Venting anger by railing against your transgressors is a time-honored practice, as is gossiping about your coworkers or boss. But when you do it on social media websites or blogs, there can be serious repercussions to your online reputation, especially if your target fights back and starts a flame war. For some people, hotheaded comments online have led to embarrassment and inconvenience. In other cases, starting a social media fight and online reputation damage has ended careers.

How online insults and attacks are perceived by others

When you attack someone on the Web, your Internet reputation suffers. Why? Vindictive comments are a reflection of your problem-solving and interpersonal skills, not to mention your general maturity level. Your prospective boss, seeing how quick you were to attack someone for holding an opposing point of view, might think, “Poor team player, let’s choose someone else.” Alternatively, if you trash your boss online, potential future employers might be reluctant to hire you for fear of what you’ll later say about them.

Outside of employment considerations, slanderous or antagonistic comments can still cause significant harm to your online reputation, as demonstrated by the much-publicized spate of Facebook attacks by Willow and Bristol Palin following the launch of their mother’s reality TV show, Sarah Palin’s Alaska. Although the sisters’ intention was to defend their mother’s show, all they ended up doing was damaging their online reputations. They also inadvertently pushed the negative comments about Sarah Palin’s Alaska, which otherwise would likely have gone unnoticed, into the spotlight.

Accountability: The bright side of starting a social media fight

On the other hand, complaining about others online has, in a few cases, led to greater accountability among managers and supervisors. In one recent case, the announcement of a new management hire led to so many negative comments from former employees that the individual in question was eventually forced to resign from his new position.

Even in this scenario, however, saying bad things online about other people carries risk. In addition to the job and reputation-related dangers outlined above, you face the risk of being misquoted, misunderstood, or simply carried away. For whatever reason, people tend to believe gossip, and this fact causes online reputation attacks to snowball and escalate to the point where nobody benefits. This risk multiplies once someone fights back, often leading to an emotional flame war that makes all parties look childish.

If you’re still considering attacking someone’s online reputation, this tongue-in-cheek article on Urban75.com should change your mind. Author Steven Jones humorously spells out the malicious, underhanded techniques individuals use to enrage others online. He does so in such a way that it is immediately obvious that it would be reputation suicide to follow any of his tips.

Can you really get fired for trash talking your boss on Facebook?

In short: sometimes. The same laws that protect your right to form a union have something to say about whether or not you can get fired for saying nasty things about your work on Facebook or other social media sites. You are generally protected from complaining about work conditions, but not from libeling or abusing others.

Many professionals in the public eye have navigated trash-talk blunders without getting fired, although not without ramifications. An outgoing school board president in Illinois, Stuart Bledsoe, recently burned his bridges by complaining about his colleagues on Facebook. His comments were called “unprofessional,” but Bledsoe didn’t violate any school board regulations or laws and he can’t be fired for his actions. Similarly, Esquire Magazine writer Scott Raab was barred from the list of “credentialed” journalists invited to Miami Heat games, based on inflammatory Twitter comments. He didn’t lose his job though.

That said Raab and Bledsoe have limited their future career options. Both of them will be unable to take certain types of assignments thanks to a brief moment of ill-considered online publishing. To explore the topic of social media and your career in more detail, check out this Reputation.com Resource Center article: How To Not Get Fired For Social Networking.

What to do if you’ve been victimized by online libel

First and foremost, don’t retaliate. Chances are the attacker’s online reputation is being hurt as much as yours. Engaging in an argument will probably only lead to reputation-damaging vitriol on both sides.

Instead, bolster your online reputation through the use of personal branding techniques, such as those in this Reputation.com Resource Center article. Create positive content that creates the image you want seen online, and then link to it through your social media profiles.

If the results of starting a social media fight, or online libel are hurting your Internet reputation and you aren’t able to deal with them on your own, consider Reputation.com’s MyEdge suite. A set of comprehensive online reputation management (ORM) tools, MyEdge can push negative content down in the search results so that the attacks of others have little effect on your reputation, career, or personal life.