The emerging field of social neuroscience, the study of what goes on in the brains and bodies of two interacting people, offers clues into the neural mechanics behind flaming.
This work points to a design flaw inherent in the interface between the brain’s social circuitry and the online world. In face-to-face interaction, the brain reads a continual cascade of emotional signs and social cues, instantaneously using them to guide our next move so that the encounter goes well. Much of this social guidance occurs in circuitry centered on the orbitofrontal cortex, a center for empathy. This cortex uses that social scan to help make sure that what we do next will keep the interaction on track.
That lack of an immediate visual reaction to an email could explain innocent miscues, such as typing "I resent that email" and then wondering why the other party is upset, when all you meant was that you re-sent the email. It could also explain why people use smiley faces, the word "grin" in brackets, and other ways of showing that the writer does not intend to offend.
What of those nastygram senders, though, who do want to offend? Unlike Oscar Wilde's famous statement that "[a] gentleman is one who never hurts anyone's feelings unintentionally," these nastygrammers aren't necessarily gentlepersons. Instead, they seem to want to stir up discontent in a public forum. I don't want nastygrammers to use the social neuroscience excuse ("the lack of visual cues made me do it"), so how does a community otherwise prevail on a nastygrammer to cease and desist? Ignoring the emails might work, or it might escalate the nastygrams in the hope of getting some reaction. Any suggestions?