How Big is Big Enough to Pick On?

I’m a firm believer in constructive criticism. As I said in a previous column, being professional in the way we give and receive criticism is a large part of being a designer.

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However, criticism of the work has to be separated from criticism of the person. It can be all too easy to look at your own work and think “This is rubbish, so I’m rubbish, ” or have somebody else say “This isn’t good enough” and hear “You’re not good enough. ” Unfortunately, it’s also easy to go from critical to judgmental when we’re evaluating other people’s work.

Being able to criticize someone’s work without heaping scorn on them constitutes professionalism. I’ve occasionally been guilty of forgetting that: pumped up by my own sense of self-worth and a compulsion to give good drama to my followers on social networks, I’ve blurted unconstructive criticism into a text field and hit “send. ”

Deriding businesses and products is a day-to-day occurrence on Twitter and Facebook, one that’s generally considered acceptable since real live individuals aren’t under attack. But we should consider that businesses come in all sizes, from the one-person shop to the truly faceless multinational corporation.

As Ashley Baxter wrote, we tend to jump on social networks as a first means of contact, rather than attempting to communicate our issues privately first. This naming and shaming perhaps stems from years of being let down by unanswered emails and being put on hold by juggernaut corporations. Fair enough: in our collective memory is an era when big business seemingly could ignore customer service without suffering many repercussions. Now that we as consumers have been handed the weapon of social media, we’ve become intent on no longer being ignored.

When we’re out for some online humiliation, we often don’t realize how small our targets can be. Some businesses of one operate under a company name rather than a personal name. And yet people who may approach a customer service issue differently if faced with an individual will be incredibly abusive to “Acme Ltd. ” Some choice reviews from an app I regularly use:

Should be free

Crap. Total rip off I want my money back

Whoever designed this app should put a gun to there [sic] head. How complicated does if [sic] have to be…

In the public eye#section2

We even have special rules that allow us to rationalize our behavior toward a certain class of individual. Somehow being a celebrity, or someone with many followers, means that cruel and unconstructive criticism doesn’t hurt—either because we mix up the special status of public figures in matters of libel with emotional invincibility, or because any hurt is supposed to be balanced out by positivity and praise from fans and supporters. Jimmy Kimmel’s Celebrities Read Mean Tweets shows hurt reactions veiled with humor. Harvard’s Q Guide allows students to comment anonymously on their professors and classes, so even Harvard profs get to read mean comments.

Why do we do it?#section3

We love controversial declarations that get attention and give us all something to talk about, rally for, or rally against. Commentators who deliver incisive criticism in an entertaining way become leaders and celebrities.

Snarky jokes and sarcastic remarks often act as indirect criticisms of others’ opinions of the business. It might not be the critic’s intention from the beginning, but that tends to be the effect. No wonder companies try so hard to win back public favor.

Perhaps we’re quick to take to Twitter and Facebook to complain because we know that most companies will fall all over themselves to placate us. Businesses want to win back our affections and do damage control, and we’ve learned that we can get something out of it.

We’re only human#section4

When an individual from a large company occasionally responds to unfair criticism, we usually become apologetic and reassure them that we have nothing personal against them. We need to remember that on the other side of our comments there are human beings, and that they have feelings that can be hurt too.

If we can’t be fair or nuanced in our arguments on social media, maybe we should consider writing longform critical pieces where we have more space and time for thoughtful arguments. That way, we could give our outbursts greater context (as well their own URLS for greater longevity and findability).

If that doesn’t sound worthwhile, perhaps our outbursts just aren’t worth the bandwidth. Imagine that.

About the Author

Laura Kalbag

Laura Kalbag is a designer working on She was freelance for five years and still holds client work dear. She can be found via her personal site, Twitter, and out on long walks with her big fluffy dog.

7 Reader Comments

  1. How many attempts have there been made to discuss this rationally the past few centuries? There has been no change whatsoever. People keep fooling themselves into thinking they are not to blame, stating they are contributing to “society”. Worse is the classic “I have to provide for my family. I can’t afford to lose my job.”. Even though making a stand and refuse to support the economy or even the way society treats people might in all probability lead to the loss of income, it doesn’t mean you don’t have a choice. The last few decades marketeers actually succeeded to control the very lifestyle of a significant part (if not the majority) of (any given) society. Consumerism practically replaced the will to think critically and consequently the ability to come up with solutions for the benefit of everyone, not just the people drunk on hypes, thrills and ambition. In order for future generations to be able to live their lives without unnecessary constraints it is VITAL we refuse to keep running our lives like lemmings. Young people, even children should be consulted early on. They do have opinions you know. They might surprise us when it comes to come up with solutions. Just writing an essay or even a comprehensive narrative doesn’t cut it anymore nowadays. Just 2 cents… Oh and where are my manners :), Hi Laura, hope you’re doing well.

  2. Worst. A List Apart. column. ever. 🙂

    I’m just kidding. It is important to think about the public way we post criticism especially with the shield of online pseudo anonymity and in the heat of the moment. Thanks for the reminder.

  3. Recently, I got a tweet from a company that I had tweeted at almost two years ago. I had pitched a guest post, and they finally tweeted back with “maybe, but our standards are pretty high- what do you have for us?” I thought it was pretty ironic that they touted their high standards when obviously their response time did not meet a high standard. I thought about snarking back at them, but I usually don’t like to be harsh in public forums.

    After 2 days, I decided to call them out. I just said “are your standards as high as those for your social media team? not sure why you responded after almost 2 years” We’ll see what they have to say in 2017. To my standards, my message was a little rude, but I felt like internally, they needed to be aware that there had been a breakdown. It could have been communicated just as effectively in a direct message, but I guess part of me wanted other people to be able to see this situation, which I thought of as ridiculous.

  4. I started reading this article via an RSS reader, and didn’t even notice which blog I was reading. But I was captivated by the both the subject and the tone. It wasn’t until I had almost finished reading that I saw that it was from A List Apart. Thank you, ALA. And thank you, Laura, for the important reminder.

  5. I still don’t think we have evolved to the point where we can truly handle criticism. We all have such fragile egos especially those of us in the creative space. When we hear any criticism we see our defences go up immediately. What we are essentially doing is defending against any truths that we may subconsciously know. We’re all just “child” adults navigating our way. This is why the “Sandwich method” tends to work so well.

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