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The Internet Guide to Complaints, Criticisms, and Constructive Dialogue.

January 17, 2014
Two cats fighting in the street

Photo by privatenobby

Whenever I start to talk about something in the media that bothers me (for instance, sexism in video games), it’s inevitable that someone will accuse me of doing nothing but complaining. But is complaining such a terrible thing? When does a complaint become a criticism, and when does a criticism become helpful in encouraging positive change? Behold, the Guide. Today, we will address the differences between complaints, criticisms, and constructive dialogue, and what you should do when faced with each on your internet travels.

Also, pictures of cats.

Part One: Complaints

Complaining cat

Photo by by Lady/Bird

Example: I hate that book, it’s the worst thing ever written.

Definition: According to Merriam-Webster, a complaint is “expression of grief, pain, or dissatisfaction.” That’s pretty much it. Complaints are a way to vent frustration and feel better. Complaints are usually all about the complainer’s feelings. And in some situations, that’s okay. It’s incredibly therapeutic to have a sympathetic ear to gripe into about your boyfriend, your boss, your car, the high price of DLC, what have you.

Complaining is best done with like minded people who agree with you. People with a different opinion who try to engage complainers will be shot down. Complaining is not about opening a dialogue or solving the problem, it’s about taking a big verbal dump to get it all out of your system. Complaining is one way only, and it’s only for people who agree or are open to just listening.

Distinguishing Features: Complaints rarely offer reasons or solutions. They are often filled with personal feelings of the person wronged and personal attacks of the person doing the wronging. For example, “This video game has the worst mechanics and I hate it!” is a complaint.

Sometimes complaining puts the onus on the person being complained about to find a solution. Complainers seldom want to be part of finding the solution themselves.

Other times complainers don’t want answers or fixes. They just want to be heard and understood.

When to Use Them: You’re mad and frustrated and you just want to get something off your chest. Find an appropriate outlet and let loose. Note: Appropriate outlets are NOT forums where a majority of people will disagree with you.

It’s also important to recognize when you’re complaining. If someone wants to debate you on the topic and you’re not up to defending your position, say that you’re just griping and letting off steam. Do not try to pass a complaint off as a valid criticism.

What to Do: If you agree with the complaints being made, engage! It will make you feel better. If you disagree, flee. Internet forums that exist as an outlet for frustration is no place for dissenting opinions.

Part Two: Criticisms

More cats in battle.

Photo by qmechanic

Example: This book is poorly written, because of x, y, and z.

Definition: Flipping ahead a few pages in the dictionary, we find the definitions of criticism as, “the act of criticizing, usually unfavorably” and “the art of evaluating or analyzing works of art or literature.” A criticism still can call out everything that’s wrong, but it gives reasons. Criticizing judges the merits of something and points out the flaws.

Criticisms help us to look at the art we have created and find ways to make it better. It’s also important to remember that critics are usually the medium’s biggest fans. To quote food critic Anton Ego from Ratatouille, “I don’t like food, I LOVE it.” Film critic Roger Ebert was tremendously passionate about film, knew the power of movies, and wanted to see film be the best it could be.

Criticisms are still just opinions, of course. But they are opinions that are backed up with logic, facts, or context.

Criticisms should address the art, not the artist. Valid criticisms should not be personal attacks. HOWEVER, when a character critique is directly or indirect­ly related to the criticism, a critique of the artist can be legitimate. Saying “This author is a racist, therefore everything he writes is racist,” is ad hominem. But saying something like, “In light of how this author has handled race in the past, the subject of race in this book is x, y, and z,” can be a valid criticism. It’s valid if it’s relevant to what is being criticized, and again, you may or may not agree with it’s relevancy. Criticisms are just opinions, remember? Read this great article for more about fallacious character attacks versus fair character attacks.

Distinguishing Features: Criticisms give understandable reasons for finding fault. For instance, “While Irene Adler appeared at first to be a strong and independent character, it’s disappointing to see another great woman defined entirely by the male lead.” Note that you might not agree with those reasons nor the critic’s interpretation of the media. That’s okay. The critic is arguing his or her case with reason and rational statements.

When to Use Them: There is something about that book/show/movie/product that you just don’t like. After thinking about it for awhile, you have put your finger on exactly what is wrong with it. You might even have a few ideas about how to improve on those problems.

What to Do: So you’ve come across some criticism of that thing you love. Read it. No, seriously, read it. You probably won’t agree. But you just might get some insight that you hadn’t considered before.

Sometimes, you can respond to criticism right to the critic. But an open dialogue is not the point of a criticism. A criticism is the sharing of a viewpoint or opinion, and not necessarily meant to be discussed further. Which leads us to…

Part Three: Constructive Dialogue

Cooperating Cats

Photo by by dresmall

ExampleI think this book could be improved if you did x, y, and z. What do you think?

Definition: To cannibalize Wikipedia’s definition of the similar constructive criticism, constructive dialogue is the collaborative process of offering valid and well-reasoned opinions about the work of others, both positive and negative comments, in an effort to make the work better.

Constructive criticism isn’t always collaborative, but it’s always helpful and friendly. Constructive dialogue is two people, usually the creator and a critic, talking together about what’s wrong, what’s right, and using that to make improvements.

Distinguishing Features: Constructive dialogue is between two or more people, usually with opposing views, often with the content creator. Both sides are respectful, open to new ideas, and both want the subject to grow and develop. Constructive dialogue is a conversation.

Let’s say a fan reads a comic, and says to the creator, “Say, I don’t understand why this character acted this way. It seems against his character.” The creator responds with, “Well, remember earlier when he lost his job? That’s why.” The reader says, “Oh, I get it. But I don’t get that from reading this.” The creator nods and responds, “You’re right, I didn’t make that clear. I’ll add a line of dialogue here to make that connection.”

Tada, the story is better and the message is more clear! In constructive dialogue, the creator seeks out new feedback and perspective, and the fan is eager to help out by providing it. Constructive dialogue is a team effort.

When to Use Them: You’ve created something and you want constructive, helpful feedback. Alternatively, you want to help out a creator of some media that wants feedback.

When providing the feedback, remember to give criticisms, not complaints. “I don’t like this,” doesn’t help anyone. Neither does, “You suck!” Also, remember that not all creators want a dialogue about their work.  Just because you have something to say, that doesn’t mean they have to listen or even respond. You have a right to criticize everything under the sun, but you are NOT entitled to a response.

What to DoIf you’re receiving the feedback, remember to separate yourself from your work. Someone is criticizing what you’ve made, not you personally. I know, I know, it’s hard. You’ve poured your heart and soul into that Adventure Time fan art, and here comes some guy ripping it apart. But that fan art is not you. (Assuming they aren’t that jerk who just says, “You suck!”, that is. In which case, to hell with that jerk. He’s not here to help you.)

I’m going to stress again that constructive dialogue is a collaboration of mutual respect in which both parties want the subject of the criticism to be better.

And that’s it! Go forth and hash it out, look for solutions, point out the flaws, or just vent! Each method of reacting and responding to media has it’s merits and it’s place.

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4 Comments leave one →
  1. January 22, 2014 7:53 am

    I like good criticism, but the criticisms that I write usually degenerate into complaints, because I’m usually too lazy to look up evidence.

    E.g.: This book sucks because of Chapter 7, at which point I said, “I don’t know when all these characters are going to die, but it won’t be soon enough.”

    That’s just a complaint about the lack of fun I had while reading, not a supported argument about why a typical reader would not like the characters.

    • January 22, 2014 2:49 pm

      And that’s totally cool. There is nothing wrong with complaining. It’s not always constructive, but damn it feels good to do and read.

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