A series of recent events on the Web made me realize a couple of things about real estate people on the Internet.
First, you Realtors are all so nice. I mean it — Realtors are so nice to each other on the Internet that it strays close to the Land of Care Bears.
Second, most real estate people don’t know how to fight on the Internet.
If you’re an active blogger, a participant in the loose online community sometimes referred to as the RE.net, then your concern right now is mostly about how to argue (or not argue) with each other via various Web sites and on Twitter and such.
But for the rest of you, the lessons are applicable to when former clients, unhappy employees and Internet trolls of various kinds decide to attack you online. I may not be the world’s foremost expert on how to take someone down on the Web, but having come of age on the Internet through the worlds of gamers and political fanatics, I do have a few thoughts to share.
Feel free to adopt any of these tips or adapt them or ignore them altogether, or flame me to the ninth circle of hell.
Without further ado, here are my seven tips for fighting on the Internet.
1. Don’t be silent
Far too many people, especially those in real estate, seem to believe that silence is the best policy when it comes to attacks on the Web. The notion that one should praise publicly and chastise privately is prevalent on the RE.net.
A related idea, that wrestling with pigs gets you dirty, strongly suggests that you should remain somehow "above the fray."
I disagree. In some cases, when someone is being an obvious troll, or online provocateur (see a definition here), it might not be worth your while to get into it; trolls feed on this conflict. But in other cases, remaining "above the fray" may suggest that the attack was justified.
For example, suppose some random anonymous visitor to your blog posts a comment like, "You’re ugly and you smell!" It might not be worth responding to that, since no one is going to think less of you because of a stupid comment like that from an anonymous commenter.
But if the same visitor posts, "You’re an incompetent Realtor who doesn’t know how to market a house to save her life," then a response may not only be warranted — it’s necessary.
On the flip side, maybe you are the one going on the offensive. Maybe you saw something that really bugs you, and you need to call someone out for it. By all means, go to it! You may be doing the community a favor by exposing fraud, incompetence and/or wrongdoing.
So don’t be afraid to fight. Just do it right.
2. Rally the troops
One of the most effective ways to fight on the Internet is to have other people do it for you, especially if they themselves are respected and credible people. In the most recent kerfuffle, someone leveled a flamethrower at a respected member of the RE.net and let loose a full blast; the result was that literally dozens of people other than the person being attacked rose up in his defense.
They not only testified that he’s a great, giving, generous guy who saves orphan seals in his spare time and is up for sainthood (OK, some embellishment here) at the first available opportunity, but also raked the attacker over the coals. By the time the target spoke up, the scorch marks on his attacker were impressive to see. …CONTINUED
Now, you don’t have to sit around and wait for the cavalry to ride to your rescue. You can call them forward. Take the example from above where some anonymous commenter on your blog called you an incompetent, greedy, stupid Realtor, or some such.
Hopefully, your past clients who love you will naturally come forth in your defense; but I wouldn’t wait. E-mail them. Call them. Ask them to go on that thread and post supportive comments. Don’t ask them to beat the crap out of the attacking troll; if they’re so inclined, they’ll do it themselves. But do rally the troops if you’re in a fight.
The same goes if you’re on the offensive; it’s much more effective to be attacking en masse when you can. Otherwise, you might end up looking like one of those "End of the World" guys standing on street corners ranting and raving.
3. Don’t get personal
If you do decide to respond yourself, avoid ad hominem personal attacks. Except in extremely rare circumstances, personal attacks will weaken the force of your overall assault.
First, personal attacks tend to rile up not only the target, but all of the target’s friends and allies — see above about rallying the troops. Why provide the other side with more motivation?
Second, personal attacks inevitably distract the reader/listener from the actual thrust. Because human beings are naturally attracted more to blood and carnage, unless your whole point is the blood and carnage, they’re likely to ignore whatever else you’re saying.
"You’re a bad Realtor" gets the point across; "You’re a (expletive deleted) selfish moron and a bad Realtor" prevents most people from getting past the "and." They’re too busy focusing on the "(expletive deleted) selfish moron" part.
Third, personal attacks usually make you look desperate. It takes enormous talent to level personal attacks without looking like an idiot yourself. Winston Churchill did it when he attacked Stafford Cripps personally with this: "He has all of the virtues I dislike and none of the vices I admire." Unless you’ve got Churchill’s skill with the English language, I advise you to avoid ad hominem attacks entirely.
Assault the deed, the idea, the position, but not the person.
4. Use humor, when possible
As the Churchill quote suggests, if you can be funny, you can get away with just about anything. Especially on the Internet. Humor is a devastating weapon on the Web; it’s difficult to recover if your attacker has made you the subject of laughter.
A master of the craft is Mark Steyn, the political commentator. Ten years ago, he wrote a humorous column about Al Gore’s fighting spirit during the 2000 elections, referenced here.
It was a vicious uppercut, in Internet terms. If you can find a way to make your opponent the subject of ridicule, of laughter, and of guffaws, you’ve won.
The difficulty with using humor, of course, is that it’s really hard to be funny, especially with the written word. Video makes it slightly easier, but even then, unless you could have a sideline as a standup comic, it’s hard to do.
Jon Stewart does video-based assaults better than just about anyone else today, but he’s a rare talent. Plus, humor is so individual: what you find hilarious might be corny as all hell to other people.
Nonetheless, when in an Internet fight, try for humor as a weapon; if you can hit the right note, it will be a nearly insurmountable advantage for you.
5. Never, ever defame anyone
This tip isn’t so much a tip as it is a warning. Whatever else you do, don’t ever post defamatory allegations about anyone else on the Internet. It is a serious error to believe that you are not liable for defamation or libel simply because you’re doing it on Facebook. …CONTINUED
The laws of defamation are in effect on the Web. "Winning" an Internet argument to lose all your savings to a lawsuit is not, to put it mildly, advisable.
The basics of defamation are: publication of a false statement of fact that is understood as being of and concerning an individual, and tends to harm the reputation of the individual. If the individual is a public figure, he or she must also prove actual malice.
The key takeaway should be that insults based on opinion are all good, but insults that allege facts need to be avoided unless you can prove that the facts are true. So for example, "You’re a jackass" might be rude and violate tip No. 3, but it won’t necessarily put you in legal trouble.
"You’re an alcoholic," on the other hand, just might land you in serious trouble, unless you can convince a judge and jury of your proof of alcoholism — a difficult and expensive proposition.
This is not the place to get into a lengthy discussion of the laws of defamation on the Internet, but this "Bloggers’ FAQ on Online Defamation Law" by the Electronics Freedom Foundation is highly recommended reading for anyone wishing more information on the subject.
6. Don’t lose your temper
One of the subtexts of any "flamewar" on the Internet is to go at each other until one party loses his or her temper and posts something stupid. Lose your temper and lose the fight.
Therefore, no matter how provocative someone is being, no matter how asinine, no matter how infuriating, when fighting on the Internet, you cannot lose your temper in public. If you do lose it, walk away from the computer until you calm down, then come back and work on a devastating humor-laden response.
In fact, I’d like to suggest that you should disregard tip No. 1: Don’t be silent if you’re pissed off — in that case, avoid fighting on the Internet completely until you have mastered your anger.
7. Consider your audience
Finally, recognize that fighting on the Internet is a public performance, not a private dispute. You are not trying to convince your opponent to agree with you. You won’t be changing his mind about you, your performance, your character, or anything of the sort. Those types of debates have a very different tone and tenor about them.
No, when you’re in a fight, you’re really performing for everyone else who might be reading (either right then, or later via the Internet’s ability to remember everything).
A critical component of fighting, then, is to consider your audience. Are they rabid partisans one way or another? Are they a rough-and-tumble crowd (like the sort that hangs around World of Warcraft message boards)?
Or are they a genteel and professional group (like Realtors on the whole)? Do they respond better to logical arguments, or to passionate declarations?
Say you’re the Realtor who is attacked by some commenter. Don’t waste time or energy trying to convince the attacker that you’re neither a bad person nor a bad Realtor. He isn’t the audience. The rest of your clients and prospects, your peers and colleagues, are. They are the ones you need to convince.
Make love, not war … but when war comes, be prepared
While fighting and flamewars are disagreeable, they are an inevitable part of the Internet. Flaming each other is an ancient tradition on the Web, from its earliest days. And while human beings remain mired in sin, it is likely to remain a part of the Web. Furthermore, sometimes it is necessary to start a fight to bring attention to a wrong.
I don’t know that these seven tips encompass all the tactics of virtual bloodletting. But they’re a start to help you prepare for when conflict comes. For come it will, and prepared must you be.
Robert Hahn is managing partner of 7DS Associates, a marketing, technology and strategy consultancy focusing on the real estate industry. He is also founder of The Notorious R.O.B. blog. You can reach him on Twitter at @robhahn.
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