New Media Workshop: What Do You Do When the Conversation Gets Ugly?

angry crocodile

There’s a lot of inspiring rhetoric out there about “the conversation” that new media allows. Your customers will be able to extoll your purple cow to one another and make you disgustingly rich. The media will find you and enter into deep, soul searching conversation about your product or project. Other bloggers will link to you and bring you fame and fortune.

You don’t hear as much talk about what happens when some gasbag comes into your forum and starts throwing around a lot of unfair or just plain rude posts, or whether you should respond when a top Stumbler calls you something unrepeatable. So let’s talk about that. Here are some survival tips for when the conversation in a forum, blog or other social network takes an unpleasant turn.

Stay dispassionate

The first one to get angry loses. Reason and self-control are essential to your social capital in new media–don’t squander them. You may be hitting the ceiling at unfair, inaccurate or just nasty posts, but you won’t be able to communicate your point effectively if you’re sputtering with anger.

Do anything you need to do to get control of your emotions, and realize that at least some of the emotional heat is being created right there in your own head. (You know you’re in trouble when you find yourself in a lengthy imaginary argument with some online jerk, with you playing both roles. Not that I have ever done that.)

Never respond to a social media conversation when you’re out of control emotionally. One of the better ways to regain control is to . . .

Get up and take a walk

This is not hypothetical advice. Physically get up, take your body away from the keyboard, and go outside where you can experience people and dogs and sky and buildings. You need perspective, and a little deep breathing wouldn’t kill you either.

If you’ve taken a walk, done some deep breathing and practiced a couple of scathing retorts on your cat, and you find that you need to post a timely response but you’re still angry, acknowledge it. Something like “Normally I have a rule about not posting when I’m this angry, but I feel like I need to set the record straight on a couple of things.”

State your position

There’s a balance between not feeding the troll and letting the troll walk all over you. Don’t be afraid to state your position.

Don’t retreat behind corporate language

If you’re defending an organization, especially if you have a professional communications background, the temptation is to come back with a crafted message. Be extremely careful. A precise response is good, but over-crafted, meaningless double-speak is worse than no response at all (and no response at all can be pretty bad). Replies have to be conversational, human and take a clear point of view. If you wouldn’t say it to your most cynical relative (maybe the father-in-law who wonders audibly when you’ll finally find a real job), don’t say it online.

Along those lines, understand that the social media crowd is usually much less amenable to changing the subject than a reporter would be (especially a broadcast reporter). You need to stay reasonably relevant to the discussion at hand, not abrubtly shift over to what you’d rather be talking about. (Adroit shifting, on the other hand, is a nice trick when you can pull it off.)

Be succinct

A social media spat isn’t the place to lay out mountains of evidence on your behalf. Point to your supporting evidence elsewhere on the Web, or create a special report if you have to. Keep your actual posts pithy.

Don’t have two conversations

If you respond one way in public and another in email, your email will get published, often with a point-by-point commentary on how it differs from your public comments. I’ve seen this happen more than once, and it is not pretty. Consider every email or private message you send as part of your public defense, and follow the same rules in private conversations that you do in public ones.

Expect some four-letter language

The Web 2.0 community is just plain potty-mouthed compared with, say, corporate or nonprofit norms. Some of the names thrown at Caroline Middlebrook for having the audacity to thank Stumblers would curl your hair. If profanity bugs you and you want to make use of social media, there’s really no cure except to get over it. Letting yourself overreact because of a person’s choice of a four-letter word will make you nuts.

It’s important to understand that using rough language doesn’t necessarily imply stronger feeling with this crowd. Pretend you’re in the Merchant Marine, or conversing with someone with Tourette’s. Accept that profanity is accepted in this subculture and move on.

This, too shall pass

Even the most colossal flame wars do pass eventually. Present yourself as a level-headed, reasonable and rational person, and that will be what participants remember.

In the long run, you’ll find that smart, reasonable people are more remarkable than the gasbags who verbally break wind all over the public conversation.

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  • Comments

    1. David Zinger says:

      Great points about conversations. I think they are so hard in live situations and open to so much interpretation in socialmedia. I try and give myself the 24 hour rule before a big comment and also I keep thinking of all the best emails I never sent.

    2. Sonia Simone says:

      It can be really hard, and painful. And when these issues take you by surprise in your business, it’s especially hard.

    3. cougarmark says:

      What a lame post! Did you have nothing better to do!

      (Just kidding – great article – just thought I’d test you out – see if I could make your blood boil.)

    4. Alyzande says:

      Thank you. Currently being driven nuts by a competitor spamming lies. Want to kick him. Won’t.


    1. [...] sometimes the conversation gets ugly. Yes, sometimes your customers throw bottles at you when you were just trying to do something nice. [...]

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