Flaming in computer-mediated communication: Observations, explanations, implications

The notion that ‘uninhibited behaviour’ is associated with communicating via computer has gained a great deal of attention. One manifestation, ‘flaming’ (the hostile expression of strong emotions and feelings) has been widely reported in the research literature and commented on in the national press. Indeed, flaming has come to be regarded as symptomatic of the down-side of installing computer conferencing and electronic mail systems in organizations. Advice on how management can best avoid or cope with the emergence of uninhibited behaviour in newly installed networks—by establishing firm controls on the communication—has also been offered.

contexts of computer-mediated communication book
Lea, M., O’Shea, T., Fung, P. & Spears, R. (1992). ‘Flaming' in computer-mediated communication: Observations, explanations and implications. In M. Lea (Ed.) Contexts of Computer-Mediated Communication. (pp. 89–112). London: Harvester-Wheatsheaf.


In this chapter we explore in some depth the phenomenon of flaming with the intention of challenging the widely accepted claim that CMC somehow promotes such behaviour. We shall be arguing that, far from being uninhibited and deregulated behaviour that is universally observed, flaming is in fact both radically context-dependent and relatively uncommon in CMC, but that (for a variety of reasons) it is frequently remarked upon. We shall describe how research has tended to decontextualize flaming and how, as a consequence, flaming has come to be regarded as a characteristic of the medium. Our ultimate aim will be to present a recontextualized account of flaming behaviour in CMC.

We begin by setting the scene with three anecdotal accounts of flaming and uninhibited behaviour in CMC, followed by our survey of the research literature. We then briefly summarize two explanations for flaming that have been proposed. In the second half of the chapter we discuss the definitions of the term and evaluate the explanations and empirical evidence for flaming. We then briefly present a theoretical perspective that reconsiders flaming as normative, social behaviour, before returning to reconsider the anecdotal accounts with which we began our tour of the flaming phenomenon.

Three accounts of uninhibited behaviour in CMC

Exhibit 1. In 1981, IBM’s vast internal electronic mail network (VNET) was reported to have evolved into a ‘gripenet’ for employees to ‘let off steam and get out old hurts’. Originally developed for R & D project teams to discuss their work, the network came to be used to air criticisms of organizational policies, dissatisfactions with working conditions and career prospects in the company. Personal attacks were made on managers, job resumes were circulated and resignations were announced over the network (Emmett, 1981).

Exhibit 2. On Compuserve, a large public network, various forms of flaming and ‘uninhibited’ behaviour have been reported, ranging from sexual overtones to consciousness raising (Van Gelder, 1983; Siegel, Dubrovsky, Kiesler, & McGuire, 1986).  Participants steal each other’s pen names and act in irresponsible ways, mis-representing their age, sex and so on, or sending obscene messages using another person’s name (Hiltz, Turoff & Johnson, 1989).

Exhibit 3. In 1982, the U.S. military’s Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) which manages Arpanet, the oldest CMC network, introduced policing of the network bulletin boards because of problems with messages deemed in ‘bad taste’ by the authorities. Messages were manually screened before being relayed to the bulletin board (Kiesler, Zubrow, Moses & Geller, 1985).

These anecdotes, which were introduced to the research community in a series of articles reporting on investigations into social psychological aspects of CMC highlighted a crucial issue surrounding CMC at that time which had important practical implications (Kiesler, 1986; Kiesler, Siegel & McGuire, 1984; Kiesler et al., 1985; Siegel et al, 1986). Specifically, they challenged the view that CMC was a ‘cool’ communication medium in which interpersonal ‘noise’ and social influence were minimised because of the narrow communication bandwidth, while the exchange of information was maximized by virtue of the enhanced capabilities for information exchange that computers offered (e.g., Hiltz & Turoff, 1978; Johansen & DeGrasse, 1979; Murrel, 1983). The cool view suggested that CMC would encourage more ‘rational’ problem-solving and decision-making since information would be processed by people without the distractions and irrelevancies of social considerations that might otherwise lead to poor decision-making (see Rice, 1984).

Clearly, the tendency for uninhibited behaviour to emerge in CMC undermines this rational view of the medium. flaming suggests irrationality, loss of control and hostile interpersonal behaviour; the precise opposite of the behaviour implied by a ‘cool’ communication medium. A very different view was constructed around these and other equally important observations; one that placed emphasis on the need for interpersonal cues, communication feedback and an adequate social context for human interaction generally. The relative absence of such factors in CMC, according to this view, does not promote more rational and efficient communication so much as various forms of uninhibited and deviant behaviour including flaming, irresponsibility, disregard for social norms and the standards and conventions of society, and a tendency towards more risky decision-making (Kiesler et al., 1984).

A reconciliation between these two opposing views of CMC—rational, efficient and productive on the one hand, and irrational, deficient and disruptive on the other—is presently led by comparative media models of CMC. These hold that CMC is efficient for some communication tasks—the routine exchange of information and tasks that lack a socio-emotional dimension—but is inappropriate for other tasks that have a high socio-emotional requirement (see e.g., Rice, 1984, 1987). An alternative proposition in the same vein is that CMC is inappropriate for communicating messages that are high in ambiguity (Daft & Lengel, 1984).

These comparative media analyses will not be discussed here, nor others that place greater emphasis on social influence processes (see Fulk & Boyd, 1991;, for a recent review). We simply wish to emphasise at the outset that the answer to the question of whether flaming is a corollary of CMC is not only of theoretical and phenomenological interest, but also has important practical implications for organizational computing. Indeed, decisions by individuals and organizations about the the installation and adoption of CMC are dependent on general beliefs about media effects in which uninhibited behaviour is a central element. In general terms we argue that this opposition between the rational and the irrational in CMC can be dissolved if the pre-defined social context for the communication and its varied effects on behaviour are understood. But first we shall present the evidence for flaming in CMC and the explanations that have been proposed for its occurrence.

The flaming phenomenon

The evidence

We surveyed several hundred articles on computer-mediated communication and computer supported cooperative work (Lea, O’Shea & Fung, 1991). Despite many references to flaming in these texts, we found only a handful of data sources. The most complete findings are contained in the influential series of experimental studies carried out by the Social Committee on Computing at Carnegie–Mellon University. A very limited quantity of field data is also reported in the literature, but for the most part articles relied on one or more of these sources to support their claims. We shall therefore review these studies in some detail.

Siegel et al. (1986) reported three experiments in which computer conferencing, electronic mail and face-to-face communication were compared. Small groups of mainly unacquainted students in a heavily computerized university participated in discussions about choice-dilemma problems (Stoner, 1961) and were required to come to consensus within 20 minutes. In the first experiment subjects conversed face-to-face (FTF), and via simultaneous computer conferencing (the ‘Converse’ system) under conditions of personal  anonymity or identifiability (in the latter condition they added their name to their messages). Measures relating to the discussion task were taken and a content analysis of the transcripts was performed. A significant overall association was found between experimental condition and frequency of uninhibited remarks (swearing, insults and name-calling). Most uninhibited remarks were made in anonymous CMC, almost four times more than in the identifiable CMC condition, and none were made in the FTF condition.

In the second experiment, computer conferencing was compared in two conditions in which discussion took place through either simultaneous or sequential messaging (There was no FTF condition in this study.) flaming occurred in both conditions, but there was no significant association between frequency of occurrence and communication condition.

In experiment 3 simultaneous computer conferencing and electronic mail were compared with FTF communication. In contrast to the first experiment, uninhibited remarks were observed in all three conditions, and were not significantly associated with  experimental condition.

In another report, Kiesler et al., (1985) carried out an investigation into physiological arousal and affect during CMC discussions. Pairs of previously unacquainted subjects got to know each other either FTF or via simultaneous computer conferencing and under conditions of high or low evaluation anxiety. Various physiological measurements were taken and the transcripts of the discussions were content analyzed. Although there was no difference in physiological arousal between conditions, subjects using CMC manifested more ‘uninhibited behaviour’: they were significantly more impolite and used more swearing and exclamations than in FTF.

Finally, two field studies provide self-report data on the frequency with which subjects observed flaming in CMC. In one study of a large office equipment organization, Sproull and Kiesler (1986) reported that employees recalled seeing flaming a mean of 33 times a month in their CMC (electronic mail was used for group as well as one-to-one communication), significantly more often than in their FTF conversations (4 times per month). In another very recent study of campus electronic mail, Thompsen and Ahn (1992) reported that around one-third (38.8%) of email users had observed flaming. Of those, 27.7% estimated that they had seen 25 or more instances in a year.

Based on these observations, two explanations have been proposed to account for flaming in CMC. These are (1) the reduced availability of social cues; and (2) the dominance of the computing subculture.

Reduced social cues

The first and most widely accepted explanation is really a constellation of suggested behavioural implications arising from the central observation that nonverbal cues, such as facial expressions, gestures, and tone of voice are not communicated in CMC as they are in FTF communication and some other media. This important socio-technical feature of CMC is argued to have a variety of social psychological effects that make uninhibited behaviour more likely to occur (Kiesler et al., 1984).

  • First, the absence of such cues reduces the communication of social and normative constraints that regulate the expression of uninhibited behaviour.
  • Second, the absence of these cues reduces perceptions of status, Leadership and power so that in organizational CMC managers’ control of the communication is reduced.
  • Third, the lack of immediacy caused by delays inherent in the communication system reduces the effects of social feedback.
  • Fourth, delays and other inefficiencies in the communication medium increase arousal and cause frustration.
  • Fifth, the conditions of CMC are similar to conditions that cause the psychological state of de-individuation (Festinger, Pepitone & Newcomb, 1952; Zimbardo, 1969)—namely anonymity, reduced self-regulation, and reduced self-awareness.
  • Sixth, a heightened self-consciousness or self-absorption in CMC means that attention is shifted away from the social context of the communication.
  • Seventh, CMC is relatively new and few standards and norms for the medium itself have so far emerged.

These various processes are argued to increase uninhibited, antinormative behaviour in CMC (Kiesler, 1986; Kiesler et al., 1984, 1985; Siegel et al., 1986; Sproull & Kiesler, 1986). Further details of this model are also to be found in Chapter 3, this volume.

Computing subculture

The second explanation that has been advanced is based on social influence processes and therefore stands in marked contrast to the essentially antinormative reduced social cues explanation. According to this account, uninhibited behaviour originates from the specific influence of the computing subculture in CMC networks (Kiesler et al., 1984). The subculture itself has been studied in some detail (Dubrovsky, Kiesler, Sproull & Zubrow, 1986; Sproull, Kiesler & Zubrow, 1987; Steele, Woods, Finkel, Crispin, Stallman, & Goodfellow, 1983). It is most strongly represented in the computer industry and in computer science departments of universities. It is a community of experts who see themselves at the forefront of social as well as technological change. This perception is strongly and repeatedly communicated to one another and largely defines the group in contradistinction from the rest of society. The computing culture itself is adolescent. ‘Pranks, tricks and games are benignly tolerated when not actually encouraged. People are often impolite, unconventional, adventurous and irreverent. Mild larceny, such as faking accounts, breaking codes, stealing time, and copying proprietary software, is admired if not rewarded explicitly.’ (Dubrovsky et al., 1986;, p. 313).

Like all professional communities then, it has its own set of values, norms, language, signs, and artefacts. However, it is argued that this community  has wide influence over lay persons as well as professionals because computers are used so extensively in work and educational settings. hacker norms are communicated through direct contact with members of the subculture (e.g., through the provision of computing training courses) and through the symbols and artefacts of the culture, i.e., the design of the technology itself. Features of CMC system design, such as a terse and impersonal command language, the opportunities it provides to disregard normal conventions about privacy (e.g., by posting personal messages to bulletin boards), and the removal of time and space separations between work and play, office and home, all communicate and reinforce the norms  ;associated with this subculture beyond its own boundaries (e.g., Kiesler et al., 1984).

To summarize the evidence and explanations so far: flaming frequently takes place in CMC, significantly more often than in face-to-face interaction. It occurs because of a lack of social context cues in CMC which produces a variety of psychological and behavioural effects resulting in more uninhibited, antinormative behaviour. In addition the norms and values associated with the computing subculture promote flaming.

Despite the relatively narrow empirical base for these conclusions, the assumption that flaming is promoted by CMC seems to be widely held. Indeed, to judge from the number of times flaming is referred to in the literature, one would quickly gain the impression that it is a well-documented phenomenon, widely observed across many situations and possibly on the increase. Furthermore, one would find that organizations are being cautioned to be alert to this undesirable feature of the medium and to develop plans to deal with it (and with the perpetrators) in order to prevent any escalation of conflict. These plans mainly entail establishing firm control of the medium, for example, by developing etiquette or rules of conduct, by user training, and by establishing a policy for reporting abuse and disciplining abusers (Fanning & Raphael, 1986; Porter, 1984).

In the second half of this chapter we intend to overturn these assumptions and conclusions. But by now a precise definition of the observed behaviour is long overdue. What exactly is this ‘flaming’ behaviour that has attracted so much attention in the literature on CMC? Unfortunately, there appears to be some confusion, both conceptually and operationally over its definition, so we turned our attention to tracing the history of the term.

The flaming phenomenon revisited

Definitions of flaming;

Up until this point we have chosen only to loosely define uninhibited behaviour and flaming and to assume that the reader understands what is intended by the terms; in fact more precise definitions turn out to be problematic.

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Lea, M., O’Shea, T., Fung, P. & Spears, R. (1992). ‘Flaming' in computer-mediated communication: Observations, explanations and implications. In M. Lea (Ed.) Contexts of Computer-Mediated Communication. (pp. 89–112). London: Harvester-Wheatsheaf.

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