Dealing with the nasties online

Pondering positive ways to deal with online negativity seems to be a trend – maybe even a blooming social norm! Because, in response to social cruelty like the recent tragic trolling of Robin Williams’s daughter Zelda Williams, other people sympathized, defended her and started thinking of ways to counteract cruelty like that. Negativity grabs our attention more than positivity, New York Times commentary “Dealing with Digital Cruelty” pointed out yesterday, which doesn’t mean the former is more prevalent, but it does spark creative countermeasure development.

troll dolls

One kind of troll, anyway. (Photo by Tomi Knuutila. CC Licensed)

The article offered some strategies for people targeted by nastiness online, ways to stay stable and grow resilience, some of which sound a lot like the kind of wisdom handed down since long before there was an Internet (I’ll add a few I’ve learned too):

  • Not when you’re down. For goodness sake, don’t read online “feedback” when you’re feeling vulnerable (actors have been considering this one for as long as there’ve been theater reviews).
  • Sad comment on the commenter. Know that the nasty comments are often as much (or more) about the commenter than the commentee.
  • Turn it into the joke that it is. Read mean comments in a goofy voice – alone or in a group of friends, turning the nastiness into silly drama the way Jimmy Kimmel does with celebrities on his show in a “Mean Tweets” segment that makes the comments laughable.
  • Positive policymaking. Some people make it a policy not to read comments – or just not to read past the first negative, judgmental or cruel word in any comment.
  • Find the constructive parts. It takes some confidence, but one piece of advice the Times relays is to “let your critics be your gurus” and see if there’s something useful in the criticism.
  • Don’t let it feed your inner troll. We all have one, and sometimes it’s worse than any seemingly sub-human commenter online. Knowing that and knowing what triggers that harsh inner critic helps us avoid those triggers.
  • Take it to your network. If comments are hurting, reach out to friends who can respond to the cruelty with a pile-on of kindness toward you. They know you’d do the same for them.
  • You decide. Wise people have said this for eons, and it’s not always easy, but we decide whether we’re going to be hurt by something another person says. We can practice putting ourselves in the driver’s seat, patiently allowing it to take time and, sometimes, getting solid backup from those who love us.
  • Don’t let your brain be tricked. Know that brains naturally notice and dwell on the negative more than the positive “just as our attention naturally gravitates to loud noises and motion,” the Times reported. Negativity is not more common; it just seems so.

For a little data to back up that last point, the Pew Internet Project found that 70% of Internet users say they’ve “been treated kindly or generously by others online,” compared to “25% who say they have been treated unkindly or been attacked by someone online,” and 56% say they’ve “seen an online group come together to help a person or a community solve a problem” (for examples, see this).

We tend to think that the greater anonymity that digital environments allow is the sole reason for the social cruelty found in them. But another New York Times article reports that “anonymous, or pseudonymous, activity doesn’t automatically correlate with bad behavior. Rather, behavior is shaped by how participants in a group see themselves in relation to the whole.” That’s great news, because it points to the influence of social ties and norms on behavior online as well as offline. It shows that we can turn the online social cruelty around. Share that rather than the negativity with friends and loved ones, and you’ll accelerate the turnaround.

Related links

  • In her 2012 talk “Don’t Feed the Trolls,” software engineer and consultant Nicole Sullivan explains exactly how not to do that, with bits of wisdom like: don’t engage in conflict unless you feed on it too; “sometimes tolls are not 100% troll”; and it helps to know your troll (there are different kinds, at about 5:50 into her talk).
  • “Neutralize the ‘negativity bias’ against kids’ Net use”
  • About growing resilience (the first three articles)
  • My first post about this protective aspect of our social networks was back in 2009, calling it “the guild effect,” because of what I learned from educators working in World of Warcraft about the way guild members have each other’s backs.
  • More on social norms superpowers here, a sidebar to a post about a recent Hollywood-inspired spike in nastiness
  • Anonymity enables positivity too. At the Safer Internet Day conference we ConnectSafely folk put on in Washington last Feb., high school student leaders reminded us of something we all know: that it’s sometimes embarrassing to compliment someone publicly, thus the compliments pages that show up in sites built on anonymity such as Ask.fm. Click here for other insider intelligence they shared in their panel session.

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