How to Critique

In lieu of actual examples, and due to the seriousness of the subject matter, I’m inundating you with kittens

Normally, this website doesn’t deal a lot in criticism, other than pointing out complaints in things that I do actually love. But don’t you think that I don’t believe in criticism. Criticism can be very useful and can help consumers to make useful decision. Consumer and professional criticism can even get a company to change its product for the better (or worse…). But with the power of community forums and social media, the greater public has been given the power that only professional reviewers had before. The ability to reveal an opinion to the entire world. But with great power comes great responsibility, to quote the great Stan Lee. Critiquing is something that takes time, takes a lot of thought, and generally comes with experience. In case you haven’t been paying attention to the internet, you’ll know that Facebook and Twitter don’t really emphasize these things.

The truth is, if you don’t critique properly, such a critique doesn’t serve anyone. You won’t get the response or results that you want and the company won’t get the valuable feedback that they’d prefer. So I feel like it’s my civic duty to educate the greater public (well those who actually see this site anyway) on what I feel are the essential steps for criticism.

Step One: Relax!

The first step when first hearing the news you wish to respond to is to shut up. Seriously. I’m not being facitious. When you’re first reacting to news, your emotions respond first and you are under the influence of quick acting brain chemicals. In other words, you are blinded by your own emotions, and this is never a good place to be when you are critiquing something. You need to honestly think about your criticism and consider all sides, and you’re not going to do that when you are pissed off.

My general rule on such things is to take a day to think about it. I know this is antithetical to the design of today’s media culture, but then again, I don’t think there was really anything wrong with the way we did it before. I feel it’s better to be honest and true over being first, and so should you. Anyone who’s chimed into a conversation that they entered late or didn’t know anything about knows how much shame there is in being boisterously wrong. And honestly, there’s more shame in being publically wrong than to be publically silent.

How much time you should take is really up to you, though. For some people, they can calm down and reason within an hour. Some people can take a week. Regardless, you’ll know you’re ready when you can start questioning whether your initial reaction was right or not. In fact, one of the most sobering things you can do is start looking at the other side of the argument. For every pissed off reaction, there is at least one person who is mounting a defense. Often times, I’ve gotten fired up about something, then read a “Why [insert topic here] doesn’t really matter that much” article and found myself getting sobered up by a really well thought out counter-point or two. I’m not trying to say that every emotional reaction you have is wrong, far from it in fact. But seeing the other side’s arguments will give your argument fuel for counter-arguments, will focus it to what really matters, and possibly answer or provide additional questions for later steps.

Side Note:

While this article is focused on talking about the specific emotions of anger or outrage, I do want to say a quick thing about the other side of the emotional range. Yes, I agree that excitement can blind one’s argument just as much as anger, outrage, or forced ambivilance, but excitement doesn’t really harm anything or anyone. Many professional reviewers will talk about the “Trade Show High,” which is a very real phenomenon. The fact is, when at a trade show or product launch event, most reviewers are hopped up on various sources of caffine, are fueled by adrenaline after spending frantic moments trying to run from place to place, and are also finally seeing something new that they’ve only heard rumors or renders about for months. Even the most successful reviewers can’t really remove themselves from this high.

But there’s nothing wrong with this! Excitement gets people talking about the good stuff in life. It’s healthy, promotes more that happiness brain juice, saratonin, and makes life more interesting. If you’re just sitting around and finding things to bitch about all day, you’ll end up being that angry old man on a porch pointing his gun at kids. Nobody likes that guy and nobody likes being that guy. I know it’s silly to get excited about something as meaningless as a new gadget or a new movie or a new album or whatever. But unless your life is charmed, you most likely have a job that you don’t really care about, a family that you love but will drive you nuts on occasion, and moments of loneliness or regret that bring you down. These are the things that really matter in life, but they take time to fix, and if we don’t have these momentary distractions of excitement, we’ll all go nuts.

But I want to point out that this is certainly better than the alternative. Recently, tech reviewers specifically are getting jaded, mostly because they’ve been covering these launches for over 10-20 years now and after as much excitement as we’ve had just over the last 10 years, it can be hard for these guys to really get excited about a product launch anymore. This is bad. We can’t have the people that relate excitement about new things to us to start getting jaded. A society like ours that is based around consumerism needs this kind of excitement, at least until we have an alternative to consumerism in place to funnel our excitement.

Instead, I suggest that it’s up to the reader to react correctly to this kind of coverage. We should be allowed to be excited about things and readers should revel in the excitement for as long as it lasts. But then, after the high fades, reviewers shouldn’t be faulted for reversing their stance or “flip-flopping” as it inevitably amounts to. Because we should all get excited about new stuff, but then when it comes down to plopping money down for something, we should turn on our logical face and start thinking about it.

/Side Note

Step Two: What Does This Really Mean?

To recap, we are now calmed down, we’ve read some counter-criticism from the other side of the argument, and we are questioning our initial response. Basically, our mind is in a state of chaos and we don’t know what to think anymore. This is good, because it’s literally impossible for you to form any sort of criticism at the moment. But now that you’ve Post-Modernized your brain, you should no longer be emotional and you are in a great place to build some structure for your argument.

At this point, the best thing to do is to start from the very beginning and reconsider the news. Re-read the article you originally reacted to. Remember what you reacted to with the counter-criticism in your head. Most importantly, you need to figure out exactly why you reacted the way you did.

The reality is that you’ll often react to an announcement not because of the content of the announcement, but because of an implication of the announcement. Which is another way of saying, you’re assuming something. This doesn’t mean you’re wrong, but figuring out these things is important to developing your criticism and your real opinion about a product or announcement. Because even if your argument holds merit, someone can dismiss it easily by focusing on one false assumption. Understanding the nature of your reaction and developing a real logical argument will make whatever you end up saying sound much more thought out and intelligent. Honestly, your criticism will be much more important and much more useful to everyone when it’s this thought out.

At this point, you should also consider why the thing you’re reacting to happened. Often, the reason will be in the article itself, but maybe you missed it on the first read. Is this change or new product or whatever trying to solve a problem? Maybe it’s not the most elegant solution to the problem, but perhaps it’s the best way to solve the problem with current techniques or technology or available money. If this is the case, do you benefit from this solution more than you suffer from the problem? It’s something to consider. If you don’t understand the problem they are trying to solve or the reason they went in this way, keep these questions in your mind or write them down so you can research them later.

The main part of this step is fine-tuning your criticism down to the things that actually do matter to you, but by doing this, you might actually run into some additional assumptions you might have forgotten you had. Often times, a human thought is cobbled together with a combination of hearsay, rumor, and logically derived assumptions based on knowledge of other things. This is the time to figure out those things because while they can be right, they can also be terribly wrong. And anyone who’s ever taken a logic class (probably not many of you, though) will know that even if your conclusion is logically derived from your premises, if your premises are flawed, your entire argument fails.

Step Three: Research

Now that you have questions, gaps in knowledge, or an understanding that you’ve assumed something, it’s time to get educated. While most reviewers will want to (but most don’t unfortunately) keep the sources they find and reference them later, the average person doesn’t need to do this. You wrote research papers in high school and college, so you know how this goes, but unless you’re actually writing an article, you shouldn’t need to go through all that stuff again.

The only reason I include this step in this article is because it’s really easy now. The internet has given us an unprecedented amount of information access and with things like Wikipedia, this information is easier than ever to find. Now, once again, you’ll probably remember the old adage from your college days about “use Wikipedia as a guide, but don’t use it as a source.” Well, forget all that. Even professional writers use it as a source. The reality is that the information on Wikipedia is actually surprisingly accurate and is especially useful when you’re just spending a ½ hour or hour looking up something before you tweet about it. Seriously, just look up the subject on Wikipedia. Regardless of whether you confirm or deny your criticism or get the answers you need, you’ll be more educated about the subject in general, you’ll sound like a genius to your friends, and the one who receives your criticism will be more likely to take it seriously.

At this point, you should also look at the sources for the original article. Most likely, you saw this article on some 3rd party reporting website like Engadget, Pocketnow, TMZ, MovieNews.com, Nerdystuff.com, whatever. These guys don’t just manufactuer this information, they get it from sources, and normally should be telling you where they got it. If they got it from another website, there should be a helpful link at the bottom of the article that points you to the source. Looking at the source can tell you a lot, including how much the article assumes as well. It’s not exactly like you should go through the source with a fine toothed comb, but sometimes just glancing at the source or even the headline can tell you whether the source is legit or if there were certain liberties taken with the information given. If you end up going through a goose chase of multiple source links, you should probably start thinking that the original article you read is probably taking liberties by virtue of playing telephone over the internet.

During this step, you should also be researching the questions you created earlier about the reason for the change or new product or feature or whatever. Is it supposed to solve a problem? If so, do some research about the technology and see if you can learn a little about why they went in the way they did. Ideally, the company would come out with that information, but that’s not always the case. Find other ways that other companies solved these problems. Are there technical reasons why this other company didn’t adopt a different solution? It’s also quite useful to consider what the alternatives might be to whatever change has happened. Sometimes picking the lesser of two evils is still progress.

All this is to say that doing a little research can go a long way. You don’t have to spend hours becoming an expert on the topic in order to say something about some stupid article you read a while ago. Even spending your 15 minute break or a few minutes in the bathroom clicking on source links and browsing through Wikipedia instead of plowing through a level in Candy Crush can make a huge difference in making your response much more useful and intelligent.

Step Four: Respond With Questions and Suggestions

Alright, now it’s time. You’ve calmed down, figured out what your argument is, and researched a bit so you know a bit more about what you’re talking about. Remember those questions you wrote down earlier? Did you answer all of them? Has the thing that you reacted to earlier taken the form of a question more than an argument? Now is the time to ask those questions.

The people that present news about announcements and new products are marketing guys who’ve spent hours crafting speeches and such, but they’re still human, and so are you. Misunderstandings are inevitable. If your initial anger is still based entirely on an assumption, maybe you should ask the company or reviewer’s Twitter account to confirm or deny whether your assumption is correct. Instead of saying “I don’t want to buy X because Y change will kill my favorite feature Z,” instead ask “Hey, does Y change to X mean that Z’s going to be affected?” If they give you some stupid marketing speak that doesn’t answer the question, most likely you’re correct. But if they deny your claim, they’ll most likely give you a reason, and then problem solved.

If you do actually have an argument and not a question, by this time, you should be much more capable of intelligently responding with something like: “I like X better than Y because A, B, and C.” This is a much more intelligent response than “X sucks! Y was sooo much better!” or “Stupid X, why couldn’t it be more like Y?” These responses don’t really say anything. The above response had reasons that were at least moderately researched, which tells the company that. However, if you can go even further and offer suggestions, all the better. If you’ve gone this far, then you care enough about whatever this thing is to also care about its future. While companies are normally motivated primarily by money, they don’t make money if consumers don’t purchase their products or services. As a result, they do have to make their consumers happy. If you do enough research to have an alternative suggestion, then your comment will rise above all the rest of the vitriol that company has received. Because inevitably, if you disagree, so did thousands of other people. After getting inundated with all the thousands of negative comments and pissed-off e-mails, someone who has the decency to give an educated opinion and also include a suggestion will be taken much more seriously than otherwise.

Be The Change You Seek

These steps are really the only things that separate the “experts” from the laiman, these days. Every single expert starts off knowing nothing about their field. The only thing they did is take some time to think about it and do a little research. Obviously there are some technical fields that require a bit more knowledge to understand than others, but even if you can get a general idea about how things work, you’ll be much more capable of digesting and criticizing information appropriately. The more you learn, the more you know, the better off you are in this world that’s ruled by clever marketing. Now that worldwide communication and information access are both readily available from the same devices that are constantly right in front of us, I feel like it’s our civic duty to utilize one just as much as the other. Unfortunately, this has not been the case for most of the Information Age. But it only needs to start with a few people.

The fact is that these things do matter to us. The things were are excited about and passionate about are only pointless with a cynical opinion. Sure, there are important things to deal with in the world, and we should stay educated about those things and use social media to make things happen. But to say that’s all we should spend our time on is depressing and cynical. For many of us, we find pleasure in this life finding ways to forget that we’re going to die one day. And there’s nothing wrong with that. Should you try to make a difference in the world? Absolutely, but sometimes you can only do so as one of a large crowd. For the rest of our free time, we’ll be focusing on the next smartphone or the next superhero movie or where the next hot TV show series is going, or whatever.

These things are important to us in that they make us happy and excited and give us a sense of escape when we need it for mental stability. But when we fill the world with the anger and vitriol that makes up our first initial emotional reactions to these things, all it does is tear down someone and defeat the purpose for why we care about these things in the first place. Even in the case of the more important things in the world, like political crises, disease and hunger, medical innovation, etc. or the important things in life like raising a family or building a career, complaining and bitching and posting vitriol in comment boards will not do anything. All it’ll do is piss off someone and make you bitter. In all things, we need more intelligent conversation, positive suggestions, and more attentions focused on the things they actually care about. Even if you don’t follow my suggestions for yourself, at least try to follow them to make the world a better place for the next generations.

So chill people.