Yesterday, we were present for the unveiling of the winners of the Monument Circle Idea Competition. In attendance were news crews from most of the major Indianapolis media outlets, Mayor Ballard, a representative from the governor’s office, and various city and state bigwigs. Also on hand were the First-, Second-, and Third-Place winners, as chosen by a distinguished panel of judges. The First-Place winners were a couple of nice young men from Paris who made the trek to Indianapolis and saw the Circle in person for the first time this past Monday. They were thrilled to be here–and thrilled that they’d placed first in this prestigious international idea competition.

Since its inception, the competition has gotten great buzz online. (In the interest of full disclosure, we developed and continue to maintain the competition’s Facebook page and blog.) People have shared ideas and asked intelligent questions about how the competition was funded, how (and if) the ideas will be implemented, and how they can vote for the People’s Choice Award.

For the record: the Monument Circle Idea Competition was funded entirely with private dollars. It was an idea competition, not a design competition–a chance to envision what our city’s most important public space might become in the future. There’s no funding in place right now to implement any ideas to remake the Circle in any way. The competition was simply a way to generate ideas–and add to the ongoing discussion about urbanism in Indianapolis.

Overall, the comments have been positive, and the questions have been reasonable. But that’s not always the case; in fact, almost anyone who’s posted in the Internet for more than a week has experienced commenters who have negative, even inflammatory, things to say.

This should come as no surprise. People will complain about anything, and the Internet is soapbox, if not megaphone.

“I find your post to be an insult to my intelligence.”

It allows you to be relatively–even totally–anonymous. Every post with an open comment section is a chance to bring out the flamethrower and fire away; the only consequence is that your comment may be deleted, which gives you the opportunity to complain about that.

Negativity is the bloated, ugly underbelly of social media. I’ve seen negative comments spread out of control and practically shut down Open Salon, the big blog site run by Salon Media. I’ve seen news stories in which anyone with a Latino name was assumed to be an illegal alien and vilified by ignorant commenters. I’ve personally been attacked and ridiculed simply for having a contrary opinion. I’ve seen perfectly nice characters assassinated and defamed–by people whom I assume would not in a million years actually speak the vile garbage that spews from their fingers.

So what do you do when it happens to you?

Some people ignore negative comments–which can work. Negative commenters are looking for reinforcement. Oftentimes engaging them only makes them angrier and more determined to cause trouble.

Deleting negative comments is a perfectly fine strategy, too. You don’t have to allow visitors to strew garbage all over your blog or your Facebook page. I say, delete freely and unapologetically.

You can revel in the stew you’ve, perhaps unwittingly, created. You can counterpunch. You can fan the flames and goad people into writing even crazier stuff. Want to see your web traffic take off? Consider the flamewar for its train-wreck appeal.

But often the most effective way to deal with negative comments is with patience and kindness. Remember that many negative commenters really want a flame war. They’re trying to upset you. A kind, thoughtful, respectful response is disarming, and usually unexpected. It leaves little room for continued vitriol–and makes subsequent complaints seem petty.

Also, keep in mind that negative comments very often reflect legitimate complaints or concerns that need to be addressed. If you’re being dinged for poor customer service or factual inaccuracies, negative comments give you the chance to apologize, explain, clarify, or set the record straight. Your candid, timely response to an angry or disappointed commenter can quell the negative uprising and make you look like the honest, caring, thoughtful person you almost certainly are.

Of course, not all negative comments deserve a reasonable answer. Racism, sexism, and willful dissembling deserve to be smacked down. Human rights need to be defended. Most homophobes, ironically, could use a spanking.

In general, though, resist the temptation to fire back. You are almost certainly funnier, cleverer, and more articulate than your online enemies. You don’t have to prove it.

And with that: congratulations to all the winners, finalists, entrants, judges, and organizers of the Monument Circle Idea Competition. Do yourself a favor and take a look at the finalists–you can go here to view them and text to vote for the People’s Choice award.