Blog by Sumana Harihareswara, Changeset founder
Hey, You Left Something Out
Of course not all the responses I get to my work are positive. Sometimes I get criticism. And a subset of that criticism says more about the person giving it than about the quality of what I've made. I try to keep a thick skin about that but I don't always succeed.
One particular kind of response has piqued my interest lately. Some of the feedback I get means to be praise, but contains a kinda-joking complaint about something that the person thinks I left out. I saw this recently in a recommendation of my PyCon 2016 talk, "HTTP Can Do That?!", and in another commenter's response. And some commentary of the "they/you left x out" variety is straightforward criticism.
At its most loving, I think this kind of commentary means to be a kind of "yes-and" response, sharing the experience of enjoying something and extending it by recommending another related thing. (I have been working on this blog post, on and off, for a few months; the day I am posting it, I see a perfect example.) And I can empathize with that!
But, a lot of the time, this kind of response comes with an explicit marker or implicit connotation of complaint: the author/speaker did not mention the thing that I think should be mentioned, and therefore, something is wrong.* Perhaps a more useful approach would be to wonder, in a genuinely curious way, why the author didn't mention it? Was it out of ignorance? Was it a deliberate choice, and, if so, to what purpose?
Marco Rogers's recently observed: "A lot of men seem to have been conditioned to think that telling someone that you disagree is the same as asking them a question. Like the way they learn to engage is by *creating a conflict*." Maybe that plays into this.
And as Josh Millard notes,
There's a lot of this sort of detached entitlement out there.... "I want content generated to my tastes" collides with "I'm making something with my bare hands" in such a way that the folks in the more passive former camp feel somehow totally comfortable asserting the high ground on the people in the latter.
Personal taste is personal taste and everybody's got a right to it; criticism is useful, at least when it's useful. Beyond that, though, there's a lot of Why Am I Not Being Correctly Entertained out there in the world that manages to get off the leash for no good reason, and from the doing-the-work, learning-the-craft, making-the-content side of things that does get awful tiring.
And maybe that plays into this too.
Compilation-makers, list-makers, etc. run into this kind of criticism frequently, as fanvidders discussed in a Vividcon panel about multisource vids. Perhaps some readers read any list of things sharing particular characteristic as an attempt to make the one canonical list, and thus read any publicly shared list as implicitly inviting corrections and additions toward this goal.
Last year bironic commented wryly,
I love how many multifandom vids lately come with explainers about scope, as we brace for people to come in and yell about someone who was included or left out.
And I appreciate vidder thingswithwings's response:
...there are so many selection choices to make, and only so many seconds of song . . . I think it's good to make it clear that we're making these decisions thoughtfully...
That's the spirit I see in thingswithwings's vidder's notes on their joyous, spirited and dancey vid "Gettin' Bi" and eruthros's vidder's notes on her excellent, moving, incisive vid "Straightening Up the House". And that's the spirit I'd like to inhabit as I make and share recommendation lists, compilations, etc. going forward.
And in that spirit I'll address here the praise-complaints of my own work that I linked to in my second paragraph. I scoped "HTTP Can Do That?!" to discuss underappreciated real, working parts of HTTP and share examples of things that work, even if they're bad ideas, as illustrations. I didn't show the cover of Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451 in my talk because -- as I mentioned during the Q&A -- I think it's fine to leave that particular connection as a bit of an Easter egg so some people have something to figure out when they look up response status code 451 later. I didn't include the teapot response code (418) because it's already fairly popular and well-known as a joke response code, and I wanted to spend my time on stuff folks weren't as likely to run across in other fora, and because it's a joke that isn't in the HTTP standards. I made a tradeoff between concision and nuance. Similarly, I didn't use the word "neoliberal" in that post about feelings of overwhelmption because that wasn't the point.
People who want to compliment work should probably learn to give compliments that sound encouraging. As one writer notes: "I think Twitter, for all its good qualities, can very much be a Killer Of Work exactly because people don't know how to say "that's so awesome!" or lift creators up in the idea stage." And people who genuinely want to submit you-left-something-out bug reports about someone else's work** should probably spend a few moments checking the maker's stated criteria and purpose, and reflecting on whether they perhaps had an interesting reason for the exclusion or omission, or on how much the gut biomes of the creator's intended audience matches the reader's gut biome. "I'm curious about the choice you made" may sound passive-aggressive, but I'd rather hear that than something that's just flat-out aggressive.
(Oh, and to be tiresomely empowering again: a human created the thing you're responding to; you're a human and you could make a thing, too.)
* "You forgot Poland" always comes to mind, even though a face-to-face debate is such an unusual context compared to the ways I usually get feedback like "you forgot x".
** even something tiny like a single joke
Thanks to Mindy Preston and others who commented on drafts of this idea & piece.