One way that people improve their public speaking and lessen their anxiety is to practice in a supportive space.
Other rappers dis me; say my rhymes are sissy.
Why? Why exactly? Why? Be more constructive with your feedback, please.
Is it because I rap about reality? Like me and my grandma drinking a cup of tea?
There ain’t no party like my nanna’s tea party. Hey! Ho!
—Flight of the Conchords, “Hiphopopotamus vs. Rhymenoceros”
The fear of public speaking is supposedly so great that comedian Jerry Seinfeld once quipped that people at a funeral would “be better off in the casket than giving the eulogy.” Is the basis for this joke true? Richard Garber, the blogger behind Joyfully Public Speaking, investigated and found that on a 1993 survey that asked people about their fears, 30 percent of those surveyed said they feared death, and 45 percent reported a fear of public speaking. However, although more people did report a fear of public speaking, they never were asked to compare it to death.1 Yet this quibble is easily forgotten in light of the keen anxiety many feel when they speak in public. They are afraid of disparaging comments that might arise in others’ thoughts or, worse yet, comments that might be furtively exchanged between their peers. In fact, professionals make a living studying “communication apprehension” and treating “glossophobia,” from the Greek glōssa (tongue) and phobos (fear).
One way that people improve their public speaking and lessen their anxiety is to practice in a supportive space. The Toastmasters International organization aims to provide an environment where its members can improve their speaking and leadership skills. At a Toastmasters meeting, participants encounter guidebooks, roles (such as the “time keeper” and “ah counter”), evaluations, and competitions—all of which are intended to move people toward “competent communication.” The irony of Toastmasters’s focus on evaluation and competition is that a source of anxiety is a fear of judgment (what are others thinking or saying about me?). And in the age of the Web, such judgments are seemingly more frequent and public. For instance, the online commentary about someone’s presentation is known as the backchannel. Recently, academic tweeter Kathleen Fitzpatrick wrote that she was feeling frayed by quick and unthinking comments on the backchannel: “I’ve done this, probably more times than I want to admit, without even thinking about it. But I’ve also been on the receiving end of this kind of public insult a few times, and I’m here to tell you, it sucks.” The problem is that in addition to the “the real generosity, the great sense of humor, the support, the engagement, [and] the liveliness” that Twitter engenders, it also “produces a kind of critique that veers toward the snippy, the rude, the ad hominem.”2
Although evaluations at Toastmasters meetings typically are short (often three to five minutes), the intention is to provide useful comments to the speaker. The evaluator should avoid the “three Cs” (criticize, complain, and condemn) and instead perform the “three Rs” (review, reward, and recommend). Evaluation should help the speaker improve, encourage another speech, lift self-esteem, and provide useful recommendations (i.e., H.E.L.P.). Good feedback is so important at Toastmasters that evaluation is evaluated, which can also be a source of anxiety: as one club member wrote, “I am scheduled to evaluate a brilliant speaker tomorrow at our toastmasters meeting. Needless to say I’ve been feeling a bit apprehensive.”3 But the group provides guidelines, tips, and many opportunities to practice. It even hosts competitions to determine who can give the most masterful evaluation—examples of which can be viewed online.
Toastmasters’s culture shows that giving and receiving feedback can be a rewarding and difficult practice, much like public speaking itself. This can be even more challenging in the online realm. As seen in Fitzpatrick’s concern about the backchannel, the shortness of comment can lead to slights. The asynchronicity of comment (its disconnect from the bounds of immediate interaction) can cause context to be lost (or “collapsed”). The potential for both constructive critique and “snippy” tweets is heightened, as is the emotional work required of users to manage it all. In this chapter, I address feedback: comment that is intended (or at least expected) to be seen by the person it is about, its object. To do this, I look to three online comment cultures: peer feedback in an online course, in a less formal writing community, and in communities where the line between feedback and collaboration blurs. Among the many types of comment, what is most salient about feedback is that it can be personal. It is an expressed reaction to something that often is close to the core of another’s self. Consequently, I will show how posting and reading comments on the bottom of the Web can require a brave heart and “strong ears.”
According to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), the word feedback is a creature of the twentieth century that was first used by electrical and mechanical engineers and later applied to biological systems. Norbert Wiener, the famed proponent of cybernetics, spoke of communication feedback within social systems in the 1950s. This sense of the term then appeared within the OED in a 1959 quotation that speaks of a person who adjusts a speech based on the “‘feed-back’ from the listeners.” In 1971, it was used in the sense of this chapter: “We began to get a fairly good feedback from most people.”4 This reflects that people sometimes speak of positive (good) and negative (bad) feedback, distinguishing between what works well and what can be improved.
The emergence of the term feedback also paralleled a new perspective in teaching—and a few more new terms. In 1967, Michael Scriven coined the terms summative evaluation, which assessed the performance of the learner, and formative evaluation, which assessed the effectiveness of the curriculum. Yet, almost two decades later, his colleague, Royce Sadler, lamented a continued emphasis on test scores and statistics: “Only cursory attention has usually been given to feedback and formative assessment.” Sadler advocated for a continued shift in evaluation toward how teachers can “shape and improve the student’s competence.”5 This is now the dominant sense of the word among teachers.
Today the idea of formative evaluation is that students have a level of competence that is short of a learning goal and they can be helped to bridge the distance by feedback. Students can be instructed on how to traverse the gap, but a more substantive type of learning occurs when they are able to specify their own learning goals, assess their own competence, and devise techniques for bridging the gap. Facilitating such metacognition in the learner is not easy. For example, I assess my students’ assignments on the basis of a rubric, and in the hopes of advancing deeper learning, I have asked students to give feedback to their peers using the same rubric: does the assignment substantively engage the appropriate concepts, does it show an understanding of those concepts, is it well written, and does it conform to typical scholarly conventions? Not only did students fail to use the rubric in the execution of their own essays, but the feedback that they sometimes gave their peers focused on fixing a couple of typos and pronouncing the essay worthy of an A. One issue is that students generally fear “breaking rank” or “throwing someone under the bus” when it comes to peer evaluation. Furthermore, in the language of educational psychologists, the students’ “unconscious incompetence” (not knowing what they don’t know) and my “unconscious competence” (being blind to the scaffolding needed by the students) failed to intersect. Good teachers compensate for their expert blindness and help students move toward “conscious competence.” Unfortunately, my own mistake of not teaching students how to give good feedback has been replicated on a larger scale.
A MOOC is a massive and open online course, and at the 2013 World Economic Forum in Switzerland, MOOCs were center stage in the panel about reinventing higher learning. (The term parallels MMOG, or massive multiplayer online game, such as World of Warcraft.) The strongest advocates of MOOCs tend to be from recent online ventures such as Coursera and Udacity. However, even traditional educational institutions are argued to benefit from them because they can enroll students from outside their geographical reach in new degree or certificate programs and they can lower their costs by shifting some traditional courses online. The stories about far-flung students who take classes at MIT and Harvard are compelling, but MOOCs are criticized for their uneven quality, low completion rates, and cost savings that are suspected to come at the expense of teachers’ jobs and students’ learning.
Beyond cost savings, some claim that the MOOC educational experience is superior to in-class learning. Coursera, a commercial MOOC, notes that its online platform provides an opportunity to exploit mastery learning and peer assessment. In mastery learning, students can retake randomized versions of assignments until they know the material rather than following the instructor to the next topic while they still are unprepared. Also, instructor feedback traditionally is “often given weeks after the concept was taught, by which point the student barely remembers the material and rarely goes back to review the concepts to understand them better.” Automated and instantaneous assessment can offer significant benefits. Yet, computers are not effective at assessing complex assignments like poetry and business plans, so students’ metacognition can be advanced by recognizing that “the best way to learn is to teach.” Coursera claims that it does two things: trains students to use a grading rubric to give accurate feedback to their peers, and uses crowd-sourcing to “take many ratings (of varying degrees of reliability) and combine them to obtain a highly accurate score.”6
Laura Gibbs was one of the five thousand students eager to begin Coursera’s fantasy and science fiction course. She also is an instructor at the University of Oklahoma, where she has taught online courses for over a decade. She focuses on myth and folklore and prefers online teaching because it allows her “to be a far better teacher, and I also think that it brings out the best in the students too.7 Despite being an expert on the topic and experienced with online teaching, Gibbs took the course because she loved the reading list and was curious about how such a large course would work. On her blog and as later reported in a story at Inside Higher Ed, she reflected on the challenges of the course, especially peer evaluation.8 During the course, students wrote short essays of 270 to 320 words and evaluated the essays of four peers. Evaluations consisted of a score of 1, 2, or 3 and at least thirty words of feedback.
Gibbs noted that some students were motivated to give helpful evaluation or were motivated to continue because of it but that many left the class because of poor and abusive evaluation. There was little instruction on how to give useful feedback, and she wondered about the lack of response from Coursera staff members to questions about abuse on the class discussion board. She also found that “there’s a discussion board thread which consists solely of making fun of other people in the class. Everyone is a potential subject for abuse; anonymous is an equal opportunity scoffer.”9 In addition to personal insults, there also were plenty of one-word evaluations, like “ug,” “no,” and “terrible.” What she found “most bizarre and strangely cruel” was a comment that spelled out the words “one” through “thirty”:
this is because our comments are supposed to be 30 words long. The software does not police this (hence the abundant one-word and two-word comments: “good!” or “liked it!”)—but the idea that someone would deliberately put in a comment like this to meet the word count shows that there are some serious problems with the feedback culture in the class.10
Complicating much of the experience was the varied skill levels of the students, which in part stemmed from the Web’s global reach. Some wrote at a remedial level, some wrote English as a second language, and some contributed in foreign languages (or as translated by online tools). One person was accused of making words up by those with smaller vocabularies. Not surprising to anyone who has followed the English Wikipedia, there were heated arguments about American versus British spellings.
Coursera is a new enterprise and perhaps will figure out how to facilitate a robust learning community with a strong comment culture. This is no easy task. Even in traditional classrooms, research indicates that team-based learning and peer feedback are mixed bags that work only when the right levels of motivation, training, and expectation are present. Even then, results vary: well prepared and motivated students may thrive, but others fare poorly.11 Interestingly, there is already an online community of learners who are interested in fiction and fantasy and have developed a robust culture of making constructive comments.
The fan fiction community is a sprawling cultural phenomenon in which fans write their own fiction within or at the intersection of official canon universes. (In the slash subgenre, for example, there are stories in which Star Trek’s Captain Kirk and Mr. Spock are lovers.) These amateurs have built a remarkable culture in the truest sense of the word amateur: they do it for the love. And because of their appreciation of the stories and characters within their particular fandom, they want to help others improve the stories they tell through beta reading—the giving of feedback on others’ writing. The term is borrowed from computing culture, where beta software is typically complete but untested. Beta testers are willing to use a software program, encounter bugs, and submit reports or fixes (called patches). Similarly, beta readers read the initial rough drafts of other people’s stories. Much like the participants in the Coursera class, fanfic authors’ expectations and skills vary. After many years and endless debates, however, they have developed a novel lexicon and culture of feedback.
In the summer of 2008, “synecdochic,” a fanfic writer, posted a LiveJournal entry entitled “‘Cult of Nice’ versus ‘Cult of Mean,’ Round 2847, Fight!” synecdochic is an online pseudonym of Denise Paolucci, a prominent figure in online journaling sites such as LiveJournal and Dreamwidth. Both of these services are similar to blogs, but journaling actually preceded the popularity of blogging—and never seemed to have gotten as much respect. In her post, synecdochic noted that the long-debated issue about the tone of comment had arisen again and was partly the result of confusion about different types of comment. In synecdochic’s understanding, concrit (constructive criticism) is “editorial feedback” that is offered to the author “with specific suggestions on how to improve.” Commentary is a reflection of the reader’s response that is intended for the author but does not necessarily include specific suggestions for improvement. Review is like commentary but is intended for others, and recommendations are persuasively positive. She defined flaming as “hurtful and nonproductive commentary” that is intended to cause emotional injury to the author. And she wrote that the word critical can be problematic because some people perceive it as necessarily negative and others do not.12 With a vocabulary in hand, she enumerated a collection of additional “propositions that I operate under” when it comes to feedback, including that people want different types of feedback and have differing tolerances for the type and tone of comment. More interestingly, her propositions focused on the notion of space.
In the digital age, the scope and scale of comment have changed. In the past, feedback’s scope was relatively local: in a public speaking group, candid feedback was shared with the speaker or at least remained within the confines of the room. Online, unsolicited comment can easily find its way to you and everyone else. As scholar Helen Nissenbaum writes, we develop social norms in particular contexts and “information technologies alarm us when they flout these informational norms—when, in the words of the framework, they violate contextual integrity.” Similarly, danah boyd describes this as “context collapse,” meaning that the lack of “spatial, social, and temporal boundaries makes it difficult to maintain distinct social contexts.”13 Comment’s reactivity, shortness, and asynchronicity mean that it is especially contextual but that its context also is easily lost as it is forwarded and retweeted. Just as hypertextual means “beyond” textual, or existing within a web of links, I use the term hypotextual to indicate how comment’s links to context are easily severed. The implication of this for feedback is that most people make judgments and perhaps gossip about others, but such gossip will only spread so far. Online, gossip is only a click away. (In chapter 7, I return to how hypotextual comment leads to confusion and controversy.)
My appreciation for beta reading and concrit does not imply there is never negativity: snarky (cutting or snide) comment is its own genre within fanfic, and it is associated with the 1990s television show Mystery Science Theater 3000. In a typical episode of MST, a man and his robot sidekicks watch bad movies while riffing on awkward writing, bad acting, and low-budget effects. Their silhouettes appear seated below the screen as they talk to one another or throw popcorn, and it feels like watching a movie accompanied by the jests of your wittiest, pop-culture-addicted friends. In fanfic, this has inspired a practice known as “MSTing” or “sporking” (a spork is a combination of a spoon and fork). The Website Urban Dictionary defines sporking as “a line by line critical analysis of fanfiction, typically of the Utterly Horrible or occasionally So Bad It’s Good variety. Derived from the term ‘Sporking one’s eyes out,’ implying that the fic is so bad that most people would prefer to attack their own eyes with sporks rather than read it.”14 (The practice of reading content that that is thought to be awful or objectionable is known as hate reading.)
Members of the fanfic community negotiate how and when sporking occurs. In her journal entry “‘Cult of Nice’ versus ‘Cult of Mean,’” synecdochic posits that although authors can request others not to comment on their stories and commentators need not avoid “discussing a work” or “only offer unstintingly positive reactions,” they should be aware of the virtual spaces where they do so. In “one’s own space” (a mailing list, blog, forum, or wiki), writers and readers can express their requests or opinions and expect others to abide by those requests, even if they cannot control what happens elsewhere.15 Even if people do as they please in their own spaces, the Web offers only a tenuous veil of protection. “Egosurfing” (searching the Web for one’s name) or reading pages that link to your work can result in a rude disappointment. As one sporking site declares, the first rule of sporking is “don’t link any of these sporking’s back to the authors in question.”16
Of course, the complaint of meanness is perennial in both mainstream literature and fanfic. Sarah Fay, writing online for the The Atlantic in 2012, chronicled a history of complaints between those who find book commentary to be too soft and those who find it too mean, including writer’s Zadie Smith’s 2001 plea that book critics be “more human” and try to impart “some kind of useful advice.”17 David Denby, in his 2009 book Snark, wrote that contemporary snark is “ruining our conversations.” Unlike irony and satire, which can be used in the public service, snark has zero civic interest: “Snark is hating on the page. It prides itself on wit, but it’s closer to a leg stuck out in a school corridor that sends some kid flying.” It pretends to be in fun, which has the “doubly aggressive effect of putting the victim on the defensive” because “no one wants to argue with a joke.”18 Even within the sporking community, there are lamentations that the good old days have given way to “flaming and more personal vendettas” and that the love sporkers had for flawed material (because it “told you about yourself, or the author, or it was a guilty pleasure”) has faded.19
Even when feedback is well intentioned and welcome, it is not necessarily easy to give or receive. When giving feedback, it is easy to focus on the person rather than the work, to make overly broad generalizations, to complain without offering a path forward, to presume that everyone else feels as you do, and to presume to speak on everybody’s behalf. When receiving feedback, writers find it easy to become upset or defensive or to ignore what could be helpful. Hence, many of the reflections on beta reading provide tips on the process; some even recognize that one is building a relationship in which the author and reader have responsibilities towards one another. Miriam Heddy, a fanfic author, wrote that “I’ve had two major, long-term betas in my fanfic writing life. And in both cases, the betas beta me because they like my writing enough to want to see it get better.” In time, both writer and beta commenter come to know each other’s idiosyncrasies and may become friends. For the relationship to remain constructive (rather than simply validating), however, a balance of honesty and support must be struck. If both parties find themselves “spending more time patting each other on the back than mocking each others’ idiosyncrasies, you may be in the wrong relationship.”20
Beta reading guides commonly recommend that collaborators be explicit about their needs and expectations. If writers want feedback on what they did well or what they should improve, they should say so. Even so, beta readers should respect that the story belongs to the author and should not coerce the premise of the story or characters to their own liking. Additionally, a Star Wars–related site notes that communication should be explicit and diplomatic. One tip toward that end is to use the sandwich technique: “Praise, then critique, then praise again. Don’t critique the author, critique the story.” Be specific, and offer a suggestion. Instead of commenting that “Yoda sounds out of character,” explain, and offer a solution:
Yoda doesn’t answer questions in a straightforward way. Yoda would take his time, and he’s more likely to lead the questioner to the answer by asking questions of his own. The word “me” doesn’t sound right. How about changing that line to something more like: “Think you do, that immobile am I? Mace Windu from the Council, is the only other.”
I have read at least a dozen guides on feedback in fanfiction, and, more broadly, there are millions (according to Google) of pages that mention feedback. Most of the popular guides mirror the findings of researchers. For instance, “destructive criticism” (criticism that is harsh in tone, nonspecific in nature, and focused on internal causes) has been found to undermine people’s sense of confidence and self-efficacy, reduce people’s self-set goals, and impair their performance.21 In terms of negotiating the type of feedback desired, researchers have found a relationship between the character of feedback and the expertise of the recipient. Novices respond more to positive feedback (“this is what you did well”) because it reinforces their commitment to a goal. Experts respond better to negative feedback (“this is what you can improve”) because it helps them judge their progress toward a goal.22 Valerie Shute, a researcher in educational psychology, conducted a literature review of one hundred scholarly documents on formative feedback. She concluded that feedback providers should focus on the task, not the learner; present specific and clear feedback in manageable units; give feedback in writing rather than in conversation; and for difficult tasks, give immediate feedback to help the student along but delay feedback on simple tasks so as not to interrupt.23 Finally, not all “feedback sandwiches” are equally effective. Communication scholar Clifford Nass has noted that some sandwiches suffer from retroactive interference, which occurs when negative remarks cause us to forget what was just said because we are thinking so hard about the criticism: “the criticism blasts the first list of positive comments out of listeners’ memory,” and the concluding “positive remarks are too general to be remembered.” Instead, feedback providers ought to offer broad praise, provide brief criticism that is focused on specific steps toward improvement, and conclude with lengthy and detailed positive remarks.24
Because even the most skillfully delivered feedback can be bruising and a lot of feedback is less than skillful, the exchange of feedback can be seen as a type of emotion work. This notion was introduced by the sociologist Arlie Russell Hochschild in her 1983 book The Managed Heart: Commercialization of Human Feeling to describe the “management of feeling” and its manifestation in interactions. In Hochschild’s study of flight attendants, the ability to smile, regardless of the unreasonableness of passengers, was as important as any other aspect of their job.25 So in exchanging feedback, each party works to make the experience palatable and productive. For instance, writers can distract themselves from their own misfortunes by browsing through the pages of Pushcart’s Complete Rotten Reviews and Rejections: A History of Insult, a Solace to Writers. Reading others’ rejections reminds writers that they are not alone and that even the best writers are rejected. As the editors of the collection wrote, “One of the pleasures of this wicked collection is watching the great being terribly wrong about the great.” The collection also shows that even the greats—those presumed to be supremely confident—can be vulnerable. The science fiction master Isaac Asimov wrote to the editors of Pushcart that he followed the advice of a colleague to stop reading a review at the first unfavorable adjective: “I have done that faithfully and, as a result, I have no bad reviews to send to you. I also throw away good reviews, by the way, but I read them first.”26 Similarly, disappointed researchers can console themselves with a study that found that journal articles that were initially rejected received more citations on average than those that were accepted when first submitted.27
Even the anticipation of solicited and constructive feedback can make a writer uncomfortable, as Joyce Shor Johnson, a young adult novelist, notes: “let’s say you have a beta reader and they’ve read your manuscript. Waiting is hard. Every now and then you wonder if they hate it.” After the feedback arrives, Johnson recommends taking a deep breath, grabbing a glass of wine and highlighter, sitting back, and reading the feedback: “If you find something that makes you want to stop reading, highlight it and continue reading. Read it all the way through and don’t think defensive thoughts.” After the initial reading is done, put it aside for at least twenty-four hours. Then begin with the easy stuff, grammar and punctuation, before moving on to the more difficult issues that you have highlighted (those you can parcel out as your emotional reserves permit).28
And what about evaluations that are “just plain wrong,” as physics professor Heather Whitney asked about students’ comments: “Even when feedback is hurtful and/or inaccurate, can we still use it to improve our teaching?”29 Most of the ensuing comments on her post reflected the sentiment that end-of-semester evaluations are of little use and that it is more useful to ask for feedback while the course is in progress. Whitney’s question is relevant to more than just teachers. Among computer programmers, feedback can be especially harsh, which leads some to agree with Friedrich Nietzsche’s line “what does not kill me makes me stronger.” Software developer Chris McDonough writes that because complaining “appears ingrained in human nature, and is never going to change,” people should adopt an attitude of using all comment, no matter how negative, to improve. In a blog entry entitled “In Praise of Complaining, Even When the Complaints Are Absurd,” McDonough notes that when others opt to “complain cluelessly [and] bitterly in public,” he still uses it to his own advantage. For example, the documentation he maintains about one of his projects “is almost pure spite-driven development. Things are only added to it, under duress, spitefully; it’s largely a direct reaction to misinformed complaints.” Yet, such a document is useful because he is then forced to explain the motivation behind his design decisions to avoid additional misinformed complaints.30 After he transmutes the clueless and mean-spirited comments into something useful, McDonough is also likely to “flip the bozo bit” and stop extending the benefit of the doubt to the complainer. Avoidance, commiseration, triage, and even transmutation are all strategies that we have developed to deal with feedback.
Photo.net is one of the Web’s oldest photography sites. Its discussion boards can be traced back to 1993, and it describes itself as a site for serious photographers to learn by sharing and critiquing one another’s photos. In March 2005, Patricia Minicucci posted her fourth message to the site’s discussion board asking about feedback etiquette:
I am a relatively recent member of Photo.net and I actually enjoy contributing critiques (versus ratings), mostly because I learn a lot by looking at the work of others.… Initially, I would never have presumed to offer an alternative view of an image. Then, a member here offered me a revised crop on one of my own photographs that improved the image significantly. Frankly, I was grateful for the input and realized that the tweaked version spoke more eloquently than words ever would have. So, thereafter, I began to post some tweaked versions (usually just cropping/alignment/color balance stuff).31
Not everyone appreciates these tweaks, though, and one member responded, “You guys just don’t get it. I for one do NOT appreciate you taking my photograph and doing what you feel is the right thing. Please don’t ever do that again to my photography.” As has been noted, feedback is not easy to give or receive, and communities of learners must negotiate their expectations and feelings about the practice. As Minicucci asked, “Is it generally considered good or bad form to offer a tweaked version of an image submitted for critique?”
At photo.net, some view tweak critique as the most important feature of the site, and it is explicitly permitted in the site’s terms of service. In the comments that follow Minicucci’s question, some members noted that a “picture is worth a thousand words” and that tweak critique is like book editing: “No writer should ever resent a good editing.” Some requested that others refrain from making alterations to their photos. Many were happy to respect such requests because there is little to gain by giving someone feedback in a way they have explicitly declined. Additionally, one member noted that tweakers should place a watermark or banner on photos that they alter so that they are not confused with the original.32
The ease, value, and acceptance of tweak critique in this community are novel, but as reflected in the comment about “good editing,” the practice has precedents. For example, a photographer might put an assistant in charge of lighting but tweak and explain the setup to further the assistant’s learning. However, this is a relatively intimate relationship. At photo.net, a stranger might manipulate a portrait of the photographer’s child. Tweak critique has the virtue of being a specific, concrete suggestion, but such specificity can sometimes be unwelcome.
Tweak critique has become salient now because technology finally makes it easy. This notion is often spoken of as an affordance, a term that was coined by visual psychologist James Gibson and popularized by designer Donald Norman in the book The Design of Everyday Things.33 Norman was concerned with “perceived affordance” or the extent to which a user is able to perceive that some action is possible with an object. His complaint was that many everyday objects are designed poorly, such as a pull handle on a door that can only be pushed open. Digital imaging significantly changes the affordances that are available to photographers and their critics. And the affordances of digital, networked communication affect more than photographers.
Tweak critique can be found many places online. At Wikipedia, for example, a maxim tells readers to “be bold”: “If you see something that can be improved, improve it!” A change can be suggested on an article’s talk page, but Wikipedia wants people to “just do it” (without being reckless). Although editing others requires “some amount of politeness,” “Wikipedia not only allows you to add, revise, and edit articles: it wants you to do it.”34
The process that gives Wikipedians the ability to be bold is known as version control: a system of keeping, managing and merging revisions of a work. Most any change can always be reverted, restoring an earlier version with little or no harm done. Version control also helps projects integrate improvements. In software development, a programmer might receive a bug report that documents a confounding problem or desired feature. With the increasing popularity of free and open-source software, which lets others modify a digital work, people might even send a patch that fixes the bug. That is, people make a copy of a work, make their improvements, and then extract the differences (or diffs) between the two versions and sends those improvements to the original developer. This type of comment and tweak critique is in the textual rather than visual domain. Developers find it more efficient to receive a patch rather than a bug report—even if the report is well specified, which most are not.
As evidence that bug reports and patches are a type of feedback, they too can generate plenty of arguments. Much like writers of prose, software developers argue about bug reports and patches that are thought to be disrespectful to or divergent from the original developers’ intentions. Developers complain that bug reports are ambiguous or confusing, and those who report them can be offended when their reports are labeled “INVALID” or “WON’T FIX.” Patches can be rejected for being sloppy or “brain dead.” The feedback culture around the Linux kernel (which mimics the confrontational style of its creator, Linus Torvalds) is famously harsh. Linux is a free source software project in which development and scolding happen in the open. Greg Kroah-Hartman, a Linux kernel maintainer, displayed this attitude when he complained about a patch:
And people wonder why kernel maintainers are grumpy.… This patch is why.… The programmer thinks they are smarter than the kernel and have silenced the nasty messages it was spitting out at them.… To quote the old IBM phrase, “THINK.” To which I’ll add “or you will be mocked.”35
Most would agree that disabling diagnostic errors instead of fixing the errors you are causing is egregious. The culture of Linux development is to police such behavior with mockery and insult. In fact, the Linux operating system project was born during a famous feud between Torvalds, then a computer science undergraduate, and Andrew Tanenbaum, a professor and the developer of an alternative project known as MINIX. When Torvalds announced his modest Linux project on the MINIX newsgroup, Tanenbaum claimed that the approach Torvalds was pursuing was “obsolete.” Torvalds responded by declaring, “Time for some serious flamefesting!” and attacked Tanenbaum and his MINIX and Amoeba projects: “your job is being a professor and researcher: That’s one hell of a good excuse for some of the brain-damages of minix. I can only hope (and assume) that Amoeba doesn’t suck like minix does.”36 After being told by others that this was not “how it was done,” he apologized and signed the message “Linus ‘my first, and hopefully last flamefest’ Torvalds.” But this was far from his last flame.
In response to Kroah-Hartman’s posting about the egregious patch, Torvalds wrote “Publicly making fun of people is half the fun of open-source programming. In fact, the real reason to eschew programming in closed environments is that you can’t embarrass people in public.” In 2013, another Torvalds “flamefest” led some to ask if these outbursts were becoming an embarrassment and liability to the community. The trigger for this incident was Microsoft’s requirement that new “Windows certified” computers could run only authorized versions of Windows 8 that were signed by a cryptographic key. Microsoft’s stated intention was to make the software more secure, but the change would likely exclude other operating systems from running on those computers. David Howells, a developer from the Linux company Redhat, asked Torvalds to “please” pull a patch that could make it possible to boot Linux on such computers. Microsoft’s move was onerous to all Linux developers, but Redhat tried to address it in a way that was not to Torvalds’s liking. Torvalds responded that “this is not a dick-sucking contest”:
If Red Hat wants to deep-throat Microsoft, that’s *your* issue. That has nothing what-so-ever to do with the kernel I maintain. It’s your own key. You already wrote the code, for chrissake, it’s in that f*cking pull request. Why should *I* care?37
This prompted prominent Web developer Evan Prodromou and others to characterize Torvalds’s response as sexist and bullying.38 Flaming and sexist comments are topics that I will return to, but in terms of feedback, this community seems to be harsher than others, perhaps because code is more objective than prose. The performance of a patch can easily be tested, whereas the merit of a fanfic critique is in the eye of the beholder. Also, Linux is a very successful project, and its developers can afford to be picky, as a bad patch can ruin the efforts of thousands of other contributors. Although tweak critique, including patches, is a constructive type of feedback because it is specific and offers a solution, this type of comment is still subject to the vagaries of human ego and emotion.
Feedback can be distinguished from other types of comment by its intention to help its object (a speaker, student, writer, or coder) achieve a goal. In amateur communities, that goal is recognized as being set by the person who receives the feedback. In its “three Rs of evaluation,” Toastmasters stresses that a good evaluation is one in which you “consider the speaker’s personal goals.” In fanfiction, “There is a difference between expressing dislike for a work and expressing dislike for its premises.”39 “The Art of Critiquing,” a guide for Xena: Warrior Princess fanfic writers, recommends that beta readers respect that the writer “put a lot of their heart and soul into their work” and “allow the author their story” even if the story fails in the reader’s opinion.40 In software development, commenters will be rebuffed for presuming that they can force a developer to code the features they want. Constructive feedback does not challenge the premise or purpose of someone’s efforts.
When it comes to cultures of feedback, I am drawn to the richness of amateur communities. The better Toastmasters clubs could certainly be as effective, if not better, than many public speaking classes taught in accredited universities. Key differences between the amateur and the institutional participant are self-selection and motivation. The amateur is intrinsically motivated, whereas the student or instructor might be there simply for the class credit or paycheck. In a classroom or an office, disappointments must be absorbed as people continue onward—with the help of some griping with peers. In an amateur group, disappointment is easily followed by disappearance, which might be why some amateur communities have well developed norms of concrit. Even so, newcomers and nasties are always arriving, and different groups have varied tolerances for the tone of feedback—from the palatable feedback-sandwich to the bitter medicine of critique or even the poison of complaint.
Whatever its tone, such comment must be digested, and this rarely is an easy task. The Renaissance writer Michel de Montaigne is often described as the father of the essay because he documented his own experiences and thoughts in an unusual (for the time) three-volume collection, Essais. He also has been called the world’s first blogger because of his self-interest (“I would rather be an authority on myself than on Cicero”) and oversharing (“I dislike even thoughts which are unpublishable”). He also strongly identified with his writing: “I am myself the matter of my book.” When he presented a copy of his essays to Henri III, the French king was reported to have said that he liked the book, to which Montaigne replied, “Sir, then your majesty must like me.” This also implies that criticism of his work was criticism of Montaigne. Hence, the exchange of feedback requires both strength and love: “We need very strong ears to hear ourselves judged frankly; and because there are few who can endure frank criticism without being stung by it, those who venture to criticize us perform a remarkable act of friendship; for to undertake to wound and offend a man for his own good is to have a healthy love for him.”41
Montaigne’s sentiment remains true today. What has changed is the immediacy and accessibility of comment: never before has it been this quick and easy to solicit and give feedback. This is especially so in the case of tweak critique. Furthermore, the distinctions drawn between criticism, feedback, and review sometimes blur, which can be a source of contention within a community. Similarly, the scope and scale of feedback have changed: feedback to a person can be seen by many, and it is easy to encounter unsolicited comment about oneself. Helpful feedback requires care from the giver and emotional work by the receiver. On this latter point, as the rap parody at the start of this chapter requests, we might ask those online to “Be more constructive with your feedback, please.”
Header icon made by Goodware from www.flaticon.com