Everyone who’s been participating online for longer than a few months has a troll story. It’s seemingly impossible to avoid those obnoxious, rude, incendiary losers who haunt the dark, moist corners of every internet conversation forum. If you’re a professional making your living primarily online, it can be difficult to navigate the treacherous world of trolls and their preferred method of getting under your skin: online harassment.
The common advice for dealing with bullies, cyberstalkers, identity thieves, and the like basically boils down to "stay as hidden as possible," but for professionals who do business as themselves, this can be tricky. If your job revolves around interacting with other members of your industry (and it probably should), there are a few ground rules you can follow to keep yourself free of the more malicious forms of trolling.
Recommended Reading: How To Handle Cyber Hecklers
Trolls Love Controversy
Controversy is a magnetic substance to those who are looking to pick a fight. And the more controversial your opinion, the more hate you will attract. This is normal, and frankly, there’s nothing that can really be done about it. Most everyone will experience a snarling comment or two in the course of their online participation.
But there are some people who take things to an extreme level.
Depending on various factors, most of which are beyond your control, an innocent comment, blog post, or social media broadcast about a controversial subject can invite a deluge of nasty insults, rants, and even threats on your life or safety.
However, this is not a warning to stay away from controversial issues. There are problems that plague every industry, and if no one is brave enough to address them, they will continue to cause misery for everyone. Just know that, if you choose to tackle a touchy subject, you’re going to have to be extra vigilant about not getting swallowed up by the angry uproar.
Look, I’m not saying that harassment or bullying is ever excusable. But sometimes, people say things that are just plain dumb and that invite ridicule because of their sheer dumbness. Poorly researched opinions, gross blanket statements, and ignorant or offensive stereotypes aimed at those in the design industry who disagree with your point of view are just some of the things that practically beg for a harsh response.
Many of us have been guilty at one time or another of at least one of these, myself included. But there’s a very simple solution to this type of attack, and it involves genuinely knowing what you’re talking about.
Arm yourself with knowledge
Research your opinions very well and inoculate yourself against frivolous counter-arguments. Most trolls are lazy; they aren’t going to bother with coming up with a reasoned, well-researched argument against you. And if they do, well, perhaps they’re not such a troll after all.
People with sound, legitimate criticism of your points just might be worth listening to now and again, if only to understand the other side of the argument.
If it’s stalkers, hackers, or identity thieves you’re trying to avoid, placing a limit on the places you frequent online can be a smart solution. Pick a handful of social media sites, blogs, and forums, and stick with them. I know it seems counterintuitive to restrict yourself to just a few places to interact and market yourself, but bear with me.
With so many sites to choose from, you may be overwhelmed by analysis paralysis and think you have to be “everywhere.” But it’s simply impossible to be “everywhere,” and there’s ample evidence that shows you may actually be hurting your brand if you show up on too many social media or networking sites at once. Pick a small number of well-populated sites and direct your contacts, clients, and peers to those.
Avoid Hostile Engagement
This is commonly known as ‘not feeding the trolls.’ The more attention you give a harasser, the more encouragement they have to keep harassing you. If no one is directly threatening your life or personal safety, it’s almost always a better idea to simply ignore the offending comment.
Blocking weirdos and trolls is a tried and true method of disengagement. If the comment is suggestive or licentious in some way, this is especially a good reason to ignore it. A disturbed individual may take your reply as encouragement to continue their bad behavior.
It’s a good rule of thumb to avoid giving out your exact location to strangers. If you live in a large metropolitan area, it’s easier to give a general idea of where you are in the world without inviting people to look up your address and such. But no matter where you live, it’s better to be vague rather than specific about your location.
This applies especially to professionals who take on speaking engagements or attend other live events. Use as little personally identifying information as possible for yourself and your family.
Act Like An Adult
Don’t be childish in your responses to criticism. If someone disagrees with you, there’s no need for ad hominem attacks or mean-spirited replies. If you genuinely feel you are being misrepresented, then deliver your response in a mature, polite way.
Stooping down to their level only eggs them on. Emotional responses to criticism may be natural, but they’re rarely productive and they almost never end well.
Don’t Back Down
There are numerous stories of well-known bloggers and industry professionals who have caved in to the vitriol lobbed at them by trolls and subsequently withdrawn from participating in the online community altogether.
This, in my opinion, is the worst thing that can result from cyber-bullying: a person gets so hurt and discouraged that they withdraw from the online conversation completely, taking their invaluable store of talent, knowledge, and creativity with them.
Don’t be this person. The trolls will always be around; they aren’t going anywhere. So why should you?
Lastly, I need to address something: no matter how polite and well-informed you are, you may still become a victim of online harassment. Yes, it’s true. Sometimes people just get unlucky. Sometimes, no matter what you do, you won’t be able to avoid a vicious attack by someone who is hell-bent on tearing down your reputation, your self esteem, or your business.
It’s important to remember that those people are the ones with the problem – not you. If you should find yourself the victim of an unfortunate attack, don’t lose heart. It’s still possible for most people to avoid the major disasters in which the police have to get involved or some such, simply by using a bit of common sense, courtesy and decorum.