Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Nine Questions to Ask Before You Criticize Creators


People often ask me how and whether they should criticize their favorite stuff.

Here are some rough draft questions to ask yourself when you feel moved to say what you don’t like about something.

  1. Are you a critic? In other words, is your job (professionally or semi-professionally) to illuminate the work of others? If so, go for it. Remember your job is illumination, though, so if you’re being a dick and not adding insight, you’re failing at your job.
  2. Is this a public communication? If you are being negative about something publicly, you are offering your criticism to the creator publicly. I don’t care if it’s on Twitter or a message board or your personal blog or whatever and you imagine that it’s just between you and your best buds. If it’s public, it’s public. I guess there are situations where you want it to be public (like writing to a government official or something), but don’t pretend your communication is private if it isn’t, or that it’s the person you’re criticizing’s fault for seeing it. Most of the time, the best choices are a private communication (between friends or between you and a creator) or just keeping it to yourself.
  3. Did the creator ask for feedback? If so, share it. Some creators love feedback, many don’t. Creating is hard, some people are helped by criticism, some are hurt by it. Most are in between and tend towards the latter. If they ask, though, it’s of course OK to answer (politely). If they didn’t ask… well, think twice (or three or four times).
  4. Do you have a relationship with the creator? Remember that while you feel you have an implied bilateral relationship with the creator through their work, your criticism may be their only experience of you. Your communication will mean a lot more if you’re someone who’s written in to offer a compliment in the past, or to ask a question, or just have some relationship other than critic with the creator. If you don’t, ask yourself why and if you want to start a relationship with someone who you (presumably) like by being negative with them.
  5. Is this important? For example: in the very early days of Jordan Jesse Go, we’d sometimes use the word f*ggot. We were always clearly supporters of the LGBT community, never used it directly against a gay person (to our knowledge), often had LGBT friends as guests on the show, etc etc etc plea copping etc. A couple listeners wrote in and told us this was important to them and really bothered them. They kindly didn’t say, “how dare you?!” as they could have. They said “hey, you guys seem like good guys, that bums me out and is important to me. It’s probably not important to you, maybe just don’t say that.” And we did stop saying it and I am very grateful to those folks who helped us in that way. Because it actually was important. In contrast, we’ve received very, very angry emails about stuff like the sound of our producer’s laugh, or things we’ve gotten slightly wrong about superheros. Are those important? Well, you can decide.
  6. Are you reacting to change? Often, when things change, we are upset by them. Especially if the change is to something we really love. Even a great change feels scary. So ask yourself it that’s what your criticism is about, and if it is, maybe give it a little time.
  7. Is your criticism in context? In any situation, the polite way to offer an unsolicited criticism is in context. Just as you would never criticize something about a friend’s rudeness at a dinner party without being clear that you love them, you should let people whose work you’re criticizing know how much you care about and appreciate their work. (Often people do something like this that’s actually the opposite of this - saying, “I pay your salary!” to pump up their own importance. That’s a dick move.)
  8. Is your opinion just, like, your opinion man? This is obviously a bit of a setup, but: yes. Often, I’d say 75% of the time, the feedback creators get is presented as universal truth rather than personal opinion. This is human nature. It is also not helpful and often hurtful. Your opinion is your opinion, and in fact is your reaction, your feeling, not especially expert even. You are an expert on your own perspective and experience. When offering your thoughts, make it clear that you represent yourself, even if you’re sure everyone else on Earth agrees with you.
  9. Did you ask? People almost always say they’re sharing their feedback to be helpful. So if you want to be helpful, ask. “Do you want to hear what I think?” is a perfectly reasonable question that you are totally capable of asking before you spill your guts. If they say no… then it might be more helpful to write it in your journal.

So: there you have it. If this seems excessively cautious, well… sure. Maybe it is. I can tell you that as a creator of things, it is very intense and difficult to have intimate communication lanes open to tens of thousands of people at once. Especially when the communications are about something as personal as art. I mean, imagine standing in front of a hundred people who want to share what they think of your work. Even that’s terrifying. The internet means we creators are always standing in front of EVERYONE who consumes our stuff. They all can tweet about us, blog about us, email us, whatever. It’s hard.

But that’s where we stand. And of course there’s tons to be gained from considerate feedback. I really appreciate and actively solicit feedback. I give out my email address for goodness’ sake. But if you want to actually make the world better, keep these questions in mind.

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