How e-mail puts us in a flaming bad temper

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The Independent Online
MARY LEONARD is not the sort of English professor to lash out at her students. So she took herself by surprise when, during a recent online classroom discussion conducted entirely by e-mail, she snapped at a particularly obstreperous student for failing to register when his class assignment was due. "I posted a message about that last week, and if you can't recall it that's your tough luck," she wrote.

Stung by the rebuke, the student responded testily that he saw nothing wrong in asking a direct question of his teacher and expected a direct answer. That remark only provoked further reactions from the cyberspatial classroom.

"Hey, Eric, you've got some balls. That's our professor you're talking to," came one message. "What happened to you? Did somebody pee in your breakfast cereal this morning?" came another. "Touchy, touchy," came yet another. Soon the whole discussion threatened to veer out of control and only a hasty call to order by Professor Leonard shook the class back to its senses.

What had occurred was an instance of an e-mail phenomenon known as "flaming" - an outbreak of insults and tantrums of a kind that seems particularly common online. According to Prof Leonard, who teaches at the University of Wisconsin, the use of the internet changed the character of the whole discussion. With the benefits of speed and a certain technological headiness, the computer encouraged intemperate language and stroppy behaviour of a kind that the conventions of face-to-face contact would almost certainly have held in check.

And "flaming" is only one peculiarity that the internet appears to have brought to the English language. According to various researchers, the internet may also be eroding the formal structure of the language, introducing errors of grammar and spelling and making them acceptable, and winnowing away at the overall complexity of English - in other words, dumbing it down.

Such concerns were at the forefront of last week's annual conference of the US Modern Languages Association, a body that brings together university teachers of language or literature. Universities have been quick to embrace the internet as a tool of learning and research, believing it can spread knowledge far beyond the traditional academy, but many of the conference papers delivered in San Francisco sounded a more preoccupied note. As one conference forum asked in its title, could the internet be "killing English with technology"?

"When the internet first took off, some academics predicted that it would lead to reduced linguistic complexity, reduced politeness and reduced variability - in other words, a greater homogeneity in the written language," explained Susan Herring of the University of Texas. "Not that that was necessarily seen as a bad thing. Some people viewed it as a liberation. The language might not be as elegant and polished, but it would be more vital."

According to Professor Herring's research, not all the predictions have come true. Looking at the transcripts of an internet discussion forum between computer scientists over an 11-year period - from 1985 to 1996 - she found that the complexity of the language actually stayed constant and the number of errors, if anything, fell. There were, however, signs of growing informality, and a distinct fall-off in politeness.

Prof Herring concedes that her research was almost certainly conditioned by the educational levels and professional correctness of her subjects, and that other social groups were likely to give different results. A number of studies have shown that "flaming" is more common among men than women, for example.

Nevertheless, several professors at the conference reported that the internet acted a bit like a sounding board for the unconscious - loosening people's inhibitions as they lose sense of who their audience is and let their fingers express thoughts before their brains have time to repress them.

That might explain, for example, why people rarely boast of their exploits in the sex parlours of Bangkok at parties, but willingly consign their intimate diaries to an easily accessible internet site (as revealed by Ryan Bishop and Lillian Robinson in a paper entitled "How My Dick Spent Its Summer Vacation").

This "unbuttoning" effect can also have positive repercussions, particularly in classrooms where the computer gives more reticent students the time and space to express their thoughts more fully.

Dale Jacobs of East Carolina University said he was struck by how many women, traditionally less forthcoming in discussions, would give long, coherent accounts of their thoughts and feelings online. On the other hand, men who were vocal in class tended to be less original or insightful in their e-mail.