It’s easy to think of trolls as crazed narcissistic psychopathic sadists, but anyone can be a troll. It’s an activity, not an identity, because the Internet is a deceptively “safe place” to put negativity and leave it like it never existed. Chronic trolls, however, do fit certain patterns: mostly Internet-savvy white males and other bored disaffected demographics. And, in the rarest of occasions, trolls are working their paid jobs.
The common image associated with the word “troll” is one of a violent ogre, and the original meaning is a Scandinavian witch. But take a moment to think of a fisherman. He’s trolling when he trails bait behind a boat, and he’s trawling when he’s dragging a net (fun fact: “trawl” comes from the Latin tragula, meaning dragnet). Internet trolls are in a way doing both. They are trailing bait to see who bites it, and they’re searching for what their surroundings can offer – often relief from their own anger.
A good general rule when dealing with people you disagree with is everyone thinks he’s doing the right thing. So if you observe someone patently doing the wrong thing, the value in the interaction is discovering how it can possibly seem right. Trolling, a relatively minor moral offense, is often shrugged off by anyone who is able to ignore it. If you are defending a business commitment or personal value online and feel compelled to respond, however, trolling can tell you a lot about how your message is being received – and how you can optimize your response.
- What does the comment say?
Yes, there’s nastiness and maybe some profanity, but unless it’s only those two things, you’ve received a legitimate message. Check the metadata. Was the comment posted late at night, especially early in the week? You’re probably dealing with someone who was momentarily frustrated. Was the message personal? Who was mentioned? Specific comments are often based on specific experiences or perceptions – new mothers, for example, often end up trolling when they feel a product or service could harm their child. Even when inappropriate, users and clients often have a concern clear enough to cause anger.
- Where is your greatest responsibility?
Some people and organizations have strict protocols on troll response, choosing to ignore all negativity or perhaps respond studiously to any messages. Response is preferable to silence, as it is bold and direct, but response to trolling has to be done with thought to the entire likely audience. This may include common visitors, customers, commenters, and even Web crawlers (your response is an optimization opportunity, too!). A troll gives up the high ground but not expectation for a response. Since you’re still on the high ground, think of your responsibility to all readers.
- How can you be funny and positive?
The most epic Internet comments aren’t the mean ones, or the blandly nice ones. They’re the funny ones. If something about a troll’s comment made you laugh, you’re probably not alone. Make a positive joke about the commenter or comment (workshop jokes in a group if you can, and always avoid offensive material) and be specific to their actual grievance, as half of all commenters (troll or otherwise) expect businesses to respond within a week. If there was any speck of a legitimate complaint, build on it as a way to move forward as a business. It’s the one gift that trolls give you.
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