was originally pulled charred and crispy from a smoky charred oven at CogDogBlog (http://cogdogblog.com/2005/02/warming-the/) on February 1, 2005.

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