I was in Kindergarten and first grade in 1984 – 1986. We learned that the piano has 88 keys, just like the speed that the Delorean has to reach to travel through time. We learned how to cover our heads during a tornado drill (this was Kansas after all), and we got the day off of school when the Royals won the World Series.
My daughter is a first-grader in 2015 – 2016. While the Royals won this World Series (woo hoo!), she didn’t get the day off of school. Instead of monthly tornado drills they have regular lockdown drills, which give my daughter nightmares.
There is another lesson that my daughter has been talking about lately–something that didn’t exist until the mid-nineties and probably didn’t even have a name until the early 2000s–cyberbullies and what to do about them.
When I was in elementary school, our “technology” was the card catalog, and by the fifth grade we had Oregon Trail. In my daughter’s technology class they learn how to set up an email account, they practice reading and math on the computer, and they discuss how to navigate the vicious world of the cyberbully.
For children and teenagers, the cyberbully is often someone they know, and they latch on to an idea and try their hardest to make people suffer. It’s sociopathic, but disturbingly common: over 40% of children report that they’ve been cyberbullied. In the three decades since I was a first-grader, the suicide rate among 10 to 14 year olds has increased 50%. Many people claim this is due to cyberbullying.
Happily schools have recognized that it’s absolutely critical to teach children how harmful cyberbullying is, how to NOT be a cyberbully, and to help them learn the skills to respond appropriately to cyberbullies. Ignore them and tell an adult.
Cyberbullying doesn’t stop when we reach 18 or when we graduate from college, it just takes on a new form. Adults are a lot less likely to be bullied by someone they know than they are to be harassed by anonymous bullies, aka trolls.
Businesses aren’t immune to trolls, and in fact more people feel comfortable trying on the role of troll when a business is concerned. Unless you’re Citizens United, businesses aren’t people, right? Businesses are machines run by mysterious forces, but there certainly are no feelings to hurt, no lives to ruin when you attack a business online.
If only that were true. Businesses, especially small businesses like mine and maybe yours, are run and staffed by actual people with actual feelings, who actually care deeply about what they do. But one of the ways you can tell that your business is becoming successful online is that you’re starting to attract trolls. That’s messed up.
Not everyone who’s saying mean things about your business is a troll, and that’s an important distinction to make; some people are genuine critics. While sometimes the critic crosses the line into trolldom, we need to properly address our critics, and rightfully ignore trolls.
Critics vs Trolls: Death Match
There are two kind of critics: those who have used your product or service and have had a bad experience with it, and those who have never tried your product or service, but they dislike it based only on an opinion of what you offer, not how you offer it. The latter kind of critic can easily turn into a troll.
Several years ago my old company had a client who was dissatisfied with the services we provided him. While we strongly felt that we did the best we could do given the state of the client’s business, he did not agree. So he tweeted this:
However bad it hurt, and however useful we actually felt, it didn’t matter. This critique is true to our client’s experience and he wasn’t being a troll in this case. Just a critic. If this critique had been on a review site like Yelp, Google, or even Facebook, we would have written with a public response indicating that we care about each of our clients, and apologizing that he felt as though he had a bad experience.
I’ve written before about responding to negative reviews, and in cases like this, a response is warranted.
And then you have the critic who just doesn’t like the idea of the product. One of my clients sells a product for children, and parents can be notoriously judgmental of any parenting choice/style/product/book/anything at all that doesn’t resemble their own preferences (I can say that, I’m a parent). We recently saw a few negatively critical tweets come through by people who don’t like the idea of what it is, and they want the business to know their opinion:
For every one of these mean critical tweets, we’ve had hundreds of positive responses to the product. Unfortunately the bad gets magnified in our brains and the good gets buried, even when the good far outweighs the bad. These critiques are biting, but they aren’t quite to the level of trolling yet.
And here’s where the trolls step in. Instead of critiquing a product or service, they begin to critique the actual people behind it. They start getting mean and insulting, they throw low punches, and they look for a way to emotionally damage human beings. These people are sophisticated enough to know that businesses are made up of people, and it’s their goal to make the people feel bad.
Some trolls do it in the name of comedy. Twitter is full of parody accounts by people who are too scared to try open mic night at a comedy club, or who have been booed off the stage too many times to count (was that too mean? I’m not naming names, so I don’t think that counts as trolling). So they take their cruel humor to Twitter and try desperately to hurt people. Because hurting people is somehow funny.
Other trolls have no intention of being funny. They seem to be on a desperate trajectory to cause pain and nothing but pain. These are cyberbullies who are all grown up and ready to hurt.
Often times when facing trolls, my clients’ first inclination is to respond, to defend the product or service, to explain it in a way that transforms the troll into a compassionate human being. As far as I know, transforming a troll into a good person has happened only once (warning, this links to a page that contains graphic, racist language).
You’re not going to transform a troll. As my daughter would say (singing at the top of her lungs): let it go. Let it go.