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May 08 2010

Reconstructing Criticism

How do you build up a movement with destructive criticism?

Yeah, that’s what I thought. But that doesn’t stop the makers of sites like You’re Not Helping from going flat-out negative, even when they’re offering “praise.” It doesn’t stop people from critiquing on Twitter, despite the sheer genius it would take to be both constructive and critical in 140 characters. (Note, not only are most of us not geniuses, but even those who may be geniuses are generally not the sort of genius required for effective short-form communication of difficult topics.) It doesn’t make bloggers reserve the shit-kicking boots for shit and not for imperfect allies.

Why? Oh, I don’t know. I’m not psychic. I have some theories, and if I were some pop psychologist trying to sell a book, I’d share them with you. I’m not. I’m just tired of seeing too many people and groups I care about waste their time and energy on hurting each other instead of defeating the common enemy.

Yes, I do mean waste. Destructive criticism breaks working relationships or makes them unlikely to form. It’s bad for the recipient, making them less effective and less ambitious. And it’s ineffective, leading to rejection of both the criticism and the person who delivered it. Unless your goal is mutually assured destruction, constructive criticism, when you must criticize, is the way to go.

So what does constructive criticism look like in the wild, particularly online? Essentially, it contains three elements: specificity, behavioral (rather than personal) orientation and positive recommendations for change. It sounds awfully simple for something that happens so rarely. Truth is, it is simple if you break it down far enough.

Over the next couple of weeks, I’m going to work at breaking down constructive criticism in an online setting. I will attempt to keep it all in the realm of positive recommendations. Feel free to suggest topics you think I should cover, either up front or as the series goes on. I hope to end up with a fairly comprehensive how to, and I hope you find it useful.

The posts:

11 comments

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  1. 1
    daedalus2u

    I think the goal of negative criticism isn't to effect change, but rather to put people down. It treats the social power hierarchy as a zero-sum, where you move up by moving other people down. It is a form of bullying. Negative criticism is win-lose or lose-lose. The bullying that went on at Columbine was win-lose until the victims shot up the school and then it was lose-lose. Positive criticism occurs in the context where the criticizer is trying to change the criticizee's behavior in a way that is positive. Ideally this results in a win-win situation, a situation where both parties are better off. For example, if someone has bad breath and they are told about it in the right way, they can use mouthwash and correct it. Now people don't have to either smell his/her bad breath or avoid him/her, and the person now understands that something fixable was responsible for being an outcast. This can have a win-win outcome.But if the person with bad breath isn't told about it the right way, but is instead mocked and stigmatized by all the “cool” kids who don't have bad breath, then the person with bad breath moves down, and the “cool” kids move up in the microscopic social network that they have. If there is only a small social network, for example when you are a hunter gatherer and the only people you will ever meet in your life are in your village, then your position on the social hierarchy is extremely important. Mess up your position, and you may never get a chance to move back up. Now, when the population is a lot higher, individuals can leave one social network and join another.

  2. 2
    Stephanie Zvan

    Some very good points about the social dynamics of criticism. I do still prefer the terms "constructive" and "destructive" to "positive" and "negative," however. It's harder for people to think of criticism as positive than it is to think of it as effective.

  3. 3
    sunnyskeptic

    Nice post… It does seem like kind of a no-brainer… Like at work, I tell people if they have a 'problem', then they should not only come to me with the problem, but also with ideas of how to fix it or make it better. Somehow, it REALLY eliminates the problems… :) Seems like people just like to bitch sometimes instead of offering solutions.

  4. 4
    J. J. Ramsey

    "Like at work, I tell people if they have a 'problem', then they should not only come to me with the problem, but also with ideas of how to fix it or make it better."Because of course knowing that there is a problem means knowing how to fix it. Let's apply that to, say, cars. Knowing that there is a problem with one's car entails knowing how to fix the problem, right? No need for mechanics?Of course, sometimes the solution is embedded in the criticism. If the complaint is that one is using certain fallacies, then the solution is to stop using them. There is also the matter that if you dish out snark, you had better be prepared to receive it.

  5. 5
    Stephanie Zvan

    Crystal, there's always room for venting, of course, but that does seem like a pretty good way of keeping it separate from getting things done.J. J., I don't think the idea is that all problems have to be solved by the person who identifies them. While this will help solve some problems, it's almost more a way of changing perspective. Identifying ways to fix a problem, even if they don't turn out to be ideal solutions, is a different mental process than saying, "I don't like that."As for snark, as I said above, there's always room for venting, but it doesn't accomplish much on its own, does it? Constructive criticism isn't constructive because it's "nice." It's constructive because it's the sort that gets things done.

  6. 6
    Comrade PhysioProf

    When Greg completely fucked up his reporting of the Linda Buck paper retraction a couple years ago, and I informed him that he had totally mischaracterized the scope and relevance of the retraction vis a vis Buck's Nobel Prize, that was constructive criticism as you define it. It was highly specific–I told Greg exactly what he had got wrong, it was behavioral–it was focused on the fuck-up and not on Greg personally, and it was based on a positive recommendation for change–I told Greg exactly what he ought to do to rectify the fuck up.Will you suggest to Greg that he apologize to me for not responding in a constructive fashion to my constructive criticism?

  7. 7
    paulmurray

    I wouldn't mind seeing "constructive criticism" and "destructive criticism" defined before they are discussed. One man's meat is another man's poison, as the saying goes.

  8. 8
    Stephanie Zvan

    CPP, there's no way I'm moderating between you and Greg without all of us being in one place and on our second drinks. There are plenty of apologies that could be asked for or offered all around. I'm not going to pick who should go first.Paul, there's a definition of constructive criticism in this post. What do you think it's missing?

  9. 9
    Comrade PhysioProf

    I was kidding around. I don't give a flying fuck if Greg "apologizes".But it certainly is interesting that when I provided what was clearly constructive criticism according to your three-prong test, it caused him to go completely shitnuts, instead of him responding in a constructive fashion.

  10. 10
    Anonymous

    "You're not helping" -> subscribed"Almost Diamonds" -> not subscribedThanks Greg for the (second level) recommendation!

  11. 11
    Stephanie Zvan

    Well, keep reading, CPP. Maybe you can find some tips to improve your efficacy.Anonymous, this isn't Greg's blog. Did you mean to leave your comment there?

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