Meet Furious Typer and Netiquette Nazi
A children's illustrator has been charting Internet insults. It's like entering aworld full of grouches, writes Bob Baker
There they sit, each at a computer keyboard, each angrily typing, each determined to condemn, correct or chastise the other.
There's Troglodyte, fiercely disdainful of new-age values. There's L'Enfant Provocateur, who sends incendiary messages because he's young and dumb. There's ALLCAPS, who makes up for limited intelligence by capitalising his insults. There's Profundus Maximus, who uses cryptic terms to bluff his way through an argument. There's Agent, who posts messages to boost his employer's business.
This is Mike Reed's world of "flamers" - Internet chat-room or bulletin-board users whose boorish or mean-spirited behaviour makes the Net an ugly place to play.
Over the years, Reed, an American children's book illustrator, has posted caricatures of 84 mythical flamers and flamer-haters. To enter his Flame Warriors site (www.winternet. com/~mikelr/flame01.html) is like entering a hellish Sesame Street populated by Oscar the Grouch and 83 of his relatives.
Anyone who has experienced the occasionally rude environment of many chat rooms or become ensnared in an exchange of e-mails can find their bad selves - or their combatants - in Reed's subculture.
You know the guy who continually assails anyone who tries to calm down unpleasant exchanges between members of a forum? That's Rebel Without a Clue. The guy who won't quit a weak line of argument no matter how many times other members demolish him? That's Palooka. (Reed notes that it falls to another character, the hyper-vigilant Nanny, to step in when Palooka is being beaten too badly.) The woman who exploded at another member's innocent comment in favour of spirituality? That's Atheist. Her opposite number is Deacon, who steps in at the first critical mention of
Nancy Tamosaitis, who wrote net.talk, an early book about the way people talk online, found herself laughing after a reporter asked her to check out Reed's site. "I've encountered every type of flamer Mike characterises online," Tamosaitis e-mails. "From the Netiquette Nazi (if you stray from the posted forum guidelines, she will yell at you) to the Impostor (the 21-year-old coed who turns out to be a retired autoworker)."
Reed, who is 52, was drawn to flaming during the days of Usenet, a pre-Internet collection of discussion forums. He was a prankster, posting fictitious messages intended to outrage members of groups devoted to discussing raw vegetables or the use of crystals in healing. "I thought it was like creating fiction in real time." He eventually outgrew that behaviour but remained fascinated by the personalities he had mocked.
In the late-1990s, he was participating in a software test as a technician when an online fight broke out among some of the testers. "I thought, hmmm, I need to do something to deflate this conflagration. So I started to post drawings and descriptions of some of the people."
His first caricature was a woman "who I was persuaded wasn't listening to anything I was saying; every time she got a message from me there'd be this buzz saw of key taps". And so Furious Typer was born, followed by Big Dog and Me Too (who aligns himself with Big Dog because he is too insecure to argue on his own), the Cyber Sisters (a group of women who gang up on anyone who insults one of them) and Toxic Granny.
"When they saw themselves pictured that way, it took some heat off," Reed said. "Then I thought of more types. Every morning I'd knock off a couple. I'd just leave them up on the Net."
It's still easy to find voids in Reed's gallery, depending on your politics. Susan Catherine Herring, a professor of information science at Indiana University, finds that his caricatures skew towards the male perspective, placing women in nanny-like, civilising roles and avoiding the crudest, typically male online behaviour that targets women. "Where is the 'Harasser?' The 'Misogynist?' " she e-mailed in response to a reporter's query.
None of which lessens the essential truth behind Flame Warriors: some people turn into monsters when they can hide behind the anonymity of a screen name. "Discussion-board communications showcase the true humanity - or lack therein - of people," says Tamosaitis. "People act on pure emotion when they read and react to Internet postings . . . . Freed from having to look a fellow poster in the eyes, people's honest emotions are unleashed."
Reed has a more specific diagnosis. "Basically, flaming happens because people are not good writers," he says. "Whenever they think they're expressing irony or wry humour, their writing is not good enough to carry that sense, and people take it the wrong way. When you're writing rapidly, you're not editing . . . . I can't tell you how many times somebody imagines they're wittily ironic and they come off as sarcastic."
Reed describes his characters as people who are "liberated into being angry", who regard their cyberspace foe as "all your evil doppelgangers projected". Part of him still enjoys the combat. "I can't say it's all bad. I'm not looking forward to the day when we have complete videoconference exchanges, so you can see the person. That will certainly change the feeling."