The Feedback Bias

December 3, 2012

I know I’m not a fantastic writer. But if I actually paid attention to all the feedback I hear about my writing, I’d totally think I am.

In an personal, informal setting, most feedback is crap. It’s heavily biased to be positive towards the receiver. Most people want to make others feel good about the work they do. While this isn’t a bad thing by any means, it’s definitely something to be aware of.

I don’t consider myself an active blogger, although I do blog from time to time. Every time I write a post, I get a few face-to-face comments that go something like this:

“I read your blog post. It was really good. You’re a really good writer.”

Translation:
“I read your blog post.”

There are two things that could be happening here:

  1. The only people who actually read what I write and then tell me what they think are people with a genuine interest in what I have to say, and therefore they will always love it.
  2. Nobody wants to disagree with or attack anything I write to my face, and it’s much easier to just pretend to like everything.

It’s probably some combination of both.

Generic positive feedback is great to some extent because it provides encouragement to keep going. Beyond that, however, it’s not very helpful.

I’ve only ever had one friend point out some serious flaws in one of my blog posts. Aside from that, all the constructive feedback I’ve ever received has happened online.

From what I’ve seen, online anonymous feedback has a bias toward the negative. When names and identities are optional, the fear of personally offending someone is greatly reduced. Thus, people tend to be a bit more honest.

It’s easy to dismiss everyone who posts something negative online as being a “troll”. But for every trollish comment, there’s an attempt at constructive criticism, even if most people don’t read it that way. (Okay, maybe it’s not even close to a 1:1 ratio, but bear with me.)

A great example of a community that thrives off negative feedback is Hacker News. Any time there’s even the slightest flaw in anything that’s posted, you bet there’s going to be a comment about it. Would people be getting that constructive, actionable criticism if all the feedback they received was from people they knew? I don’t want to speak for everyone, but my guess is probably not.

Over the summer when I lived in New York City, I chatted with Chris Poole (creator of the infamous 4chan) for a bit about online identity. Poole (who goes by “moot” on the web) runs a website where posts are all anonymous. He believes that the truth comes out when your remarks aren’t attached to your identity. Mark Zuckerberg, on the other hand, pushes strongly for an authentic online identity that’s inseparable from your real self. (Interesting fact: they’re actually friends, despite their strongly opposing views.)

So, who’s right? I think they both are, especially when feedback is involved. It’s important to hear from a mix of both close friends and anonymous bystanders, and everyone in between. That way, the feedback biases balance out and you have the encouragement to keep going while knowing where your flaws are.

Oh boy, the feedback on this one is gonna be pretty ironic.