Handling Criticism: Focus on the Reasonable

A few weeks ago, my friend and fellow-FtB blogger Miri found out that someone on Facebook had started a page whose title asked whether she should be murdered. On the page itself were posts advocating changes to the law so the murdering Miri would be legal and suggestions that people should tell Miri to kill herself. Miri blogs about mental health and is very open about her own experiences with depression, including contemplating suicide. The Facebook page also told people how to find Miri’s blog and her Facebook page.

A few hours later, after dozens of people reported the page to Facebook for harassment and threats, Facebook sent automated responses to everyone saying that the page met their community standards. Then the outrage, which had been directed at the page’s creator, was redirected at Facebook. People responded to the notices, quoting Facebook’s own Statement of Rights and Responsibilities.

Other people, remembering that it had previously taken a campaign targeting Facebook’s advertisers to get Facebook to respond to pages advocating violence against women, took to social media and started yelling about the problem instead. Miri herself tweeted, “Hey @facebook, I’m really glad to know threatening me with murder on your website fits your ‘community standards.'”

That’s when Facebook’s Chief Engineer, Mike Shaver, decided to step in. The exchange can be seen on Storify. Presumably, he’d seen Miri’s tweet retweeted. Knowing that the situation involved what she saw as a death threat, and knowing that she was upset enough to complain, this is what he tweeted: “that looks to be off the site now (the title isn’t a threat, though it might violate other of our terms)”. He then proceeded to argue the point on legal grounds (with the expertise of a computer engineer), make technically correct but irrelevant points like “there have been v. similar titles *against* death row cases”, and claim he’s received more credible death threats online than what Miri faced.

He joked at and got sarcastic with people who pointed out that, if he hadn’t seen the page, he was speaking in ignorance. When Miri pointed out that his behavior was doing Facebook no good, he replied, “people can choose to see my statements as @facebook policy at their peril”. He continued, “I’m just a @facebook employee who asked after the page because I thought there might have been an error.” Mind you, he said this after contacting an internal Facebook team and relaying information from them to people on Twitter and after talking about what criteria Facebook uses to interpret their Statement of Rights and Responsibilities.

This exchange on Twitter had gone on for an hour and a half when someone finally got through to Shaver that they were upset with Facebook because the reporting process hadn’t worked. She wanted to know why it hadn’t been taken down earlier. His response was “I don’t know; I asked about it, was told it was down, told [Miri], got fitted for crucifix. that’s all I know.”

Suddenly, the stakes had changed. As with Shaver’s tweet about receiving more credible death threats than the ones he couldn’t see, this tweet and others like it turned the situation on its head. Now he was the person with a grievance. Instead of being someone who had butted in to a situation and ignorantly told someone she was wrong to be upset, he was now a person who had had mean things said to him. He had a complaint, and it should be taken seriously, more seriously than he took Miri’s complaint in the first place. They were equals in grievance.

At least, that’s how it would have gone if Shaver hadn’t tried this in a community used to arguing on the internet. Instead, he found himself in the middle of people used to pointing out or ignoring that sort of diversion. They stayed on topic, and they stayed on top of Shaver’s problematic behavior. Eventually, they got through to him, and Shaver issued three tweets of apology.

I’m sorry my responses made you feel worse about a bad situation; it wasn’t my intent, and I wish I could undo it. I got into the stream of the argument (and insults), and lost track of the original experience that motivated your anger. apologies; I’ll stop prolonging this experience for you, and bow out now

He issued the apology to the wrong Twitter handle, but it got where it was going eventually.

In addition to being another shining lesson on why a person or organization being criticized on social media should be careful who they allow to speak for them, Shaver’s story also demonstrates why it can backfire to pay more attention to how people are telling you something is wrong than what they’re telling you the problem is. Becoming focused on yourself is all too good a way to lose track of the person who had the original problem–the person who presents your real problem.

The introduction to the wonderful book Mistakes Were Made (But Not by Me): Why We Justify Foolish Beliefs, Bad Decisions, and Hurtful Acts by Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson begins:

As fallible human beings, all of us share the impulse to justify ourselves and avoid taking responsibility for any actions that turn out to be harmful, immoral, or stupid. Most of us will never be in a position to make decisions affecting the lives and of millions of people, but whether the consequences of our mistakes are trivial or tragic, on a small scale or a national canvas, most of us find it difficult, if not impossible to say, “I was wrong; I made a terrible mistake.”

It’s hard to hear that we’ve done something wrong, not just painful, but difficult as well. One of the ways out of the problem is to get distracted. And what better to distract us from feeling that we did something bad than to notice that someone did something bad to us?

There’s plenty of opportunity for getting distracted in online complaints, too. People are upset. The situation is depersonalized–we can’t see others’ reactions to us or any of the facial or postural cues that elicit sympathy. People let their anger out more than they might in person. People holding different social norms about language, like how much importance is attached to swearing, are interacting. People who aren’t used to being heard use hyperbole to try to get their messages through. All of society’s unconscious -isms (racism, sexism, etc.) don’t disappear when people sit down at keyboards. Some people are simply abusive.

It’s incredibly easy to find something you would much rather focus on than the people telling you that you’re wrong. However, if the complaint was originally worth addressing, you can’t let that happen.

Does that mean you have to put up with abuse? Absolutely not. You can set boundaries for acceptable behavior in your spaces. You can block or delete abuse.

What you can’t do, assuming you want to resolve the situation with the original complaint, is get so sidetracked by how you’re being treated that you stop handling the problem. If you see something abusive enough that you feel you have to deal with it, you now have two situations to manage instead of one. You can’t just let the situation in which you’re probably in the right conveniently blind you to the situation in which you’re possibly in the wrong.

This is particularly true if you’re dealing with activists or another online community that spends time debating contentious issues. Focusing on the people who are saying something objectionable to the exclusion of people who are saying something reasonable is well-known tactic for derailing arguments. If you do it, even unintentionally, you’ll look like you’re obstructing the original complaint. Even outside those communities, the person who complained will feel the difference if you stop paying attention to them.

So do what you need to do to focus on the reasonable people in any group of complainers. Seek out the people providing information. Listen to the people making arguments based on what happened, not what kind of person you are or organization you run. Ignore the rest to the best of your ability unless it rises to a level that requires action.

If there’s a lot of noise, open a document in a word-processing program and copy the most reasonable communications you receive (that still say you did something wrong–no cheating) into that, or take screen shots of them, so you have them all in one place. If you’re at a point in the process where talking publicly makes sense, interact with the people who are giving you information. If nothing else, thank the people who disagree with you for giving you their perspectives. This shows everyone that it doesn’t require volume or vitriol to get your attention.

The situation may be more difficult to deal with if the person with the complaint is the person you feel is being abusive, but there are still ways to stay on track. If the complainant becomes abusive, do what you can to redirect them into productive lines of communication. Try saying, “I feel this is getting out of hand. Let’s take a break. I’ll be happy to listen more when you’re calm”, or, “I want to hear your complaint, but I’m having trouble figuring out what happened/what you want through the swearing/insults/etc..” Just be sure that, if you still want to resolve the issue, any time you have to shut down communication, it can be opened again with good behavior.

As much as your brain would rather deal with anything but criticism, you’ll need to focus to get the situation resolved. Practice some discipline in this area, and you’ll get through the whole process more quickly and without alienating the people you most want to be happy at the end of this project. The reasonable, thoughtful people who tell you why you’re wrong will be the people who reasonably and thoughtfully explain to everyone else why fixing a problem makes you awesome.

This piece is part of a much larger writing project on handling criticism in the age of social media. Feedback is particularly welcome on these pieces, as I hope to collect and revise all of these to create a resource on the topic. They are not in any particular order at the moment.

Handling Criticism: Focus on the Reasonable

5 thoughts on “Handling Criticism: Focus on the Reasonable

  1. 1

    In my anecdotal mind, I’ve seen this a lot:

    “open a document in a word-processing program and copy the most reasonable communications you receive”

    Except, not like that at all.

    Instead they open a virtual document in their mind and paste in only the most UNreasonable communications, and focus on those.

    I don’t think it is intentional, mostly. But it is annoying.

  2. 2

    …He issued the apology to the wrong Twitter handle, but it got where it was going eventually.

    And people BOUGHT STOCK in this company? So much for capitalism being a rational system for allocating material resources…

  3. 3

    I still have a lot of difficulty with the concept that it’s hard to admit publicly when we’re wrong. By the time an apology is called for, everyone else already knows you’re wrong. Not admitting it isn’t hiding from it, it’s compounding it by indicating that you’re wrong AND you either don’t know it or think you can trick people into not believing it, one of which insults you and the other which insults your audience. There is simply no way to win that doesn’t involve apologizing. It’s the only way out of the situation that leaves your honor and dignity and any hope of credibility intact. So how is that then the “hard” option?

  4. 4


    Psychologically hard, not necessarily socially hard.

    I agree. When I get emotional and feel put upon the last thing I want to do is back down and admit I’m wrong about something. It might be the right thing to do ethically and socially but getting over the emotion involved, suppressing my ego, and admitting I’m wrong and apologizing is not necessarily easy to do in the moment.

    You’re telling me you’ve never been in a situation in which you’ve found it difficult to apologize in the moment even though it was the right thing to do over all?

  5. 5

    Dan – I’ve only found it hard in the situation in which the person I have to apologize to is someone I actively dislike for a whole host of reasons, and I don’t want them in particular to be right about anything. When it’s instead a group, or a company rep apologizing to the public, or anything else at a larger level, I can’t make myself have that comparison. I guess it’s that I value having a reputation as someone who is reasonable and diplomatic with some social intelligence over having a reputation as someone who is always right. That’s not any more ethical or anything, it’s still a selfish motive and protecting something I value about myself, just a different facet of the interaction.

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