On The Internet, Negative Feedback Is Good For You

Ryan Fan

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The more I spend time blogging on Medium and on the Internet, the more I realize this attention-seeking maxim is true of the Internet environment, as well as the age of Donald Trump:

Any attention is good attention.

As I’ve grown to gain more prominence and “success” in my blogging career on Medium, the attention has been accompanied by a plethora of negative comments on the site. I tend not to take the comments personally, as many negative comments are just genuine and earnest disagreements. There come the occasional comments calling my work trash or even the ones that urge for a Darwinian survival of the fittest world where I wouldn’t make it.

Sometimes, if I’m having a rough day teaching at school seeing some of these comments will occasionally make my day worse. I’ll feel compelled to engage with the critic and respond. I once wrote an article that echoed the words of Teddy Roosevelt, that the credit doesn’t belong to the critic that doesn’t do anything and is only a spectator, but instead to the man in the arena, who is actually fighting the battle and doing the work:

“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”

The sentiment when I wrote that article was to not care about or silence the critics. But now my mindset towards critics and negative feedback has evolved ever since a series of life events this past year and transition that have accompanied my transition from college to being an inner-city special education teacher.

I used to hate drama. I used to do my best to stay out of drama and think it was unequivocally bad, a parading of people for public embarrassment, as if it was theater, for other people’s entertainment. Now, however, I even embrace drama and see it as a good, meaningful thing, and see its capacity for positive change as much as I see its capacity for gossip and bringing people down.

Negative feedback is certainly more dramatic to us than positive words reinforcing and echoing how special we are and our work is. It challenges our self-perception and automatically creates a cognitive dissonance that hits the gut: maybe we weren’t as good as we thought we were. For entertainment, negative feedback certainly engages us: that’s just how our brains work.

And I’m very grateful for the fact that I’m in the position to get harsh feedback in the first place. It means someone took the time to not only read the article, but take personal ownership of how they would have written the article, of how what I said fundamentally offended the person, even if it wasn’t my intention. Although it’s not all of my work, I write on sensitive topics such as the possibility of taxing electric scooter use, as well as whether capitalism abides by Christian principles.

Let me also say that I benefit from a position of relative privilege when it comes to receiving negative feedback. As an Asian-American, I do get a lot of comments in my day-to-day life calling me “Jackie Chan” at work or how I must be so intelligent because of my race. But it’s not a big deal to me or especially insulting. I fundamentally believe Asians like myself operate from a position of privilege in this country more than they are oppressed, especially when you factor in current socioeconomic status.

Rather I am privileged on the Internet from the simple fact that I’m not a woman. I cannot imagine some of the condescending or flat-out dismissive comments that my female peers on Medium face for just who putting themselves out there on the Internet. There is a thin line between what might constitute constructive feedback and what might constitute hate, and for someone like me, I get much more constructive feedback than I do hate.

The truth remains, however, that negative feedback is instrumental for exposure on the Internet. I have been around the rodeo enough to know that, especially now, in the age of Donald Trump, that negative feedback, and even hate, drives free media to websites on the Internet. Oscar Wilde once said that “there is only one thing in life worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about.”

I recently read Katie Herzog’s article in The Stranger about cancel culture, where Taylor Lorenz, a New York Times writer who covers internet culture told Herzog this:

“In internet culture, being canceled is only good for your career…It usually results in going viral, which is default good in today’s broken world. It makes your fans stan you hard and it makes more people have an opinion of you, which is usually good because that results in more followers.”

Lorenz’s statement, supported by evidence of Bari Weiss getting largely negative reaction to her work and tweets and that negative reaction being good for her career, seems to reinforce Wilde’s quote that it’s better to be talked about, even if it’s not in a good way, than not being talked about. But it’s the last part of what Lorenz says that rings true to me: the fact that your fans will stand by you more, even when more people have an opinion of you.

For me, I stop taking negative feedback or hate personally once I realize who the commenter is to me. Usually, it’s a stranger on the Internet, someone’s life and circumstances I have no conception of, and someone who knows nothing about me. We hear the adage often that it’s not about us, it’s about the person giving the feedback or making the hateful comment. And as cliche as that is, it’s true, or at least 80% them, 20% you. I have thicker skin just knowing that it’s not about me and that taking that kind of feedback constructively will only make me a better person and writer, but negative reactions boosting our virality certainly helps, too.

But the 80/20 is also true of our fans and friends. They like our work because it resonates with them personally and because the work is applicable to their lives more than it is about us. I take negative feedback much harder when it comes from someone’s opinion I respect on the platform or a friend. So while negative feedback and hate from strangers boosts our presence and isn’t always a big deal, negative feedback from friends and people whose opinions matter to us really causes cognitive dissonance to us.

I have had people tell me that the key to dealing with negative feedback is to ignore it. Picking and choosing battles is important for us when it comes to what to respond to and engage with and what not to. That’s a writer’s own choice and discretion, but it’s not in my nature to just avoid negativity, but rather engaging with it and moving past it. That being said, you can’t do that with everyone, especially when you do start gaining a presence.

But overall I think of Oscar Wilde as the best representation of my own experiences on Medium. It’s better to be talked about than not being talked about. After all, on the broken world of the Internet, negative feedback is good for you.

Originally published on September 23, 2019 on The Partnered Pen

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Believer, Baltimore City special ed teacher, and 2:40 marathon runner. Diehard fan of "The Wire," God's gift to the Earth. Support me: https://ko-fi.com/ryanfan

Baltimore, MD
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