I have given some thought on how to handle feedback, both the good and bad, when being involved in an online community. If you consider getting heavily invested in one or are already, you do need some sort of tool or it will drag you down or at the very least make you spend a lot of time on lost causes. Some people can handle this naturally and without thought and some people like myself have to work more consciously on it.
Motives and intentions
A couple of years ago I realised that the tool I needed is amazingly simple. I look at the motives of the person giving the feedback and choose whether I want to respond to that. This goes for fora, social media, emails, blog comments, etc. Both positive and negative feedback is valuable to you when it is constructive and genuine, and you can improve yourself with it immensely. Not just in your relationship to a community, but as a person and on how you give feedback to others.
It sounds obvious, and it really is. The hard part is doing it – and discovering the motives without turning into a bitter, cynical person in the process or conjuring up motives of others just to protect your own ego. Some motives are easy to see, others are harder or even impossible. And discovering your own motives can be somewhat of a difficult journey too.
It matters where the feedback is given
If you post something in a small closed community like a gaming guild forum where you know people, they will respond not just to what you say but also to who you are. This matters because depending on how close you are to the people, the responses will be biased and you have to consider whether it is useful feedback. It doesn’t mean it is worthless, since these are people who care about you, but that doesn’t make it constructive in relation to the current topic.
The same goes for when you post something publicly like on a blog or a public forum. Consider first if this place is the right venue for your post/tweet/comment. Are these the people you want to reach and get feedback from? Obviously you can ignore the trolls, drama hunters and attention seekers since their feedback have nothing to do with you or your post. It’s not easy, but you gain nothing at all by responding to their feedback. This can’t be said often enough.
You also have to take what the self-promoters say with a grain of salt, since their motives are just that: self-promoting. They will often include something more or less irrelevant in their feedback to make themselves look good or superior to others. You know the kind, right? ”Last week I ran 10km without rest, in the sun, and thought about this issue…”. Some are more subtle than others, but they are easy to spot once you look for motives. No matter what else they say, their main motive is to promote themselves – often at the expense of others – and you have to see their feedback in that light, whether or not it is positive or negative.
There are also the people who have a specific agenda and will try to warp the topic or parts of it into fitting their goal, whatever that might be. It can be both as positive and negative feedback to you, but ultimately their intention is use/manipulate your words to strengthen their own agenda. After a while it gets easier to see this and depending on the direction of the communication you can try to keep things on topic or ignore them.
You will see feedback from people taking an opinion as a personal attack because they feel strongly about the subject, regardless of your intention or how you have worded it. To quote one of my favourite authors, Douglas Adams: “We can’t win against obsession. They care, we don’t. They win.”. And some people really are obsessed about certain topics and will not respect other points of view. There is no hope of conducting a constructive discussion with them.
There are plenty of other examples than above, but once I started identifying the most obvious of above motives my online interactions got a lot easier, less heated and less disappointing. Many people will respond to you with intentions of actually giving honest feedback to the topic. That is the feedback that you can use and should take to heart – even if you don’t agree. Take it, consider it respectfully and respond to it genuinely. That is worth something.
Sometimes I miscalculate someone’s motives or am unable to be objective and I often discuss feedback with others if I feel I might be too involved to see it clearly…and then it’s just a question of revising my opinion of the intentions, but in general it definitely makes my online interactions much more enjoyable to try to look at motives and respond accordingly.
Positive feedback is not necessarily useful feedback and vice versa
While the positive feedback you get is nice, it is also worth looking at the motives here. It will help you when it is genuine, but do the opposite if you believe something where the motive isn’t genuine. It can be because people hope to achieve something, exposure, or reach some sort of status with you or the community or a number of other things. Sometimes the motives are identical to the ones giving negative feedback.
One thing to make clear here is that although motives might not be pure, the feedback can still be true or hit the mark. What I am advocating is not to dismiss all feedback, but to choose what you respond to and take to heart. Also, an important point here is to note that some people are less eloquent in how they reply than others. Don’t let that fool you into thinking their motives are worse than others. Often they are more blunt where others are more diplomatic or eloquent, but their motives can be exactly the same for good or worse, regardless of how the feedback is delivered.
Your own feedback
Consider all this when you give feedback on someone’s writing/posts/comments. Are you giving honest on-topic feedback or are you responding to something else or trying to further your own agenda? I am by no means innocent of above traps myself, but I try to avoid them and I have gotten better at it over the years, or so I believe. And it furthers more mature feedback and discussions.
Can my approach be considered avoiding conflicts or taking the easy road, ignoring feedback you don’t like? Of course it can, depending on your view and how you work with it. I believe some discussions are worth taking and most feedback worth considering, but not the kind where motives are distorted, since that is likely to taint the value of the feedback in respect to the topic.
Is it worth using all this energy looking at motives and isn’t it a bit paranoid? If you apply it to every single thing you read, it will soon get too much work. If you apply it to topics that matters to you and where you invest a lot of your time in a community, I believe it does pay off in plenty and saves some headaches. And it makes it enjoyable and a learning experience, which is the objective for me.