It’s that time of year again. The time we look back on the last 12 months, and try to gain some wisdom from lessons learned while at the same time looking forward to the next year with resolution.

I have a list of things I’ve learned, or at least things that I’ve become more aware of about myself that I would like to change. The others may not get their own post, but I would like to touch on the topic of feedback as it occurs in social media. And since positive feedback is always welcome, let’s just consider negative feedback, otherwise known as criticism.

Our in-person conversations with friends and colleagues in the pub have obvious advantages that are absent in online conversations. In person, our facial expressions and body language say more than what we can express with our words. There are plenty of ways to be misunderstood with these, but when you take them away, as in writing, it is even more difficult to keep the peace. And many times the miscommunication comes not in what we have said, but what someone perceived that we said.

I feel, writing this, that it’s just too obvious. Then why is it that I always need to be reminded that what I am writing may have negative repercussions or worse, that I have no place giving criticism in the first place? Moreover, that a sarcastic remark in the comments of a blog post does not count as criticism.

For example, earlier this year I posted a comment on a popular design blog with a very cynical attitude. If I had been on the receiving end of the comment I would have been quite hurt, but at the time, I felt empowered enough to post it. But what happens when we mean for the best and it all backfires? What do we do then?

serpent-collage

Well, I came across an article months ago that a friend had written on a topic I find interesting. Looking back on it, it’s hard to say why I felt the need to add my thoughts in the comments. In a weird way, commenting on the post seemed almost like a favor. After all, isn’t it rewarding to have a thoughtful conversation happen on an article you’ve written? So I guess I felt that adding my thoughts and filling in some blanks would be welcome, even if it were criticism. I wrote a thoughtful comment expressing how I didn’t think the subject had been presented quite like they intended it, and that I know that they know the subject quite well, and have even written other articles similar to it that were quite successful and on point. But in the end, the author (my friend) perceived my comment as, ‘you think you are saying one thing, but you are saying another, and your article is wrong.’ Ouch. To make things worse, he was traveling that day, and received my comment on his mobile phone, and he couldn’t respond to my comment until much later.

Here’s where I bring up another advantage to in-person conversation: the time to react, reply, and clarify is almost instant. We can apologize immediately if it is apparent that what we said came across in a way we didn’t intend, and then add clarification. When we comment on blogs or say something brash on Twitter, the ‘conversation’ may never get resolved, because it’s difficult to come to any agreement after going back-and-forth in the comments on a blog post or on Twitter. This process can sometimes go on for days. The irony is that arguments are quickly exhausted, because they take so long to happen.

By the time my friend had replied to my comment, he was convinced that I was purposefully calling him out on publicly on his site to make myself look like an expert. It’s hard to say what he thought exactly as I am not him. All I know is that I could tell he was upset in his reply, and I was immediately confused and concerned. I reread what I had written, then I reread the article, then I again reread what I had written. Still, I felt I had said everything politely and that I had a good point, and I was trying to figure out what it was I said that might have come across so negatively. Then I received a personal email from him.

He explained that he had responded to my comment, and asked why I was picking a fight on his article, as this is what he had perceived I was doing. This was not the response I was expecting. I had assumed that it would come across friendly since we have always been able to disagree in person, and have enlightening conversation over opposite opinions. I replied to his email, and I soon posted a kind reply on the article, and we worked it all out, but it took me a while to figure out where it all went wrong. It’s something that I am still learning to practice. Just today I put my foot in my mouth for a similar incident, which is why I felt compelled to write such a lengthy post on the topic. Do you want to know what it is? The lesson in one simple sentence?

Don’t offer criticism unless it has been requested.

Sure, there will be times where unrequested criticism is warranted, but when the time comes, ask yourself this: Am I the one to offer this criticism, and is this the right venue for it? More often than not, each answer will be no.

If you do feel compelled to add your thoughts on the subject, be as careful as possible. Make sure you do not make assumptions in your reply. Chances are you are commenting because you feel assumptions were made in the first place! (With the 140 character limit of Twitter, it is even more difficult to have a decent, friendly argument.) Perhaps write your own blog post covering the topic as you think it should be written. If you can’t successfully do that or don’t feel it’s worth the effort, then you shouldn’t be giving criticism.

Update:

Apparently I like to write about this stuff. I recently published a similar article called, To End All Rage Tweets.