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When Words Hurt: How To Handle Harsh Criticism Online

It never ceases to amaze me how eagerly people judge total strangers on the Internet.  How viciously they’ll criticize, using words they would never say in person.  I’m not talking about useful, constructive criticism – sometimes that hurts, but it’s worth its weight in gold.  We should all seek out and learn from that kind of feedback.

Here, I’m talking about snarky, unwelcoming comments on forums, mean responses to blog posts, and any other kind of biting remark that serves no useful purpose to the receiver.  I’m sorry to say that this happens in epidemic proportions in the photography world.  If it hasn’t happened to you, bless your heart.  If it does, I hope this will help you recover.

Consider the source.

If a person says something biting to you on a photography forum or criticizes your work on your own blog, first consider what kind of person would expend the energy to do that.  Truly successful businesspeople are incredibly busy.  They do NOT have hours and hours to sit around and thoughtfully mull over your work, let alone take the time to leave comments criticizing your every weakness.  It’s likely that this is just a regular person operating from a scarcity mindset that says “if you succeed that means there isn’t room for me to succeed, too.  Therefore I must knock you down or prove I am better.”

Accept that this is part of having a web presence.

If you go on Youtube and search for videos of cute kittens, you will see that even these videos have a few “dislikes.”  Why someone would take the time to dislike a video of a mewing, dewy-eyed kitten is beyond me.  It appears that either 1) the person is adolescently trying to take advantage of the crowd to draw attention to themselves, or 2) they own a rival cute kitten video and feels threatened by anyone else’s cuteness.

Whenever you create something with an ounce of personality and send it out into the world, some people aren’t going to like it.  Even wildly successful companies like Apple have people who wait with bated breath to tear them down.  Critical remarks don’t mean you won’t be successful.  Their very presence means means you took a stand.  It means you didn’t aim for the lowest common denominator.  It means your work has an opinion.

If you encounter heat for what you’ve done, consider it the universe’s way of congratulating you for creating something of substance.

If you really have made a mistake…

Congratulations again, it means you are alive and trying.  If you truly put someone’s life, livelihood, or reputation in jeopardy through your actions, then correct the situation posthaste, and post a public apology if needed.

Sometimes the most cutting comments hurt because there is an ounce of truth in them.  Usually it comes wrapped in layers of unnecessary flak, but it’s worth the effort to find that grain of truth and learn from it.

If you feel you must take action, here are some positive responses that are sure to stop them in their tracks:

1) Ignore.  An ignored bully is a powerless bully.  Period.

2) Agree with what is true.  Nothing will disarm an angry person faster than saying “You’re right.  I’ll work on that next time.”  It shows your maturity.  Others will notice.  If the critic no longer has a point to be made, then they can’t keep talking.

And in all likelihood, they’ll probably feel bad for firing off fighting words and encountering a kind and reasonable response.

3) If you really disagree with what they said and feel that a conversation is in order, email them privately.  Some people want to create a spectacle through disagreement, making you look bad while drawing attention to themselves.  Addressing them personally through email takes away the spectacle and requires them to see you more as a human being with whom they are having an actual interaction – not some faceless droid whom they can flame at will.  If all they wanted was to let off steam at your expense, they’re less likely to respond negatively to a personal email than in public comments.

If necessary, you can reply in public comments “Thank you for your feedback, I’d like to discuss this further.  I just sent you an email, and I hope to hear back from you soon!”  This lets others know that you are taking positive action.  Rather than having a knock-down drag-out in public view you’re handling it where it should be handled – in private.

4) If they were really hurtful to you, let them know why it is damaging:

“Dear _____,

Thank you for taking the time to comment on my post.  It took me awhile to see the value in your comment, because it was delivered in such a way that I had to stumble over hurt feelings and anger before I could even hear what you were saying.  I hope in the future you’ll reconsider how you deliver your words, because they cannot be effective if the person feels so attacked they rush to defend rather than to listen.  What a shame for your useful advice to fall on deaf ears!”

By saying something like this, you are extending them the courtesy they failed to give you by acknowledging that they have something valuable to contribute.  You’re also calling attention to the real-time effects of their actions, which few people stop and consider before hitting “send.”

5) My dad has a philosophy for responding to things that make you angry:  “Write when angry, send when not.”  Write something, then step away and cool off.  If you respond in anger, you’re more likely to use the same tactics that the offending commenter used.  When you calm down, come back to it and evaluate whether what you said is a fair response.

6) Above all, do your best to be kind when replying.  Charm and disarm is a phrase for a reason.  It’s the last thing you want to do, I know, but kind words douse angry ones faster than anything else.  Responding with their same tone will only make you feel worse – maybe not today, but in the long run.  If the person keeps responding angrily, your kindness will only highlight their belligerence.  You could humorously respond the way the Greek philosopher Epictetus’s recommends: “If you hear that someone is speaking ill of you, instead of trying to defend yourself you should say: ‘He obviously does not know me very well, since there are so many other faults he could have mentioned’.”

Let’s make the phototgraphy world a better place by being quicker to support than to criticize.  When harsh words are thrown your way, remember that the person can only affect you as long as you keep stewing about it.  The best way to disarm them is to not give ‘em rent-free prime real estate in your thoughts.  That only hampers your work.  You have something amazing to contribute.  Keep going.

Jennifer Bryan - Lately I have seen a lot of photographers on Facebook that someone said they don’t think they are a good photographer in hateful ways. I personally think ignoring any hate is the way to go. Why attract attention to rude people when clearly all they really want is attention anyway.
Don’t put effort into figuring out if what the haters are saying is true or not. Forget about them and consult people who’s opinion you can respect.

Jenika - Ignoring is definitely the ideal option. It can be hard to do, but you’re right – it just gives attention to those who don’t merit it. Whenever I see people respond to negativity in positive ways I gain a lot more respect for that person, too.

Dot McQueen - Excellently put across Jenika. Negative and spiteful comments do nobody any good in the long run. My motto is Kill Them With Kindness – it’s very hard for them to be nasty if you can acknowledge their opinion – but then state that your own . . . afterall it is your blog/page/site.

Cheers.

Dot @ McQ Photography (Edinburgh, Scotland)

Jenika - Kindness FTW! :-D haha.

Elizabeth Halford - This is the first post I’ve read here on your luscious blog and I appreciate it SO MUCH! I rarely respond to nastiness and love to leave it there, unanswered, as a monument to the kind of response others can anticipate if they decide to make an ass of themselves on my blog :)

Jenika - Haha, good strategy :-) Probably the best response!

Desirée - Wow, this is a great blog! I’Dutch, and the things I encountered on Dutch forums are horrible, worse that I ever encountered on international ones. It seems that some photographers are indeed afraid of competition, but on most forums it’s just one person.
On Dutch forums it’s usually only one who is supportive… I’ve been hurt many times by hateful responses which had nothing to do with my work but were personal, from people I don’t even know, so much so that I do not participate in Dutch forums anymore.
I usually do wait until I’m cooled down a bit before answering, but then it’s still quite a bitchy retort I give, because when reading the comment again my anger flares up again.
Thankfully, the people on the forums I use now (although I don’t use forums a lot anymore), are usually quite friendly and have good arguments when they criticize my work. Which is alright, you can only learn from constructive criticism.
So thank you for this post, it’s finally made me feel that it’s not only me who encounters this, and makes me want to participate more in forums again.

Miss G - THANK YOU FOR THIS POST!!!! THANK YOU THANK YOU THANK YOU THANK YOU!

Today, after pouring about 8 months into a very laborious photo project, I was so excited to be written up in a local blog. When I clicked the link this morning, I saw that 4 people had already commented – viciously. Just saying my pictures were (these are all direct quotes) “uninteresting,” my idea was “the dumbest waste of time ever,” (really? EVER?!) talking about how I didn’t understand my subject, and how I was “a mindless hipster ruining our city.” Wow. This project was my life – IS my life – and my first shot at showing it off to the local community was met with basically a slap in the face. It really, really stung.
I sat there and just felt like crap. I had been elated to share my work and now I was being told it was worthless – and that I was basically worthless – by complete strangers hiding behind the anonymity of the internet.

I sat there on the verge of tears, watching horrible, petty, dismissive comments roll in, and I kept going back to one: “ugh. this is the dumbest waste of time ever.” and I just started cracking up. because… what? THIS IS LITERALLY THE DUMBEST IDEA EVER? some photographer, who you have never met, gets inspired to do something that you’re not interested in, and you’re so incensed that you need to announce it to everyone who’s reading about my work? gosh, I’m touched this person is so concerned about how I’m using my time! that unraveled the whole thing for me – who cares! I love my work, I believe in my work, and so did the local reporter who spoke with me! if that’s all I’ve got, well, that’s fine with me! I sure am glad I inspired that reporter to use HER creative skills to talk about my work. even if it – god knows why – angered some very sad, weird people!

When I read this post I just wanted to cry. WE ALL GO THROUGH THIS!!!! I would never tear down another’s work, even if I don’t “love” everything about it, because I believe in constructive criticism – and because I know the passion behind making artwork, and the sheer balls it takes to put that work out there for other people to see. So, cheers to those of you who are making work, and jeers to the sad folks who have nothing helpful to say. I hope they can find a more useful hobby, because trying to tear down creative people is really just pathetic, and knitting, volunteering, making model ships, karaoke, or animal husbandry would be far more rewarding hobbies I think.

Jenika - I’m so sorry that happened to you, Miss G. It sounds like those comments were out of line and not constructive. I’m excited for your success, and don’t worry about those who chose not to contribute to the discussion. I wish you the best in your project and future work!

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