I am a sick man. I am a spiteful man. I am an unattractive man.
For a living.
Eleven years ago, in college, I discovered the Internet on a dummy terminal. Within five minutes, I managed to get myself “killed” in a multiuser game. I don’t remember what I did to deserve death, but I did it extremely well.
I spent the next decade soaked in flames and have made a career out of it.
As companies try to build their brands through newsgroups, e-mail feedback, and Web forums, the job title “Professional Flamer” stands ready to be penciled into the office hierarchy, right under “Chief Yahoo” and just over “Minister of Indie Culture.” In service to our employers, we flamers slither across the Internet—a realm where rudeness is a form of currency—and take out the customers, competitors, and wannabes who target businesses out of misplaced rage or the need to feel important.
White-shirted execs don’t want to dirty their hands with the kinds of ugly, eviscerating messages we plant. PR flacks still don’t know how to deal with online haters, much less which ones to take seriously. Flamers know. We emerge informally from marketing departments, help desks, the ranks of committed freelancers and system administrators. When an attacker needs to be smacked down, we volunteer. After a while, our talent for spewing vitriol gets noticed, encouraged, and exploited, sometimes even becoming an official part of our jobs. We don’t often get paid for the extra work, except in the sheer joy we feel for a job well done. We, too, have misplaced rage and the need to feel important, but we have corporations backing our missives, the way a terrorist driving a truck bomb through a crowded thoroughfare has God on his side.
Sander Hicks, the publisher of Soft Skull Press, once asked me to flame a minor figure in the rock pantheon. The artist was angry because his unsolicited manuscript hadn’t been met with the solicitude he felt he deserved, so he flamed first, calling Soft Skull “fucked up,” “phony,” and “disrespectful.” “The godfather of punk is out to kill me now,” Hicks wrote to me. “Could we please either write him a formal rejection letter or just flame him?”
We could. Officially acting as a senior editor, I flamed him over e-mail and bounced his manuscript. He never wrote back. It’s not always that easy.
Dostoyevsky ranted about flames way back in 1864, in Notes From the Underground. “When petitioners used to come for information to the table at which I sat, I used to grind my teeth at them, and felt intense enjoyment when I succeeded in making anybody unhappy,” he wrote. I wish I felt that good. Instead, flames eat away at me.
A meeting with friends ends early because I know there is e-mail waiting for me, someone out there needing to be crushed. Dinner with my girlfriend is interrupted because someone flamed one of my online columns and hasn’t yet been soundly refuted. When writing, I chew on my fingers until they bleed, then spend the next morning cleaning my keyboard with a Q-tip. Somewhere along the line, this compulsion became a job. Now I can respect myself, just not in the mornings.
I write columns for two popular underground Web sites—Disinformation (www.disinfo.com) and the Greenwich Village Gazette (www.nycny.com). Feedback from my readers is nasty, brutish, and short, but I’ve begun to seek it out. My positive review of violent anti-Nazi organizations provoked a windfall; an army of liberals denounced me for being worse than a Nazi for applauding attacks on Nazis. I fired back: “If beating up a Nazi makes one worse than a Nazi, then what does that make the Warsaw ghetto fighters, who actually shot some Nazis? You do realize that your logic leads right to the crematorium and the mass grave, don’t you?”
With every flame, my employers rack up the Web hits, as my articles are referred to time and again by the very people who insist my work be stricken from the Net. Will I call my opponents shit-flinging bonobos, threaten lawsuits, accuse them of illiteracy, or insist that I am much better looking than that old has-been Deborah Harry, as long as the conversation keeps going? Of course I will, and I will get a few more hits every time.
Flames are even becoming a standard part of public relations. Chris Owens, late of Creative Labs’s marketing, ran the news servers for the company. The newsgroups superficially resembled Usenet newsgroups, but with one crucial difference: Instead of being in the public domain, these groups were owned and operated by the company, for the company’s benefit. Owens stoically withstood the flames from customers who couldn’t get their Soundblasters to work. When Creative’s production schedule clashed with reality, Owens, a technical marketing engineer, was the public face of the firm. When someone wouldn’t read the manual, Owens had to go over basic instructions step-by-step. And he wasn’t allowed to retaliate. Months after he left the job, I ask him if he ever flamed the clientele. “No,” he says, “and when I did, I did it subtly.”
In the wilds of Usenet, corporate flaming exists, even though the corporations attached to the newsgroup don’t control the venue. The corporate heads of White Wolf Publishing, which makes role-playing games, can’t banish their testy fans, but employees and freelancers can wage flame wars and protect the corporate image. After several people complained about a recent rewrite of a game, longtime White Wolf writer Deird’Re M. Brooks singled out a customer and flamed him on alt.games.whitewolf. She mocked the guy, saying he’d made it his “life’s mission to tell us all how evil” the new rules and story line were. Brooks dismissed his complaints as “egotistical” and “worthless.” She tried to make the fan sound hysterical, saying he wanted the game’s latest edition “EXPUNGED FROM THE EARTH.” Brooks, who didn’t return Voice e-mails, wasn’t speaking as a corporate representative, but she was clearly expressing a sentiment shared by her superiors.
Public relations used to mean dealing with a distant consumer base as a mass. Now it means dealing with individuals, some of whom will be downright vicious. Recitations of press releases won’t do it anymore. Corporations are very protective of their public images, and many have already unleashed their watchdogs to prowl the Web, looking for anticorporate flames to snuff out. Professional flamers will only become more common. We were here before you were, when “.edu” and “.gov” anchored most e-mail addresses, and when the Web was but a dream.
You’re going to need us socially crippled flamers. We’ll spread like brush fires. As Dostoyevsky might say today, we are developing a taste for it. Soon we shall contrive to be born somehow from an idea, an idea that needs to be beaten into the heads of every one of you. But enough; I don’t want to write more from the underground.