Flamewars, 1839 Style

by Joey deVilla on March 23, 2010

I’ve heard a lot of people say that the need to have arguments in public and win popular support is an unintended consequence of social networking services. I think that things like Twitter and Facebook make it easier and that they vastly expand the reach of an argument, but that we’ve had that urge to have flamewars long before the internet.

Here’s a data point for my thesis: a placard from 1839 that wouldn’t seem out of place on any online debate, aside from the dated language.

"TO THE PUBLIC: The object of this placard is to inform the Public that Gen. Leigh Read has declined giving me an apology for the insult offered me at St. Mark, on the 5th inst. That he has also refused to me that satisfaction, which as an honorable man, (refusing to apologise,) he was bound to give. I therefore pronounce him a Coward and a Scoundrel. -- WILLIAM TRADEWELL, Tallahassee, Oct. 26, 1839."

This article also appears in Global Nerdy.

{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

Chris Taylor March 23, 2010 at 3:00 pm

19th century flamewars also had an element of actual risk; if it went far enough you could actually end the argument by pwning the other guy in a good old fashioned duel.

Mathias March 23, 2010 at 3:05 pm

Call me old fashioned, but back in the days, people knew how to own in style. I have to try out “I therefore pronounce him a Coward and a Scoundrel” next time I get into a forum skirmish.

Jeff Vickers March 24, 2010 at 1:08 am

A few things occur to me about this.

First, we, as social beings, were more evolved in the analog age than we are in the digital. Computers are creating a reverse-Darwinian effect on the masses.

Second, if this were Texas as opposed to Florida, it would be a funeral notice, not a flame.

Third, it seems this method of communication is still faster than dial up (or the network servers at my current employer).

And btw, I have to post this at my blog too.

Cheers Joey.

Mark Jaquith March 25, 2010 at 2:51 am

Computers are creating a reverse-Darwinian effect on the masses.

I disagree, and I demand satisfaction! Literacy rates have skyrocketed in America since the 1830s. Manifestly, the masses are massively more literate (yay, alliterations).

The goal of universal literacy, however, has come at the cost of exquisite language command by the most educated of people. Before, education and literacy were for those who could afford it. It was much more of an exclusive club. Now, everyone has a bit of education (in America, it is forced education, until you are 16). These hoards of sufficiently literate people have watered down the pool of literates, making the exceptionally literate harder to find. And as audiences of literature change, so must the authors of literature adapt, by dumbing down their content. They can no longer write for the pick of the literati (yay, puns).

We’ve also seen an incredible equalization of classes. People of different societal classes rub elbows much more frequently than they did before. It’s been said that no amount of money can buy you a better Coca-Cola. On a similar note, it is hard to be the sort of person who speaks with the eloquence of Mr. Tradewell and still be able to successfully order anything at a McDonald’s drive-through. Back in the day, you would have your servant run over to McDonald’s in your stead.

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