Does there exist a mailing list focused upon legal topics that hasn’t seen a flame war now and then? Unmoderated lists of critical mass populated by lawyers are prime tinder for explosive bursts of e-mail exchanges, each one raising the ante and challenging others to a duel. It doesn’t even take a politically charged topic such as the war, abortion or Homeland Security to spark the flames. A straightforward and seemingly innocuous thread about COBRA can easily descend into passionate argument about the Hyde Amendment, managed health care, government benefits for illegal immigrants, and health care in secret CIA prisons. In the space of a morning, Godwin’s law (“As an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches one.”) is set into motion.
Is a flame war the death knell for a mailing list? Not necessarily. An innocent who wanders onto a list in the throes of rebellion may be frightened away, but those who are already invested in a list’s culture take it all in stride. There are trolls who flit from one list to another, simply to wreak havoc before moving on. Some list stalwarts simply cannot resist the urge to flex their debating skills in any passionate argument, letting off steam, and some are simply bored and looking for any brawl. Watching a flame war is not unlike coming upon a car wreck engulfed in flames on your way to work. Seasoned listserve subscribers simply learn to hit the delete key and sit back for meaningful discussion.
Like simple roadside grass fires, some flames fizzle out on their own after a few hours when the players have simply run out of fuel and energy. Sometimes it’s necessary for list leaders to step in, calling a halt to the flamethrowers’ distractions before a list turns into charred ruins. Just as a planned burn can fertilize barren ground, a good old-fashioned flame war can fertilize barren ground, revitalizing listserve discussion and stirring up the troops’ interest in the list.