“Criticism may not be agreeable, but it is necessary. It fulfills the same function as pain in the human body. It calls attention to an unhealthy state of things.” ~ Winston Churchill
Recently, there has been a lot of mumbling about the role of proper criticism in SL fashion. A lot of this has centered on positive voice and the feelings of designers. Both Sasy Scarborough and Iris Ophelia have put forth well-intentioned articles that have a central theme of “be positive” and “remember designers have feelings.” I addressed part of my concerns with this mindset in my previous post about The Nice Police, but I’m going to take it a step further here. There are far too few actual critics in our little subculture and it irks me to see people trying to re-shape the role of an actual critic into some pandering mediocrity.
Being critical is not about being positive or negative. It’s about being honest and knowledgeable, and maintaining your integrity with your audience. Iris provided three girl scout cookie sub-headers that instruct a potential blogger to “Be Balanced” “Be Educated” and “Be Prepared” but these vague instructions ignore the most important responsibility of the role of the critic: Be Honest.
Neither Iris nor Sassy are advocating dishonesty. I suspect their reasons for promoting positive voice (consciously or unconsciously) are simply based on the exhaustion that comes with witnessing all the negative energy that is championed by our current culture. You don’t have to be a genius to figure out how negative energy gathers quick and ready attention. There are blogs and bloggers who base their entire morally corrupt history on that particular foundation and there will always be people who champion the lowest common denominator. Yes, it sucks, but that’s the circus. You just have to learn to navigate it so you don’t end up molested by the creepy clown.
What you can’t do as a critic is allow the circus to alter you. Just because someone else gains some measure of popularity by inhabiting the gutter doesn’t mean you have to set up camp in the gutter, but it also doesn’t mean you have a responsibility to aim only for the stars. The critic is at their best with both feet on the ground, wherever that ground might be. Sometimes the honest critic will end up in the gutter and sometimes they’ll take a swing on a star, but the best critics who are true to their audience spend the majority of their time in the slow lane of middle ground. And make no mistake, it is tedious to take your time and give legitimate feedback.
Further, “balance” can only exist in critical evaluation where there is a balance in reality. Unlike Iris, I am not a fan of the “compliment sandwich” because it often forces a false balance where none exists. If you have it in your head that you have to say POSITIVE / NEGATIVE / POSITIVE then you’re going to try and identify something to fit those roles. I would substitute “Be Balanced” for “Maintain Integrity.” When I use the word integrity I am not addressing a moral compass (although that’s certainly helpful) but a dedication to judging every design and designer by the same standard. If your priorities and judgement aren’t consistent, your feedback is less valuable. Consistency and factual presentation is the goal.
As a critic, it is a generally good policy to blog primarily about things you find of value, but there is also merit in blogging for other purposes. These include:
A. Taking a stand on an issue that impacts the community.
B. Voicing consumer concerns that have been ignored regarding a highly popularized item / product line.
C. Warning of deceptive practices
In my personal opinion, I believe the core values of a critic should focus on the primary role as a consumer. I don’t care about being popular and I don’t care about making friends with the people who have make-believe popularity in our subculture. I care about how a product lived up to my expectations, what kind of quality the overall item represents, what kind of value I got for my money and what things I’d tell someone who was considering a similar purchase. The feelings of the designer are not of interest to me as a consumer and so they do not factor into my writing. I find it difficult to respect a critic who is obviously writing to pet the egos and feelings of designers.
Iris says, in her article:
“If a designer reads your review and comes away from it feeling like they want to quit creating, you’ve probably done something wrong.”
I cannot disagree with this statement more strongly as it relates to my view of what constitutes valuable criticism. If a designer reads my review and comes away from it feeling like they want to quit creating, I don’t care. Nor should I. Nor should anyone. In fact, if reading a review is enough to make a designer feel like they should quit – they probably should. The same, for the record, is true for the critic. If a few negative comments make you feel like you should quit blogging, you probably should. I don’t set out to hurt anyone and I don’t force false narrative to sensationalize, so if an honest opinion is enough to make someone give up their craft, that’s their issue. And, frankly, it’s a made-up concern. Mediocre or bad designers who are likely to get bad reviews would more often give up their own limbs before giving up the attention that comes with being a designer. It’s far more likely they’ll just run to cry on Plurk where dozens of their sycophants will pet them. Which is a snarky way of saying that there are people who fill the role of caring about the feelings of designers; the critic is not one of those roles. Good designers aren’t going to quit over a bad review. I’ve been in SL fashion a long time and I’ve never seen it. When designers leave it’s usually for personal reasons, for financial reasons, the realization that they can’t keep current with the market, or simple burn out. There are more than enough problems between bloggers and designers, we don’t need to make up new ones.
Consumer advocacy is the root of critical review and evaluation. There are different kinds of bloggers and few of them have the same motivations or values. If you’re writing to gain the approval of designers or other bloggers, to network, promote a business, or just to get attention, then you’re not a critic. You can still be critical and you can still find a valid voice, but that’s different from the commitment and responsibility that comes with being a critic. Critics are about improving the atmosphere for the consumer and educating them prior to purchase. This also includes offering input to educate readers about style and taste which, although subjective, are fundamental elements of the critical voice. Injecting these things into the public discourse elevates the standards of the entire industry from creation to consumption. No one likes bad reviews, but if they’re delivered with honesty and integrity that is all that matters; this benefits the overall, not the individual.
Iris ended her article by indicating a critic isn’t always going to be liked. She is exactly right. An honest critic is not going to make many friends and if that’s a priority for a blogger, then they should find another purpose. For a few years, I was one of the most highly read shopping bloggers by Second Life consumers. Our blog had the audience share to launch a product line just by showcasing it and there were several designers who could have charted their product sales by their appearances in our reviews. I can count on one hand the number of friends I made during that time attributable to that experience. I can also count on the same hand (with the leftover fingers) the number of designers who were able to handle honest criticism. The relationship between critics who maintain their integrity and creators is necessarily difficult. That is why there are different words for “critic” and “fan.”
To this day, I encounter people regularly who tell me how much they loved Linden Lifestyles. They share with me how it was part of their early SL experience, how it taught them to become smarter shoppers, and any number of positive things. I used to be uncomfortable with that kind of feedback, simply because I am not a people person, but I have grown to foster a more comfortable fondness toward these encounters. Although I am a total stranger to these people, they appreciated what I contributed and it became part of their SL identity. I firmly believe that such a lasting bond between a blog and its readership can only be maintained when there is honesty at the core of the writing, and a commitment to maintain the integrity of content and voice.
There is another side of that coin, however. There are designers in SL who hate my breathing guts that have never exchanged a word with me. I can recall having in-world confrontations with two designers over the last seven years, and one other I took to task in my blog format. That’s three. I promise you the list of people who would gladly dance on my dead avatar number far more than that. And, nearly everyone of these indivudals who “hates” me has a basis other than direct experience with me. Frequently, it’s all based on some hallucinated slight from me.
Here are two examples that surprised me at the time, but which taught me valuable lessons:
A. Years ago, I was on an alt in a mall and overheard a designer talking about how I “hated” them because my partner and I “refused” to blog this designer’s products. I checked my inventory and discovered the person had dropped a box on me months prior, ignoring our requested format. At the time, I was getting hundreds of new objects into my inventory a day. Even if I had loved the products (I didn’t), I never would have seen them without purposefully hunting for them. So, this was a designer with products below the standard of what I would ordinarily blog who didn’t make the effort to submit their items properly, and as such never came to my attention. Once they did come to my attention, I felt it was for the best that I not blog their products because there was little I found of value in them. So, my silence was this designer’s basis for telling people in open chat about how much I hated them.
B. Around the same time, I was in a gaming vent with a designer who, upon learning my SL identity, said to me: “Yeah, I know you hate my stuff. You gave me a horrible review.” I went and looked up the review and found that it wasn’t written by me, but by my partner and it was overwhelmingly a positive review that mentioned a few consumer concerns. Even the tiniest criticism to this person was equal to “hating” their stuff. Everything positive was ignored.
Designers have a personal relationship with their creations, as well they should, but those relationships are rarely practical and have nothing to do with critical evaluation; they shouldn’t have anything to do with a blogger’s critical process.
So, if you blog for friends, for fun, for a job, for approval, or some other form of attention you should enjoy yourself — life is too short to do otherwise — but do not mistake that for critical evaluation and kindly avoid hoisting the values of other forms of blogging onto the responsibility of critics. We have enough on our plate.