July 11, 2010

Reconstructing Criticism: Goals

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.

Constructive criticism is generally incompatible with venting, which is focused on the speaker, rather than the listener. It's incompatible with shaming and flaming, which encourage defensiveness. It is also, in fact, often incompatible with a public airing of issues. Not that constructive criticism can't be done in public, but several factors (the distraction for the recipient of figuring out why the criticism is being delivered in public, the tendency of spectators to call, "Fight! Fight!" or to jump on one "side" or another, making chasms out of tiny differences of opinion) add to the difficulty. Every additional goal adds complexity to the task, making it less likely that the primary goal of behavior change won't be successfully met.

On the topic of goals, it's also important to understand the goals of the person receiving criticism. The most carefully crafted, positively delivered message in the world won't hit its mark if it's based on an incorrect assumption of common goals. If you can explain why a change in behavior will help someone achieve their goals, you're going to get better results than if you're explaining why a change in their behavior will suit yours. What better way to influence someone than to help them along a path they've already set for themselves?

Even concentrating on common goals, criticism may miss if it's based on goals that are too broad or unspecific. I doubt I need to point to examples of people suggesting that others who represent a common demographic, movement or general ideal should change their behavior to better support what they have in common. It's rare that I come across an example of this working, however. The people involved may share an overarching goal, but their proximate goals are far too different for invocation of the shared goal to be effective.

If you come across someone who you feel is "hurting the movement" or something similar, it may be useful to have a discussion about immediate goals and strategy rather than to try to offer criticism. If this is the source of your disagreement, discussion at this level can keep things from getting too personal with someone who is still working on the same problem you are, just in a very different way. If you agree about strategy and proximate goals, then you have gained something on which to base your criticism to make it more productive.

And productive is still what it's all about.

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