One of the most important aspects of reputation management is figuring out a way to gracefully handle criticism and negative feedback. How you handle criticism says far more about you than how you handle praise.

At the same time, this is the Internet. People here like to antagonize each other for fun and before you can come up with a plan for dealing with constructive criticism and negative feedback; you have to figure out how to tell the difference between the good kind of criticism and trolling.

What’s a Troll Anyway?

According to Wikipedia, a “troll” is “a person who sows discord on the Internet by starting arguments or upsetting people, by posting inflammatory, extraneous, or off-topic messages in an online community, either accidentally or with the deliberate intent of provoking readers into an emotional response.”

Basically, trolls are people who like to stir up trouble for fun. They seem to take pleasure in causing fights, attempting to ruin reputations and generally just being jerks.

Trolls can come from anywhere and everywhere (and nowhere) and will flock to anything. They are the reason “don’t read the comments” has become an unwritten rule on the Internet. They don’t need provocation. They are the provocation.

At the same time, it is important to note, there are some people who see “trolling” as a legitimate means to an end. These are the people who will make sure to post the same bad review on all of the review sites they can find. They are the people who will email you over and over again with the same message to try and make a point. They’ll comment on everything you post online. Basically, they stalk you.

Not So Fast!

It’s good to have a healthy ego when you create things. You need to believe in yourself and what you’re making if you ever want to turn it into a viable business. It’s no wonder, then, that so many entrepreneurs and creators fall into the trap of seeing every negative comment as “trolling.”

Try to not be one of those people.

Unfortunately, as wonderful as you are and as innovative as your project might be, not everybody is going to automatically love you. Some people will have genuine problems with you or what you have to offer. Not everybody who voices an issue is trying to troll you. Some of them are seeking a genuine response and these people deserve to be taken seriously.

Before you say “duh,” remember: not everybody is eloquent or polite. Some people voice their critiques or reviews in incredibly harsh language. This is where you’re going to run into problems because sometimes the harsh response is trolling and sometimes it is someone trying to alert you to a real problem.

So How Do You Tell the Difference?

Eventually you’re going to develop a gut instinct for the difference between genuine feedback and trolling. Until then, here are some of the things to look for when you’re trying to figure out which is which.

Does the person give you his actual name? Trolls tend to hide behind pseudonyms and “leet speak.”

Does the criticism come from a legitimate and working email address or verifiable profile? Trolls like to hide behind generic email addresses and blank profile pages. Most aren’t willing to share their contact details.

Does the feedback reference something specific (or many specific things) that you have said or done? Trolls tend toward the generic “you suck” type comments or “don’t buy it, it’s a rip-off!”

Is the feedback reactionary/violent? Rape threats, death threats, threats of physical harm or harm to one’s family/pets/residence are more likely to be trolls.

IMPORTANT NOTE: If you get threatening comments of any kind, report them! Report them to the service provider, keep copies of them and report them to your local law enforcement. It is much better to err on the side of caution with these types of messages, no matter what the officer who comes to take the report might say.

Does the same comment/name turn up all over the place? Is someone slandering your name in the exact same way across a dozen different message boards and review sites? That person is likely trying to troll you.

What Do You Do About Trolling?

One of the golden rules of the Internet is: “don’t feed the trolls.” Trolls, remember, feed on interaction and reaction. Reacting to them in any way is just going to encourage them to continue trolling you and it might even make them up their game.

Report them if they make threats against you (referenced above) but other than that, ignore, ignore, IGNORE. No matter how tempting it is to fire back at them, RESIST. Trolls are fickle and bore easily. If they can’t get a rise out of you, they will move on…eventually.

But wait, didn’t I just say that sometimes legitimate criticism can look like trolling? What are you supposed to do if you can’t tell the difference?

Erring On the Side of Caution

If you aren’t sure whether or not someone is trolling you, the best thing to do is to err on the side of caution. For at least a little while, treat the criticism as legitimate feedback and react to it the same way you would any real complaint. If you don’t get anywhere after a round or two of this, let it go and ignore them.

Responding to Legitimate Feedback

The best way to deal with legitimate negative feedback and criticism is to be as positive as possible. Pretend you’re Gandhi and “be the change you want to see in the world.” Thank the person for his comments. Apologize for problems. Then, find a way to make it right. Sometimes this is easy: replacing a broken product with a working one or offering a coupon off a future order because shipping took too long.

Other times the problem is larger and is going to require some back end tweaking. If this is the case, ask the criticizer for help finding a solution. Ask for suggestions or ideas and make sure you keep the person up to date on your progress.

Most importantly—do as much of this as publically as you can. This way people will see that you value feedback. This makes you look good and it helps you showcase the trolls for who they are.

Remember, trolls are stubborn but get bored quickly. They aren’t going to respond well to your positivity and will likely get even harsher and crazier in their following messages. This works, believe it or not, for you. It shows that you tried but that you were being trolled. So, when you eventually stop responding, it will be obvious what was happening.

On a Positive Note

For many people, being targeted by trolls has become something of a badge of honor! They see it as a sign of having “arrived.” Why? Because nobody is immune to troll attacks. Trolls don’t discriminate against their targets. They’ll target anybody, just because they can. There are lots of theories out there about the trolling that happens. Alan Martin explored these ideas in his Wired Article “Online Disinhibition and the Psychology of Trolling” last year. If you’re being ignored it means you haven’t gotten big enough yet to catch a troll’s attention (some say).

Whatever their reasons are, the only thing you can control is how you respond. Remember that the next time someone tries to bait you into an argument online!