I’ve been hearing a lot lately about internet trolls not only in online video games (troll havens), but even in the mainstream news. In case you’re not familiar with the practice, “trolling” basically refers to an attempt to elicit a strong emotional response from someone online by posting inflammatory, intentionally ignorant or otherwise annoying content. It’s a simple formula: when you are mad, trolls are amused. Chances are that you’ve seen this before, and it’s obnoxious. Nobody likes a troll.

The prominence of trolls in public conversation is indicative of a greater trend. For the most part, we are all spending more and more time communicating digitally, and consistently less time is being spent on face-to-face interaction. There is nothing wrong with digital communication; it would be a bit ironic for me to be proposing such a thing in a blog post on behalf of a strategic communications agency. But digital communication does offer a greater degree of anonymity and perceptible safety (e.g., you won’t get punched for being a jerk online … at least not immediately), which empowers people to say and do things they normally wouldn’t. It’s a recipe for diminished civility, and there is a real risk that even decent folk like us can act a bit more brazen than we should in online interactions.

A post I recently stumbled upon from a site called the Art of Manliness reminded me of the problem with civility in digital conversation. The post was entitled “Being a Gentleman in the Age of the Internet”, and it contained a few gems of wisdom regarding how we can bring civility online and avoid falling into the habit of responding heatedly to trolls or people with whom we simply don’t agree. You can read the whole post if you like, but the main takeaways were this:

1. Remember that there are real people on the other side of the computer. This can be tough when you’re interacting with an avatar, but put yourself in the other person’s shoes

2. Never say something to someone online that you wouldn’t say to the person’s face. Even if you know you’re interacting with a human, it can be easy to act like a “tough guy” online, so don’t treat people any differently than you would in person

3. Use your real name. Identification keeps you accountable for your words, and should be considered unless you truly need anonymity<

4. Sit on it. Instead of saying something you will regret in the heat of the moment, think about your response and respond when you are calm

5. Don’t respond at all. Dave McRaney, author of a cognitive psychology-themed book called “You Are Not So Smart” (which I read and loved), explains why you can’t win an online argument because of the “backfire effect”: Threatening someone’s beliefs actually strengthens them

6. Say something positive. I think this is a very underrated tactic, as recognizing when someone makes a good point, complimenting them when they may not expect it or otherwise staying positive not only shows your willingness to maintain civil discussion, but may also remind others to treat you like a real person

A coworker at AKHIA, Amber Davis, recently delivered a presentation on building an online communications strategy when creating a personal brand online, which I think is a marvelous idea. Creating such a plan could mean deciding what sort of content you want to share and how/where you will share it—I wrote a post about doing this as a young professional not long ago—and it should also include rules you set for yourself regarding how you’re going to “keep it classy” when communicating online. No matter how active we are online, I think we could all stand to spend more time developing such a strategy.

The way we communicate is inevitably changing, and it is doubtful we will become any less reliant on digital technology to send messages in the future. If we take a moment to think about how we’re engaging in these digital discussions, however, we have a great opportunity to positively influence the quality of discourse taking place around us, and in turn, to positively impact the reputations of our brands each and every day.

Have thoughts or questions about building an online brand, reputation management, trolling or otherwise? We’d love to hear them!