Question: How do you start an Internet flame war?
Answer: Express an opinion. Wait a few minutes.
Pity poor Marshall Fine of the movie blog Hollywood & Fine (whatever that is).
As the first person to pan The Dark Knight Rises on Rotten Tomatoes, he found himself on the bottom of a pile-up of anonymous vitriol and even death threats (closing on 900 as I write this, 200 in the first 10 minutes after the review was posted).
Some were as simple as "R.I.P. Marshall Fine" or "It was nice knowing you." Some were passive-aggressive ("I give you permission to die") For comparing the widely-praised finale of Christopher Nolan's Batman trilogy to Transformers, other more explicit ones were apparently deleted by Rotten Tomatoes. Still others threatened to destroy his website (ultimately it was shut down by traffic).
As lynch mobs go, they weren't exactly single-directional. Some attacked other posters, bringing up a mental image of a brawl within a riot.
Bear in mind, virtually none of the posters had seen The Dark Knight Rises.
As humourous as a flame war can be, there's an undertone to this mania for unanimity of opinion that's a little disconcerting -- especially when it comes from people drunk on the courage of anonymity.
I've seen a lot of it over the years. In fact -- and this is a definite point of pride for a writer -- the word-usage tracking website Wordspy credits this columnist with coining the word "anonymice" back in 1995 (yes, there was a 'Net then, there were even trolls). The word has indeed caught on somewhat (it's now included in the Urban Dictionary). I coined the word based on my still-intact belief that any opinion you don't put your name behind is hollow.
What's changed is the acceptance of anonymity, such that no one even bothers to defend it anymore. There's the ad hoc hacker group Anonymous, of course, which had its most socially high-minded moments as a strategic aid for the Occupy movement. At other times, it is an instrument of plain maliciousness.
But when a crush of anonymous people decides to punish a dissenting opinion, even for something as trivial as a movie, it carries a nasty odor. There's no question people go to sites like RT and Meta-critic to validate their own opinions.
But must everything good be 100% good? I'm actually kind of suspicious of unanimity of opinion -- especially among critics (of which I'm one, so who'd know better not to trust people like me?). Give me a Prometheus, with its 73% score and arguments in the lobby, over a chorus of Hallelujahs over The Avengers (92%). Some of my favourite movies were panned on initial release, including Blade Runner and 2001: A Space Odyssey -- all the way back to The Wizard Of Oz and It's A Wonderful Life. In fact, Blade Runner was one of the first movies I reviewed professionally. I was blown away by it and then, when I read other reviews by more important people, wondered if I had completely missed the boat. On the other hand, I didn't threaten any of their lives.
Today I know that some opinions are guaranteed to generate a certain response -- pan an Adam Sandler movie and somebody who can't spell will call me an idiot. And there is that old saw about opinions and certain orifices. It holds equally true for critics who have names and commenters who don't.