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You big meanie: from online bully to ethical troll to just being nice

Trolling. Cyberstalking. Online bullying. Once words that conjured scenes from science fiction are now the norm—the norm on the morning news, the norm in our daily vernacular, the norm in our customer service lives.

Spend any time with the headlines or at any tech conference and you’re apt to walk away with one conclusion: the internet is mean. Within the seemingly safe sanctity of our Twitter posts, blog commentary, and online reviews, we’re told that we’re open to a rash of hate opportunities and Mean Girls.

With many of our relationships now beginning over the internet and sometimes existing solely there, it’s expected then, that we’re spending a weighty amount of time talking to people online. We meet and speak with customers, fans, spouses, and friends through an endless stream of apps, games, sites, and communities. And with all this non-face-to-face communication, whether we intend it or not, it can be easy to fall into the bully trap—

Defining the mean

Every child has likely witnessed, been victim to, or participated in some form of playground bullying. While bullying—using strength or influence to intimidate—and his nasty sister trolling—deliberately trying to illicit a negative emotion through arguing, exaggerating, or antagonizing—are not new problems, they’ve become more prevalent as the internet becomes more commonplace.

But while online harassment is a very serious subject about potentially dangerous behaviors—intentional and extremely deliberate—this specific conversation is not about that. This is about preventing those accidental and misinterpreted words and actions that are perceived as trolling and bullying.

The intention matters

It’s not just individuals that bully and troll—brands, good brands, get caught doing it all the time. Sometimes they do it in ‘jest’ to customers, and less often because someone in the organization chooses or is misdirected to be mean to a consumer or competitor. More often, people and brands are simply trying to passionately justify a decision, defend a behavior, or explain their opinion, and it is misconceived (or not appreciated) in the (lack of) context.

More often, people and brands are simply trying to passionately justify a decision, defend a behavior, or explain their opinion, and it is misconceived (or not appreciated) in the (lack of) context.

Care is especially warranted when customer service is responding to online negative feedback. As Dave Dyson says in Not everyone likes you. What not to do with negative customer feedback, this is probably not the time to be sarcastic, defensive, or flip. Instead, respond genuinely without a guilt trip and build the relationship with the customer. Once you have a repertoire, you can create more of an emotional connection;

Can you be an ethical troll?

We all have a Facebook friend that manages to stir up engaging Trump-Clinton conversation without creating a rash of hysterical unfriending. Or the colleague that intentionally follows influencers on Twitter that he disagrees with, just to solicit an alternative point-of-view. Or the favorite brand that manages lively tit-for-tat banter whenever a competitor posts on social media. Each would technically be considered a troll, an ethical troll perhaps, but a troll is still a troll, right?

Comedians and sports commentators have made a career out of successfully going after people online. “We make fun of people, but we call it ‘ethical trolling’—we do it without being intentionally mean,” says Chris Kluwe, former NFL player and social activist who spoke on a panel (with Lana Berry, social media consultant and influencer, and PFT Commentator, a pseudonymous sportswriter) at this year’s SXSW. Ethical trolling is meant to provoke humor, rather than discord. The problem? People and brands that try to emulate it, unsuccessfully. If it goes awry, this type of humor will leave an audience feeling mocked or belittled, instead of ‘in on the joke’.

Ethical trolling is meant to provoke humor, rather than discord. The problem? People and brands that try to emulate it, unsuccessfully.

The art of the own

Being an ethical troll, or better yet, not being an internet bully, means that you need to be aware of a few things before posting or responding online—as an individual, or as a brand representative.

How do you ensure your behavior isn’t perceived as being an online bully or troll? Can you defend yourself, your brand, or your customer service without appearing like a big meanie?

  1. Know your reputation. You have a reputation, both online and off. Make sure that the way you are responding matches that. If your reputation is warm and good-natured, an off-the-cuff angry response may be misconstrued as bullying.

  2. Mind your manners. Please and thank-you still go a long away, even during an online disagreement.

  3. Never respond when you’re angry or upset. Remember the old adage of counting to ten before reacting? That’s still worthy advice, although you may wish to up that count to 20.

  4. Be aware of social norms. Norms are naturally tricky and exacerbated online because the internet and internet relationships are still pretty new. Many of the experts agree that we need to continue reinforcing social skills to prevent bullying—cyberbullying, trolling, and yes, that push-you-to-the-ground kind that still happens on playgrounds. These core social skills—problem-solving, empathy, and assertiveness—

  5. Practice “the art of the own.” Kluwe says you need to know when something is appropriate—what’s in fun—and what’s malicious. Know the difference between joking with someone online and trying to ruin their life. Harassment is a stupid practice best left out of anyone’s repertoire, as it invariably leads to something bad. As PFT Commenter, says, “There are more ethical ways to fuck with someone. Like trying to have an intelligent conversation.”

  6. Wield your power responsibly. If you have a lot of online followers, it’s your responsibility to tell your audience not to dogpile on someone you are pointing out, or trying to engage with. “A lot of them [people and brands] don’t actually believe the [negative] things they are saying, but the problem is, their followers do,” cautions Berry.

  7. Take something offline. Just as in customer service, some conversations need to come offline. If you find yourself feeling defensive or wanting to be belligerent, or if the other person is becoming so, pull the discussion into a one-on-one. Oftentimes this provides needed space and clarity.

  8. Be thick-skinned. If you put something out on social media, be prepared for feedback, and not always the kind you want. Dr. Brené Brown eases that harsh reality by reminding us that not all feedback matters. “There are a million cheap seats in the world today. There are so many people that will sit way back in the cheap seats and hurl insults and mean things.” Respond kindly, but don’t take it to heart.

  9. Don’t chase. Even an ethical troller needs to know when to leave the rabbit be.

  10. Punch up, not down. “Before you talk smack, recognize the difference between punching up and punching down,” says Kluwe. Punching up (a term coined in comedy) means using rhetoric to dismantle a maligned power structure. “Punching down is going after a random follower who disagreed with me.”

“The goal should never be to make someone feel unsafe online, even if they are an asshole," says PFT Commentator. "You still need to find some common ground with them if you really want them to listen or pay attention.” That’s right, be nice. Say your piece, find common ground, and don't be an online bully.

Sarah Stealey Reed is the editor of Relate. When she's not wandering the world, she's a loud writer of customer experiences, contact centers, and optimistic relationships. Find her on Twitter: @stealeyreed.

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