Flaming on YouTube

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Flaming on YouTube

Peter J. Moor


Master’s Thesis

Faculty of Behavioural Sciences

University of Twente, Enschede, The Netherlands

Date: November 14, 2008

Examiners: Ard Heuvelman, Ria Verleur


Flaming is defined as “displaying hostility by insulting, swearing or using otherwise offensive language.” It seems to be common in comments on the video sharing website YouTube. In this explorative study, flaming on YouTube was studied using surveys among YouTube users. Three general conclusions were drawn. First, flaming is indeed very common on YouTube, although many users say not to flame themselves. Second, views on flaming are varied, but more often negative than positive. Some people refrain from uploading videos because of flaming, but most users do not think of flaming as a problem for themselves. Third, several explanations of flaming were found to be plausible, among which were perceived flaming norms and reduced awareness of other people’s feelings. Although some YouTube users flame for entertainment, flaming is more often meant to express disagreement or to respond to perceived offense by others.


1 Introduction 7

1.1 Overview ` 7

1.1.1 Flaming in Computer-Mediated Communication 7

1.1.2 Flaming on YouTube 8

1.1.3 Goal of the Present Research 9

1.2 Explanations of Flaming 10

1.2.1 Flaming is Caused by Deindividuation 11

1.2.2 Flaming is Caused by a Perceived Norm 11

1.2.3 Flaming is Miscommunication 13 Reducing Ambiguity: Emoticons 14

1.2.4 Flaming is Caused by Reduced Awareness of Others 15

1.2.5 Other Explanations of Flaming 16

1.3 Research Questions 17

2 Method 19

2.1 Overview 19

2.2 Selection of Videos, Flames and Participants 19

2.3 Invitations to the Questionnaires 20

2.4 Instruments 20

2.4.1 Specific Questionnaires 20

2.4.2 General Questionnaire 21

3 Results 25

3.1 Participants 25

3.2 Is flaming common on YouTube? 26

3.2.1 The Nature of the YouTube Context 26

3.2.2 The Occurrence of Flaming 27

3.3 What do YouTube users think of flaming? 28

3.4 Why do people flame on YouTube? 31

3.4.1 The Perception of a Flaming Norm 31

3.4.2 Flaming as Miscommunication 32

3.4.3 Reduced Awareness of Other People’s Feelings 34

3.4.4 Other Reasons for Flaming 34

4 Discussion 37

4.1 General Conclusions 37

4.2 Limitations 37

4.2.1 Flaming: Still a Problematic Term 37

4.2.2 Selection Biases 38

4.2.3 Problems with Questionnaire Items 39

4.3 Recommendations for Future Research 39

Acknowledgements 41

References 43

Appendix A – Participant Invitations 49

A.1 Invitation for “Senders” 49

A.2 Invitation for “Receivers” 49

A.3 Invitation to the General Questionnaire 49

Appendix B – Questionnaires 51

B.1 Items Measuring Background Variables 51

B.2 The Last Page 51

B.3 Questionnaire for “Senders” 51

B.4 Questionnaire for “Receivers” 53

B.5 General Questionnaire 54

1 Introduction

1.1 Overview

1.1.1 Flaming in Computer-Mediated Communication

A major technological breakthrough of the last few decades is the Internet. It makes various activities very easy, among which are finding all kinds of information and communicating with geographically distant people. However, just like earlier breakthroughs such as the telephone and television, discussions about the Internet have focused on its negative aspects as well as its possibilities (Bargh & McKenna, 2004; McKenna & Bargh, 2000). One of the negative aspects of computer-mediated communication (CMC) is flaming (Bubas, 2001; Riva, 2001). Compared to face-to-face (FtF) communication, CMC seems to be more hostile and offensive. This phenomenon is often called flaming, although the term is controversial.

The term “flaming” originates from the early computing community, and The Hacker’s Dictionary (Steele et al., 1983) defines it as “to speak rabidly or incessantly on an uninteresting topic or with a patently ridiculous attitude” (p. 158). Early research on CMC adopted the term and used it to indicate different kinds of what seemed to be uninhibited behavior, like “expressing oneself more strongly on the computer than one would in other communication settings” (Kiesler, Siegel & McGuire, 1984, p. 1130) and “the expression of strong and inflammatory opinions” (Siegel, Dubrovsky, Kiesler & McGuire, 1986, p. 161). Definitions and operationalizations of the term have been used inconsistently since. Sometimes the term meant displaying offensive language such as swearing and insults, other times it included all kinds of emotional expressions or even the use of superlatives (Lea, O’Shea, Fung & Spears, 1992; Thompsen, 1996). The term has also been equated with disinhibited behavior, although disinhibition is in fact a theorized cause rather than the behavior itself (Lea et al., 1992). Besides, some researchers have explicitly included words like “electronically” in its definition (e.g. Siegel et al., 1986). Since the term has been adopted from the computer community, this is not surprising. However, it has been argued that defining flaming as an online phenomenon is a way of assuming technological determinism, again confusing the behavior with its theorized causes (Lange, 2006; Lea et al., 1992; O’Sullivan & Flanagin, 2003). Indeed, several studies have compared flaming in CMC to similar behavior in FtF interaction. While some studies supported the claim that flaming is more apparent in CMC (Kiesler, Zubrow, Moses & Geller, 1985; Orenga, Zornoza, Prieto & Peiró, 2000; Siegel et al., 1986; Sproull & Kiesler, 1986), others found flaming to be rare in both conditions (Coleman et al., 1999). Such studies only make sense if flaming is not by definition an online phenomenon. The term “flaming” has been used only rarely in non-electronic contexts, e.g. the classroom (Dorwick, 1993).

Lange (2006) says about flaming that “the term is so oversaturated that it has lost theoretical value (if indeed it ever had any)” and argues that scholars should stop using it. “The term itself means too many things to be useful at this juncture.” Although she certainly has a point when calling the word “flaming” problematic, this does not necessitate throwing it away. Words like “knowledge” are also defined in various ways and used in many different contexts, but there is still a common understanding of what the term more or less refers to. With a common understanding of the behavioral patterns that are related to flaming, the phenomenon can be studied in a wide variety of contexts. Even if the behavior has different causes, consequences, intent, use or meaning in different contexts, the behavior itself is still the same.

However problematic its definitions are, flaming is a very real phenomenon. To some people, it even is an actual problem. Several famous people have stopped with maintaining their weblogs (which are online columns or diaries that readers can comment on), because they received too many hateful feedback (Van Stein Callenfels & Van Woerden, 2007). Comments to online newspaper articles have also been criticized for being unnecessarily rude and uncivilized (Van Den Bergh & De Jongh, 2007). It has even been argued that people should be protected against flaming and other misuses of the Internet’s anonymity by the law (Inman & Inman, 1996; Mendels, 1999).

Flaming is very real and must therefore be studied, even if its past definitions have been inconsistent and problematic. For the present research, flaming is defined as “displaying hostility by insulting, swearing or using otherwise offensive language” (Moor, 2007). This definition refers only to the behavior without assuming anything about causes or contexts. While the term “flaming” is used to refer to the behavior, the messages themselves are often referred to as “flames.”

1.1.2 Flaming on YouTube

A specific context where flaming seems to be quite prevalent, is YouTube. Basically, YouTube is a video sharing website. Users can upload their own videos and comment on videos of others. Before YouTube was founded in 2005, it was already possible to share and watch videos on the Internet. However, the incredible ease of the system and the fact that videos are automatically associated with other videos having the same keywords have made YouTube one of the most popular websites currently in existence (Cheng, Dale & Liu, 2007). YouTube is used mainly for short videos. Although only videos of less than 10 minutes are allowed from regular users, Cheng and his associates found that most videos are even under 5 minutes in length. YouTube seems to attract a young audience. In 2006, it was estimated that about half of the YouTube users are under 20 years of age (Gomes, 2006) and that the mean age is around 25 (Halvey & Keane, 2007).

Since people can comment on videos and previously given comments are shown to video watchers, Moor (2007) has mentioned YouTube as an example of what he calls the online commenting situation. The online commenting situation is a situation where people can comment on a specific stimulus on a webpage. This stimulus can be anything like a text, a video or a picture, and earlier given comments are usually shown on the same page as the stimulus itself. Although this description seems to fit with YouTube, YouTube has also been called a community (Lange, 2007b). Although the majority of the YouTube users seem to be passive, not uploading many videos and hardly ever using the various communication tools provided by the website, some active users post many videos and often comment on other videos (Cheng et al., 2007; Halvey & Keane, 2007). One form of active YouTube participation is “video blogging” which is the video version of text-based weblogs. Sharing their experiences, ideas and feelings online allows people to get in contact with each other and as such form an online community (Lange, 2007b, 2007c).

Flaming seems to be very common on YouTube. It takes only little time browsing the website to find hateful comments like “BURN IN HELLL!!!” and “are you the biggest nerds of the entire world u fucking gay faggots go fuck all ur dads u discrace.”

Lange (2007a) interviewed several YouTube users, mostly active ones. Most interviewees acknowledged “hating comments” to be common and argued it to be distinct from constructive criticism. Whereas criticism is usually on-topic and can be used to exchange views, hating comments are generally unrelated to video content and express general hostility such as “This sucks. Go die.”

Reactions to the phenomenon varied considerably. Positive remarks were about the apparent benefit of having honest arguments online. For example, Lange notes that a girl in her late teens “expressed the view that having an arena to argue online was important to her because the same kind of arguing was actually difficult to accomplish in certain offline social contexts” (p. 10). Other interviewees argued that people should be mature enough to accept criticism and ignore hateful comments. A man in his twenties said: “if you don’t want comments from "haters" don’t post videos” (p. 11).

Whereas some interviewees expressed being positive or neutral about flaming, others regarded it as a real problem. A teenage boy said that the large number of mean comments on videos makes the YouTube environment unfriendly and as such unsuitable for kids (p. 8). Renetto, a very active user called a “YouTube celebrity” by Lange, has even talked about the problem in a video in 2006. He said that he had received a lot of e-mail from people saying that they would not dare making a personal video and uploading it on YouTube. “Cause you don’t understand, people will make fun of me, the way I talk, the way I am, the way I look” (p. 9). Indeed, for some people fear of hateful comments is a reason not to participate on YouTube (Lange, 2007b).

Lange (2007a) offers a possible explanation of the widespread flaming on YouTube. She mentions that many people think of “haters” as users who do not post videos themselves. According to this view, there is a class of YouTube users who “post pointless comments that have nothing or little to do with the video while never having to risk receiving unpleasant criticism themselves” (p. 7). This view suggests that a part of the YouTube audience simply enjoys insulting others. As mentioned before, YouTube has a young audience, and these “haters” might just be bored teenagers who like to take bullying outside the scope of their classroom.

1.1.3 Goal of the Present Research

The goal of the present research is to find out more about flaming on YouTube. This goal serves two purposes.

The first purpose is a very practical one. As mentioned before, YouTube is a very popular website but many people may refrain from participating because of the widespread flaming. If this is indeed the case, flaming on YouTube might be perceived as a serious problem. It is important to know whether many YouTube users think it is indeed a problem, and why they think that flaming is so common. If a solution for this problem should be found, a first step is to gain more insight into the causes and effects of the problem.

The second purpose is more theoretical. As discussed in Subsection 1.1.1, flaming has been a controversial concept since the first researchers started using it in the 1980s. Despite a number of inconsistencies and problems, contexts like YouTube illustrate that flaming is a very real phenomenon. If flaming is indeed common on YouTube as well as in other CMC environments, it is an interesting subject from a social psychological point of view. CMC has emerged relatively recently, and any apparent differences from FtF communication are informative about human communication in general. Therefore, flaming should be studied in various contexts to gain more insight in the variables associated with its occurrence and effects. For this purpose, YouTube is merely one more context in which flaming seems to be common and can hence be studied. Knowledge about flaming on YouTube is also knowledge about flaming in general.

The present research is explorative in nature. Rather than testing specific hypotheses, several general research questions have been formulated. Is flaming indeed common on YouTube, what do YouTube users think of it, and how can its occurrence be explained?

First, it is important to know whether flaming is really common on YouTube. Although one can easily find lots of flaming when reading comments on YouTube, a survey involving actual YouTube users provides stronger support for the perception that flaming is either common or not. To enable comparisons between the present research and research on flaming in other contexts, it is also essential to understand the nature of the YouTube context. According to Lange (2007b), YouTube is a community. Being a community is a fundamental property of any social context, hence this perception is also addressed in the present research.

  • RQ1: Is flaming common on YouTube?

    • RQ1a: Is YouTube a community?

    • RQ1b: Do YouTube users often perceive flaming?

    • RQ1c: Do many YouTube users flame?

The second question addresses the views that YouTube users have on flaming. In her interviews, Lange (2007a, 2007b) found that users had very different views on flaming. While some said that flaming is really annoying or even a reason to refrain from uploading personal videos, others argued that flaming is an honest way of having discussions not found in real life. For the present research, it is studied whether one of these views on flaming on YouTube is most popular. Also, the extent to which flaming is a problem is studied.

  • RQ2: What do YouTube users think of flaming?

    • RQ2a: Do YouTube users think of flaming as something positive or negative?

    • RQ2b: Do YouTube users think of flaming as a problem?

    • RQ2c: Does flaming keep people from posting personal videos?

The third question addresses explanations for flaming on YouTube. Several subquestions about more specific explanations will be based on existing research on flaming. Also, YouTube users will be asked directly about their reasons for flaming.

  • RQ3: Why do people flame on YouTube?

    • (RQ3a-c, to be given in Section 1.2)

    • RQ3d: What reasons for flaming do YouTube users give?

Section 1.2 will discuss existing research on flaming in different contexts. Since most research has addressed explanations for flaming, some additional subquestions for RQ3 will be given in this discussion. In Section 1.3, all research questions will be presented together.

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