Skepticon, and Getting It Right When Things Go Wrong

I push pretty hard for organizations to do things better. I suggest changes. I criticize what I think are obvious mistakes. I even helped run a conference this summer aimed at making people better activists.

Occasionally, people look at that and think I’m demanding perfection. I’m not. If I were, I’d be in trouble, because I personally have never run an event where something didn’t go wrong. I don’t know any other organizer who has either. Perfection isn’t nigh unto impossible and even harder when you’re being ambitious.

I actually advocate for two things. First of all, I want people to make new mistakes instead of old ones. I want us to share information with each other about our challenges and solutions. I want us to listen to people who tell us we’ve failed them and either do better or be up front about the needs we can’t meet. I want us to get good enough at what we do that we can spend energy on trying new things instead of scrambling when something predictable goes wrong.

I also want us to get better at dealing with mistakes. I want to stop seeing people vilified for pointing them out. I want to see us keep taking responsibility like adults even when things go badly. I want us to learn instead of asking our friends to comfort us and tell us we did nothing wrong.

None of this is impossible, but it is often hard and uncomfortable. In light of that, I’d like to talk about a few things that went wrong with Skepticon this year and give the organizers some kudos for how they handled it they figured out they’d screwed something up. [Read more…]

Handling Criticism: Beware the Legal Option

In October 2000, American McGee’s Alice came out to a good bit of fanfare. In the dark video game, Alice Liddell has gone down the dark rabbit hole of madness after losing her family in a house fire. Using her vorpal blade and other weapons derived from Wonderland and the land behind the looking glass, she bloodily battles elements of her own psyche for control of her mind. The game was so successful that in 2003, McGee announced a sequel of sorts, to feature Dorothy Gale in her own twisted adventures in Oz.

Due to financial difficulties, the game was never made, but the announcement was enough to set off the guys at Penny Arcade, the webcomic dealing primarily with the video game industry. On April 14, 2003, they released a comic lampooning McGee’s destruction of childhood innocence. The single-panel comic presented itself as an ad for American McGee’s Strawberry Shortcake. Strawberry Shortcake’s friend Plum Pudding, now looking quite grown up in a corset and thigh-high stockings, was shown on her hands and knees, while Strawberry Shortcake sat on top of her, similarly attired, brandishing a riding crop she’d obviously been using on her friend. Custard the kitten sat in the background, now a panther with bloody jowls.

The text of the fake ad told us Strawberry Shortcake was “a sweet girl with a taste for PAIN.” We also learned “Her kitten, Custard, fed by a thousand corpses, seeks out a meal of flesh!” and “Strawberry’s naughty playmate Plum Pudding is the main course at this tea party!” Finally, we were invited to “Taste her in 2005”. Two rather toothy and demonic-looking strawberries completed the picture.

The comic was amusing and on-point, but it probably would have been forgotten by now, except for one thing.
[Read more…]

Handling Criticism: Focus on the Reasonable

A few weeks ago, my friend and fellow-FtB blogger Miri found out that someone on Facebook had started a page whose title asked whether she should be murdered. On the page itself were posts advocating changes to the law so the murdering Miri would be legal and suggestions that people should tell Miri to kill herself. Miri blogs about mental health and is very open about her own experiences with depression, including contemplating suicide. The Facebook page also told people how to find Miri’s blog and her Facebook page.

A few hours later, after dozens of people reported the page to Facebook for harassment and threats, Facebook sent automated responses to everyone saying that the page met their community standards. Then the outrage, which had been directed at the page’s creator, was redirected at Facebook. People responded to the notices, quoting Facebook’s own Statement of Rights and Responsibilities.

Other people, remembering that it had previously taken a campaign targeting Facebook’s advertisers to get Facebook to respond to pages advocating violence against women, took to social media and started yelling about the problem instead. Miri herself tweeted, “Hey @facebook, I’m really glad to know threatening me with murder on your website fits your ‘community standards.'”

That’s when Facebook’s Chief Engineer, Mike Shaver, decided to step in. [Read more…]

Handling Criticism: Decide Who Represents You

On September 25, Guido Barilla, part owner and chair of pasta maker the Barilla Group, appeared on Italian radio show La Zanara. In a discussion with the show’s hosts on using families headed by same-sex couples in adversiting, Barilla made a number of comments that revealed ignorance of and prejudice. (All quotes from Guido Barilla have been translated.)

For us, the ‘sacral family’ remains one of the company’s core values. Our family is a traditional family. If gays like our pasta and our advertisings, they will eat our pasta; if they don’t like that, they will eat someone else’s pasta. You can’t always please everyone not to displease anyone. I would not do a commercial with a homosexual family, not for lack of respect toward homosexuals – who have the right to do whatever they want without disturbing others – but because I don’t agree with them, and I think we want to talk to traditional families. The women are crucial in this.

He also took the opportunity to suggest that same-sex couples shouldn’t be allowed to adopt. [Read more…]

Handling Criticism: Understand Your Power

“Eating batteries”. That was the title of the first post on 9-year-old Martha Payne’s food blog, NeverSeconds. Her plan to take a picture of her school lunch each day as a writing prompt had been thwarted by her misbehaving camera.

Just over a week later, however, on May 8, 2012, Payne posted two pictures of her lunches. They were skimpy affairs, even for a child’s lunch. Vegetables and fruit were barely to be seen. Payne’s father, David, tweeted “My primary school daughter is blogging her £2 school lunch experiences. I’m speechless. Please comment.”

Not only did people comment, they passed the link around. David’s tweet was retweeted more than 500 times. Though Payne also tweeted the link separately to the attention of celebrity chef Jamie Oliver and a regional news site, the blog seems to have gained its popularity through “old-fashioned” internet means. People simply passed it around. In hours, David Payne and the blog were trending topics on Twitter in the UK. The blog post received 25,000 views that day. [Read more…]

Handling Criticism: Decide Whether to Respond

On July 6, 2009, the folk duo Sons of Maxwell uploaded a video for a new country song to their YouTube channel. Most of their songs recorded before that date currently show views in the tens of thousands. A couple have over 100,000 views. This new video passed two and a half million views in its first week online and is sitting at thirteen and a half million views now. The song was a download hit on iTunes as well.

What was this amazing song? “United Breaks Guitars”.

The song was Dave Carroll expression of frustration with United Airlines. In 2008, the neck of Carroll’s guitar was broken when his guitar was thrown while being unloaded from a plane. Carroll had the guitar fixed (though he said the sound wasn’t the same) and asked United to pay for the repairs. He spent months talking to people in various parts of the company, only to have his claim denied because it wasn’t filed within 24 hours, even though Carroll had attempted to get help from United employees immediately after the incident.

Within 24 hours after the video was released, it had received 150,000 views, and United offered to pay the claim if Carroll would take the video down. He suggested they give the money to charity. [Read more…]

Handling Criticism: Stop

“My friend doesn’t think you’re funny.”

Bland criticism like that is routine for most comedians. However, in November of 2006, responding to just those words killed the career of one of the stars of one of television’s most successful comedies. In the seven years since Michael Richards appeared on Late Night with David Letterman to talk about that gig, he’s appeared on television a grand total of eight times, most of them projects related to Seinfeld.

The problem wasn’t the criticism itself. After all, the words came from a heckler in a room packed full of people paying to see Richards perform. Engaged audiences don’t like hecklers any more than comedians do. If Richards had told the heckler and his friends to sit down, shut up, and let everyone else enjoy their evening, he’d have received a round of applause.

Unfortunately, that isn’t what Richards did. [Read more…]

Dealing with Public Criticism

We’re coming up on Skepticon again soon. Not only will I be there, but I will be running another Friday workshop. This year’s topic: dealing with public criticism. You know you want to see that–or the reactions to that on the conference hashtag.

I kid, but it’s true that most people have only a rough idea how to handle criticism from friends, much less criticism that turns the public eye on them. People who handle public criticism really well are rare enough that they get our attention. Still, criticism isn’t going to stop coming from the religious, from people whose other ideas we debunk, or from each other. So we’ll take an hour and work through some of the considerations and skills needed to deal with it.

Preparing for the workshop, I found that there aren’t a lot of good resources out there on the topic. There are a bunch of link- and SEO-bait short articles. There are a couple good, longer articles aimed at businesses. There are what appear to be a couple of good chapters in Online Reputation Management for Dummies, but they aren’t comprehensive, and again, the book is mostly aimed at businesses. So between now and Skepticon, I’ll be putting a lot of my writing time and energy into doing a brain dump on the topic. If it turns out to be good, it may become something more formal after the conference.

Either way, come to Skepticon! Register if you haven’t already. Donate if you can. Donate now and double your donation through two matching grants that have have just been announced. Buy some of their custom dinosaur chocolates, perfect gifts for all those fall birthdays.

Then show up for my workshop, and we’ll talk about criticism. It’ll be fun. You’ll see.

Reconstructing Criticism: Work

I am on a vacation I would like some time to enjoy and, well, this seems timely. A repost of a series.

This is the last post, at least for now, on the subject of constructive criticism. Feel free to suggest other subtopics that I haven’t covered. This post doesn’t contain any new information about making criticism effective, just some general thoughts about offering criticism.

Many of the the topics in this series are interrelated, and I’ve attempted to include those relationships as links. Beyond that, however, there is one thing that every part of creating constructive criticism has in common. It’s a lot of work. [Read more…]

Reconstructing Criticism: Goals

I am on a vacation I would like some time to enjoy and, well, this seems timely. A repost of a series.

When formulating constructive criticism online, it’s important to pay attention to your purpose and shape your message accordingly. (Yes, it’s time to talk about “tone.”) Why? Because unlike much of the communication on the internet, which is more expressionistic in nature, constructive criticism is designed to reach and influence a specific audience. The goal is to change behavior, which precludes several other goals. [Read more…]