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home   A flaming desire

Children’s book illustrator Mike Reed has devoted a website to Internet insults. Think of Sesame Street populated by Oscar the Grouch and 83 of his relatives.

By Bob Baker,
Los Angeles Times December 12, 2003

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 capitalizing 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 behavior makes the Net an ugly place to play. Over the years, Reed, a Minneapolis children’s book illustrator, has posted caricatures of 84 mythical flamers and flamer-haters. To enter his Flame Warriorssite ( sort of 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 has become ensnared in a contentious 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 favor of spirituality? That’s Atheist. (Her opposite number is another character in Reed’s world, Deacon, who steps in at the first mention critical of religion.)

Nancy Tamosaitis, a New York author who wrote an early book about the way people talk online (“,” Ziff-Davis, 1994), found herself laughing after a reporter asked her to check out Reed’s site. “I’ve encountered every type of flamer Mike characterizes online,” Tamosaitis e-mailed. “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, 52, married with one child in high school and another in college, 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 behavior but remained fascinated by the personalities he had mocked.

In the late-1990s, he was participating in a beta software mailing list 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. He drew with a digital pen and a painting program that inserted solid colors. Gradually the number of visitors to his website swelled, reaching points as distant as Finland and Bulgaria, with requests to translate his profiles into Turkish and Hebrew. (In typical Internet-entrepreneur fashion, he offers T-shirts and coffee mugs embossed with your favorite flamer.)

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 toward the male perspective, placing women in “Nanny”-like, civilizing roles and avoiding the crudest, typically male online behavior that targets women.

“Where is the ‘Harasser?’ The ‘Misogynist?’ ” she e-mailed in response to a reporter’s query.

David Woolley, a Minneapolis Internet consultant who specializes in group communication, said that while Reed’s perspective is valid, he noted that an increasing number of discussion groups are employing stronger moderators to banish anyone who engages in personal attacks.

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 on the Internet showcase the true humanity — or lack therein — of people, “author Tamosaitis said. “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 said. “Whenever they think they’re
expressing irony or wry humor, their writing is not good enough to convey 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 someone imagines they’re being wryly ironic, but to everyone else they are merely abrasive and sarcastic.”

Fans e-mail Reed to suggest new caricatures. Some take his world more literally: “I’d like to think of myself as a crossbreed of Weenie and Philosopher, but I fear I’m pretty much a Goader,” wrote a user from the Netherlands.

Cigarette-paper and playing-card manufacturers have sought licensing deals. And, not surprisingly, there is the occasional flame: “What a bunch of half-wit blither you tried to post ….” And, “You’re a joke ….Why don’t you turn your site over to me so I can once again show the world what real flaming is all about.”

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 battlefield.”

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