Of creators & critics: the how-to guide for having better online conversations.

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I have received a lot of comments throughout my writing career. Some of them have been incredibly insightful. They have challenged me as a writer to think about my craft and inspired me to be better.

Most comments are not like this.

The majority of the comments I recieve are unhelpful, and they clog up the Internet with useless, or worse still, damaging advice.

There is a lot of advice out there about how to be a better writer, but far less on how to be a good critic. This shortcoming is a shame because criticism of art is just as important as the art itself. I would even argue that it is a type of art.

I want my critics to be better, and so I have written down the most common mistakes I see. I am not the first to notice such mistakes, but I am one of the more opinionated ones.

Unloading Your Shit onto Strangers

As of writing this, I am not very important. I do not have millions of followers clamoring to know every one of my thoughts. My work may be read by thousands of people every month, but I do not have any fame to speak of.

What I am is accessible.

Anyone with an Internet connection can track me down and let me know exactly how they feel. This reality means that I recieve consistent comments every day, and they are often charged.

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Source: Medium

I am not the part of the Internet that believes that “facts trump feelings.” I do not think I should be shielded from someone’s anger and disappointment if I write something genuinely hurtful — no one should.

All this being said; however, I do not think all expressions of said emotions are valid. It’s entirely possible to take your anger and sadness out on someone in an unproductive, and even abusive way. This projection happens a lot with “influencers.” We end up taking on the emotional baggage of random strangers, simply because we are there.

Because the commenter can.

Someone once, unsolicited, gave me the privilege of grading my work, and then told me not to get discouraged. I have been asked life advice from total strangers on pieces that do not give such life advice. I have been told that I should die on multiple occasions. Someone PM’d me once telling me that an article I had written invalidated their entire existence and that I should stop writing altogether; the article in question was about a TV show.

People unload their shit a lot on to me (and other creators).

In truth, a lot of the comments I recieve would not exist if the commenter had bothered to center themselves for even a moment. If they had breathed and counted to ten, or better yet walked away and come back, then, in all likelihood, their comment would have been different, if they bothered to make it at all.

Again, I do not seek to avoid criticism. I do not want to discourage people from reacting to my work, even if its sometimes painful, but I would be lying if I said that most comments are useful. The few comments that provoke thought and emotion are drowned out by people being defensive, and then uncritically redirecting that defensiveness back at the creator.

For this reason, sifting through comments can be a taxing ordeal, and in a minority of cases, abusive. A lot of comments are people confusing their ability to make a comment with that comment’s usefulness and importance. They are having an emotional reaction, and rather than processing their emotions, instead dump a lot of that initial anger onto creators because it is easier than sorting through their own shit.

A good critic engages in the text without making every comment an unintended therapy session.

TL;DR

DO be critical of the work you are critiquing.

DO NOT unload your anger and anxiety onto a stranger just because you can.

Being Petty and Nitpicky AF

I spend a lot of my time editing my work. Once a draft is complete, I will read a piece out loud several times until I am comfortable with it. I also splurge on editing software, and if I am lucky, my amazing, kind partner will spend a couple of their precious moments looking over the piece as well.

That’s three different eyes looking over a piece, and still, mistakes will slip through. I theoretically do not mind when commenters point these out because it allows me to improve my writing, but what I do not appreciate is when people are mean about said corrections. Many creators will encounter commenters gleefully nitpicking a minor point to death, and it has nothing to do with being helpful.

It’s about the pleasure of knocking someone down.

An example that always stuck with me is an inconsequential piece by Inc. Magazine called “After 10 Years Studying Sleep, the U.S. Military Just Revealed Something Eye-Opening About Caffeine.” The content of the article is about how the US military has used caffeine to shortcut sleep deficiencies with their soldiers. There was a small error in the original article, where the author used the word “depraved” instead of “deprived.” Commenters were, of course, keen to point this out, and very few were polite:

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source: Medium

I am personally not a huge fan of Inc. Magazine. I also disagree with the conclusions of this specific article, but that disagreement has very little to do with an inconsequential typo.

Listen, writing is hard. The pay is lousy, and the workload is immense. I churn out 7500 words or more a week, and that doesn’t include research, editing, or administration. Some writers do far more than this, and chances are they are not being paid the full value of their time.

I know I am not.

As an amateur writer, I have reached over a hundred thousand people with my words. People have told me that my words have moved them in meaningful ways, and I can’t even come close to making a living on this pursuit. I work a full-time job on top of this workload, and many writers do the same. While there are a minority of bloggers making millions of dollars, Indeed.com places the average salary around $13.62 an hour.

Of course, typos slip through. It is an unreasonable expectation to demand perfection from something a viewer pay cents on the dollar for, if at all.

Even if we lived in a writer’s utopia, however, making a moral stance out of grammar mistakes is also just bad criticism. An author can make a small grammatical or factual error and still be right.

You see: a spelling mistake does not invalidate someone’s thesis. Misspelling the phrase “climte change” doesn’t make the phenomenon any less real, but you have entire corners of the Internet that somehow believe that it does.

I emotionally understand why this process happens. At best, nitpicking is a defense mechanism. A person’s defensiveness is triggered by something, and, rather than examine why that happened, they cling to a minor typo or error to rationalize their existing biases. We’ve all been there blasting writers who make us uncomfortable under the guise of poor grammar, but it doesn’t make this reaction any less wrong.

It’s not bad to call out a mistake with grammar or spelling when you see it. One of the first comments I ever received was a polite correction about a typo, and I was happy to receive it. That Inc. Magazine piece we discussed earlier corrected their “depraved” typo most likely because of viewer comments.

Corrections are necessary, but they don’t prove anything beyond that small point. Grammatical corrections are not magical bullets in an argument, and pretending that they are has made the Internet a hostile and prickly place.

TL;DR

DO point out errors when you see them.

DO NOT use those small corrections as a proxy for judging the entire piece.

Assuming Everyone Thinks Like You

I once wrote an article about the TV Show Strangers Things and what I perceived to be its poor treatment of race. It wasn’t a very popular piece, but I did recieve one irate comment from a slightly older gentleman explaining to me how ridiculous my opinions were.

He believed that stories were merely meant to entertain and that I was overly critical in my analysis. We obviously disagree on this point, but something that sat we me was his closing line:

“I would love to see your insightful analysis of Mother Goose and Grimm’s Fairy Tales.”

He meant it as a zinger that proved his point, but in my mind, it did the opposite — it highlighted how different our worlds were.

From my perspective, Mother Goose and Grimm’s Fairy Tales are stories with a moral embedded within their closing acts. The whole point is for the reader to walk away with a learned lesson, and that comes with it some very specific political connations (side note — some argue that Grimm’s fairytales were part of a project to instill German nationalism).

This commenter so fervently comes from the perspective that all stories are apolitical that he didn’t stop to consider that we didn’t agree on this fundamental point. If one person believes that stories impart specific values, and another person doesn’t, then saying “Stories are just meant to entertain” doesn’t convince the person who thinks they do.

His zinger wasn’t a zinger at all to me.

The message here is that a lot of people on the Internet are talking past each other. Commenters say points that make sense to their worldviews and don’t stop to realize that the person they are arguing with doesn’t have a shared understanding for what truth even is. We’ve all been in that conversation online where we are merely restating our values again and again, and become shocked to learn that the other person disagrees. Take the following discussion about abortion rights:

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Source: What The Average Abortion Looks Like

JESSE E: …forcing abstinence on people has never worked, and the abortion rate is at an all time low due to the amount of birth control and safe sex education available, which conservatives are still trying to take away. planned parenthood does a lot more than just safe abortions.

ANNIE JACOBS: j k “making theft illegal won’t prevent people from stealing, it’ll just make it more difficult” the law shouldn’t be based on whether the thing that is made illegal will become more difficult

Jesse is pro-choice, and Annie Jacobs is pro-life. They are both coming from the perspective that their side is the correct one, and unsurprising, neither one can convince the other of their viewpoint.

It’s just white noise as both decry the other for not listening.

It’s often been said that we are in an age of hyper-partisanship, but that expands beyond our stances on immigration, gun rights, and abortion. People have different ways of viewing the world entirely. For some people, we are best served by living a moral life (however that’s defined), while others value openness and inclusion, and you are not going to get far with either group if you rant about a value set they don’t hold.

Good criticism goes beyond stating that something betrays your core values, and takes into consideration that some people (maybe even the majority of people) do not believe in them.

TL;DR

DO use your beliefs and experiences to shape your criticism.

DO NOT assume that your beliefs, in of themselves, should carry the argument.

Having No Sense Of Time Or Context

In early January of 2019, the company myWW (formerly Weight Watchers) released a promotional campaign on Twitter called #thisismyww. The idea was to capitalize on new years resolution angst and point people to its controversial dieting program, or should I say “health and wellness brand?”

This type of campaign is all run-of-the-mill for Twitter — companies promote things all the time on the platform — but coincidentally, the US government had also just assassinated Iranian general Qasem Soleimani at the Baghdad airport. We suddenly saw #thisismyww running alongside “WWIII” and “War With Iran.” Among shots of elderly white women bragging about their weight loss goals were people lamenting the coming war.

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Source: Twitter

The #thisismyWW campaign was pulled from Twitter that day, and it became just a funny footnote shared by articles like this one, but the consequences aren’t always so innocuous. We exist in a world where it’s possible for something on the Internet to become obscured and transmuted well beyond its original meaning. This phenomenon is called “context collapse” (a sociological term when many groups coexist in a single space, which leads to a blurring of meaning). This process leads to situations where interactions become flattened because competing groups (e.g., WWIII catastrophizers and weight watchers) are sharing the same space, and putting forth contradictory truths.

Sometimes this can lead to abusive situations.

For example, we are all familiar with the concept of “doxing” or the act of public shaming someone online. The aim is to punish someone who has skirted traditional justice — e.g., someone who pushed a teenager to suicide online or attended a racist rally. These are people who have not technically violated the law (or the law is too unclear to prosecute), so the perceived violator has their information released online as a part of a coordinated harassment strategy. The goal is to push them out of the public sphere altogether until they make amends for their alleged wrongdoing or face justice.

The problem with this strategy — and why I am skeptical of it altogether — is that many times, because of context collapse, people can dox the wrong person. This happened, for example, after the white supremacist Charlottesville rally when a campaign to “out” the attendees led to an Arkansas assistant professor being misidentified as a white supremacist. His information was posted online, and he received a deluge of death threats. Similar situations followed after the Steubenville case, the Boston Marathon bombing, and the Amanda Todd suicide.

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Source: NPR

This professor posted their picture online for their job (something many of us have done), and it got remixed for a purpose so far removed from its original intent that he had to temporarily hide at his friend’s house for safety.

Calls for online justice have occasionally led to erroneous outcomes, and these errors impact more than white college professors. Since we exist in a society where more privileged people have the time and resources to curate their online personas (and make them more easily understood), it’s often more marginalized people that bare the cost of this context collapse. As rhetoric professor Jared Colton told Wired in 2017:

“Doxing is a sloppy form of justice that often hurts many beyond the intended target. It punishes their families and even people who look like them or have similar names.”

The ugly reality is that marginalized identities already face online harassment at higher rates, and this spillover effect is more likely to impact them. Even assuming you have the right identity, it’s not unheard of for an online harassment campaign to target a person’s spouse, child, friends, and relatives.

If you are going to make a statement, especially a charged statement that has the potential to affect someone’s life, then please do some research to ensure the information you are sharing is accurate. That involves doing a base amount of fact-checking, yes, but it also means doing the mental calculus of considering the potential that you are wrong.

Reflection matters.

Would you still be comfortable with your comment if everything about your statement was later proved to be false?

TL;DR

DO be willing to give pointed criticisms that make others uncomfortable.

DO NOT make those criticisms without proper research and reflection.

To criticize someone is to often conflated with being mean: to “tell it like it is”; to speak “your” truth; or to be frank and blunt.

You are telling the artist reality as you see it — feelings be damned.

I find, however, that good criticism does the opposite. It strives to understand the context the piece of art is in, and how that art interfaces with its community and the world-at-large.

We are in the middle of an evolving debate on what good conversation online is. These problems are not static, and the solutions to them are being developed as we speak. There are platforms such as Kialo that are attempting to curate better conversations. There are also content creators such as Natalie Wynn and Sarah Z, who are having discussions on the limits of online speech.

At the core of many of these conversations is a focus on people. We are increasingly starting to view good criticism less as tearing a work apart and more as an act of radical empathy. You do not critique something because you are ambivalent about its existence, but rather because you care about it on an emotional level.

When we are honest about this reality, that not only means being empathetic about the piece itself, but also about the creator behind it. It recognizes that (bots aside) behind every online screed and correction is a person reacting to the world around them. Good critics recognize that creator’s humanity, even if they disagree with what they have to say.

To recap:

DO:

  • Be critical of the work you are critiquing.
  • Point out errors when you see them.
  • Use your beliefs and experiences to shape your thoughts.
  • Make criticisms with proper research and reflection.

DO NOT

  • Unload your anger and anxiety onto a stranger just because you can.
  • Use small corrections as a proxy for judging an entire piece.
  • Assume that your beliefs should carry an argument.
  • Refuse to reflect on the thing you are critiquing.

If you walk away with only one thing from this article, then I’d hope it is this — good critics treat their recipients like actual people.

Written by

I write about pop culture, politics, and every in between.

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