From Flame Wars to Frame Wars: The Structure of Conflict in Networks - Nate Tkacz

The warm and fuzzy rhetoric of network cultures – words like collaboration, participation and open communities – have always been made possible through an act of analytic metonymy. Once an open community has been established, to take an example, deviations are all too often depicted as one-off exceptions, as problematic individuals bent on destroying the common spaces and creations of the well meaning many. The figure of the troll and its modus operandi of ‘flaming’ are exemplary in this regard. The act of naming someone a troll, not only reaffirms the general ‘good faith’ of the rest of the community, but also transforms antagonism into a mere character flaw. In this presentation, I suggest the notion of the frame, read primarily through Bateson and Goffman, can be translated into online spaces in order to make visible the structural conditions that underpin forms of online antagonism. Drawing from “article deletion” discussions in Wikipedia, I show how the ascription of negative subjectivities – trolls, vandals, fundamentalists etc. – is the result of a prior ‘frame politics’. I conclude by detailing what is at stake in a frame war and by showing the tactics and strategies of those engaged in one.


Nathaniel Tkacz is an assistant professor at the Centre for Interdisciplinary Methodologies at the University of Warwick. His research lies at the intersection of network theory, software studies and politics. He is co-editor (with Geert Lovink) of Critical Point of View: A Wikipedia Reader (2011).