How to win a flamewar

I’ve noticed a distinct drop in the quality of flaming on the internet lately. This post is an attempt to educate those who might be new to this gentle art so that the rest of us might be entertained by some high-quality flamage. If you are someone who enjoys watching people call one another poopy-heads, or calling their parentage into question, then this post isn’t for you. But if exchanges of insults turns you off, and you yearn for the old days when exchanges of insults were, if not well considered, at least well phrased, read on.

Incidentally, I’ll use the word “his”exclusively throughout to refer to your opponent(s) and ally/allies. Please do not assume this infers any gender bias, it’s just easier.

How to win a flame-war: the rules.

Rule 1: You can’t win a flame-war. Even if you are right; even if your opponent is a half-witted, arrogant, ignorant, bigoted, somb*tch, just the act of taking part brings you down to his level. The best answer is to just ignore him; few things are more annoying.

For those who see the sense in this first rule, please stop reading now; there’s nothing for you here. If, on the other hand, you wish to ignore this rule, then read on – I’ve got some more rules for you to ignore.

Rule 2: Never post when you are angry. Occasionally your opponent will say something which makes you see red. Don’t take it personally – that’s his objective. If you feel angry, walk away from the computer. Do something else to take your mind off the argument, and only come back when you feel calm and refreshed. If you post when you are angry then your anger will come across, and your opponent will smell blood.

Rule 3: Only one reply per comment. You can tell when someone has failed to follow rule 2 because they repeatedly come back and add another comment before you have had time to reply. Sometimes you’ll return to your computer after an hour or so away and find that your opponent has added half a dozen “and another thing” type comments in response to yours. This is the time to relax; you’ve won the argument at this stage – all that remains is to deliver the coup de grace.

Rule 4: Never forget that you are playing to the gallery. It isn’t your opponent who will judge the outcome of this contest, it’s the spectators. Whilst it might be deeply satisfying to call your opponent all the names you can think of, that isn’t going to impress the spectators, some of whom have paid good money to watch this contest.

Rule 5: Don’t mention the war. In particular, don’t ever call your opponent a Nazi. Godwin’s Law states: “As an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches one.” A corollary to the law is that if your opponent mentions the Nazis in an attempt to undermine your position, he has lost the argument. Curious readers might wish to refer to the Godwin FAQ, here:

Rule 6: Never plead boredom. It fools nobody, and it makes you appear to be without conviction. Similarly, never plead lack of time. If you don’t have time for the argument, you really shouldn’t have got involved in the first place. See Rule 1.

Rule 7: Don’t play “twisty word games”. I’ve noticed an increasing tendency for people to fall foul of this rule. Someone responds to a comment “You are correct when you say X but Y does not follow” and the Flamer responds “Than you .. I am correct”. If fools nobody and it just makes you look like an idiot. Similarly, taking the first and last line from your opponent’s post, out of context, and trying to pretend they are related.  This works very rarely, and only if the audience haven’t got access to the original comment. If they do, then again it makes you look foolish. Don’t do it.

Rule 8: Be logical. I don’t expect you to be Mr Spock, but you should at least have a passing understanding of the rules of logic, and be capable of avoiding the most basic errors. You might find some useful information in the Forest of Rhetoric, here:

Rule 9: Know your enemy. Flamers typically fall into one of a number of stereotypes, many of which have been described here: Learn to recognise which stereotype your opponent falls into, and respond in the style of their nemesis. Which brings us neatly to …

Rule 10: Be flexible. Don’t be one of the stereotypes. If you always flame in the same way, you’ll be easy to defeat once your opponent works out which Flame warrior you are.

Rule 11: Give ground. Nothing disarms your opponent more than when you agree with him. He will almost certainly reply with condescension, at which point you can move in for the kill, and demolish his entire argument while he is still wondering what went wrong.

Rule 12: Ask questions. When you make statements of fact you open yourself up to being contradicted. But asking a question forces your opponent to answer, taking up his time while you think up your counter argument. If you can do this skilfully you will eventually wear your opponent down so much that he forgets Rule 6 and pleads lack of time. Congratulations; you win.

Rule 13: Smile. Your audience are here primarily for entertainment. If the argument gets boring, you’ll lose them, and remember Rule 4: If you lose the audience you lose the argument. So be witty. Or, if you can’t be witty, at least be funny.

Rule 14: Know when you are beaten and be prepared to retract. Unbelievably, sometimes you are going to be wrong. When that happens, be grown up enough to admit it. I’d add “be prepared to apologise” but if you’ve followed the rest of the rules you’ll have no need to apologise.

Rule 15: Winning by losing. As we know from Rule 1, the best way to win a flame-war is not to take part. The second best way is to surrender. Sure, you lose a bit of face (maybe) but you have the satisfaction of knowing that your opponent is sitting there with his mouth opening and closing like a goldfish, with nothing to argue against and nobody to fight with.

Congratulations; you win.


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