Thursday, December 12, 2013

Bevin's Guide to Being an Internet Critic

This is actually something I wrote somewhere else a while back but it seems pertinent enough to put up in here, too.  It's as much a reminder for myself as it is a statement of my personal viewpoints on responding to things critically; generally speaking, if things are easy or natural to do for everyone they don't need to be made into rules.  So in absence of a real post (which I hope to get back to but we'll see how my time off from classes goes), here's this.

The internet is an amazing thing that allows for greater contact with people than ever before in human history which, as most things are, is a double-edged sword. We can connect with the people who create the things we consume in such immediate and personal ways now but we can still forget that they're people with flaws, personal lives, work stresses, ideas, opinions, and also a lot of people scrutinizing and judging them in very public ways. It affords us the luxury of expressing our opinions on any little thing we choose to write about to the entire world; but it doesn't require that we display any knowledge, experience, or qualifications on the subject, either. It also allows for other people to judge us based on how we conduct ourselves and that can either cost you opportunities or create them. How we act on the internet affects people's lives in real ways, including our own lives, so being self-aware is important.

To that end, I have a list of things I try to keep in mind when posting on the internet.

1. Opinions Are Not Facts
That's not to say that opinions don't matter and should be disregarded, that's totally missing the point. A fact is something concrete and provable, like having one bean and getting one more bean means you have two beans. An opinion is something that's relative between individuals; one person may think beans are delicious while another person may think they taste terrible. While those opinions are true for those individuals, they are not facts in the larger sense of the term. Unfortunately, we have a tendency to forget this important distinction when we get into topics more complicated than beans, even though it still remains true. Having an opinion is fine but that doesn't make it a universal truth.

2. Having an Opinion Does Not Make You an Expert
Liking or disliking something doesn't require any knowledge or training or effort, it's something that happens as we experience things. Saying you dislike something is not the same thing as saying something is bad; one requires no knowledge of anything other than your opinion, the other requires knowledge of the subject matter beyond opinion. Labeling something as "good" or "bad" is moving into the arena of hard facts and is a separate subject from whether or not you like or dislike it. Unless you have extensive knowledge of or training or experience in the subject matter at hand, "good" and "bad" are labels you probably want to avoid. Chances are very good there are people out there who know more about this stuff than you do and chances are even better that most of the people who work to create this stuff for a living know more about how to do it than the people who don't. Critiquing something is easy, creating it is much harder and requires more knowledge, effort, time and personal investment. That doesn't always mean the end result is good, but it does bear consideration.

3. Never Assume People Are Stupid
Ugh, but some people clearly are, right? Ha ha, yeah, don't do that, seriously. The second you start thinking you're smarter than the people who created something or the people who disagree with your opinion, you've shifted the point from the work itself to you and your hangups. Let me say this right now: it doesn't matter if you are or aren't smarter than them. When you start assuming that the things you don't like are created and appreciated by stupid people you're expressing far more about yourself and your own issues than anything else. You don't want to be that person. You don't have to like the thing in question, but if people are responding to it, it's better to investigate why that might be rather than writing the whole thing off as moronic. You might actually learn something or come to appreciate it in a different way, even if you still don't like it.

4. Never Assume You Speak For Anyone Except Yourself
Unless you have been unanimously voted as the spokesperson for a specific group of people who all approved everything you are about to say, you're not speaking for everyone. Why would you even want to? Trying to be the mouthpiece for a bunch of other people is hard and a good way to lose yourself in the process. Even people who share a common experience will not all feel the same way about it and putting words in their mouths isn't going to ingratiate them to you. Stick with just expressing the opinion you're qualified to: yours.

5. Keep Yourself Open to Different Opinions
You know that opinion you have? Other people have them too, and not all of them are going to coincide with yours. If you really want to challenge yourself (and a smart critic always does), actively seek out different opinions. Read everything you can find on the topic, regardless of whether you agree with it or not, and really examine where that person is coming from. Sometimes you learn something new or find a new interpretation that makes a lot of sense and adds new dimension to the work that you didn't see before. And that is a very cool thing.

6. Don't Make Assumptions About Others' Motivations
I had a teacher who used to say, "when you point a finger at someone else you have three pointing back at yourself." Sure, other people have motivations for creating the things they do, saying the things they say, and all that but unless you have psychic powers you don't know what they are unless they say so directly. Everything else is an assumption on your part and that puts you in the dangerous waters of projecting your own issues onto them. Just don't go there, there's no need to unless your goal is to feel superior to other people you've never met, or you're really desperate for other people to stop taking your opinions seriously. If you do feel the need to make an assumption, be up front about it and don't present it as a fact or common knowledge.

7. Don't Be Afraid to Be Wrong
People screw up, it's the fastest way we learn. If you make a mistake like get a fact wrong or mis-quote someone or commit some sort of faux-pas, don't try to justify it or ignore it if someone calls you on it or try to turn it back on them. Own it, admit the mistake, correct it if you can and move on, being mindful of it in the future. Learn from your mistakes, that's where all the value is in them.

8. Back Your Opinions Up With Reasons For Having Them
Possibly the least useful thing in the world is someone stating their opinion and nothing else. All that does is illustrate that you have an opinion, which everyone else does too, so big deal. Expressing why you have your opinion is much more useful because it requires some actual thought about the product and some level of self-awareness on your part. The more examples you can list from the work itself that back up your opinion, the stronger your argument is.

9. Be As Honest As You Can Be
If you like something, don't excuse the parts of it that have problems or don't work. That's not the same thing as arguing in favor of something that you feel is misunderstood or under-appreciated, it means if you feel that an element is off or wrong, don't try to defend it for the sake of defending the thing you like. Admit you don't like that element but that it's not enough to diminish your appreciation for the work as a whole. The same works in reverse: don't universally trash something you don't like when there might be elements you like or that work well in it. Be honest about the things you like and dislike and try to be as honest about why as you can, even if this puts you at odds with popular opinion or common assumptions.

10. There Is a Difference Between Something Being Bad and Not Being What You Wanted
Try to be honest with yourself about what you're really responding to: the work itself or your own expectations of it. This is hard to do but it's really crucial to being fair to what the creator/s are trying to say. There is a difference between honest critique of things that don't work and fan entitlement.

11. Keep Your Perspective
At the end of the day, what's really important in life? Sure the TV shows, books, music and movies we love are important because they speak to us, they move us, all the stuff art is created to do. That's not trivial but it's also not more important than being a decent person about them. That doesn't mean you have to withhold your opinions about them, it means expressing your opinions in ways that aren't petty or mean-spirited or even threatening. So somewhere in the world someone created something you don't like? So somewhere in the world someone doesn't like something that you do? The sun still comes up the next morning, the earth continues to spin on its axis, life moves on. That's not to try and invalidate people's emotions; get mad, be disappointed, care about stuff by all means. Apathy is one of the worst things on the planet. But don't let it take up a disproportionate amount of your life and remember that at the end of the day it's just a book or a song or a movie or whatever it is. It's not worth forgetting how to be a decent person. Sometimes it's necessary to take a step back and appreciate that we live in a time and place that affords us the luxury of being mad about a piece of entertainment.