I’m still debating whether I want to bring this up. But it’s time.
Have you ever hesitated to share an image on a forum because you were afraid someone would turn on the nasty hose and drench you with negativity? Have you ever obsessively written and re-written a forum or blog post because of what people might say if you misspoke? Have you ever had a lump of fear rise in your throat when you introduced your work to a wider audience or otherwise exposed yourself to anonymous attacks?
You’re not alone.
Jodi over at MCP Actions recently posted new rules of conduct for her facebook and blog comments. This was triggered by waves of negativity, arrogance, and destructive criticism that made new photographers in her community feel “hurt, frustrated, and scared.” (Good move, Jodi!) Her new rules emphasize respect, empathy, and awareness of others’ views. I’m a fan.
Her brave stance also nudged me to ask: Why were the new rules necessary in the first place?
Why do we, as an industry, “eat our young”?
Why do people instinctively look at others a few rungs below them on the ladder and want to knock them down further?
What’s with the unproductive nastiness that scums up what could have been a useful and constructive critique of someone’s work?
I see at least five basic reasons for the rising tide of ‘mean.’ And I believe the potential for it hides inside all of us. Perhaps it’s time we parade a few things into the light so we can find better ways to respond.
(Note: Not every one of these applies to every ‘mean’ incident; this is simply an exploration of why one human being might behave badly toward another human being.)
Reason #1: We sacrifice a lot to be a photographer.
Zach Arias said “Photography will take everything from you if you let it.” He’s right. We get up early and stay up late. We blow our exciting birthday money on (yawn) a flash stand. We sacrifice time with spouses, children, friends. We abandon other hobbies. We plunder our bank accounts. We exhaust ourselves.
And we’re threatened and angered by anyone who appears to be giving less and getting more than we are.
When we see people who appear to be less talented, less committed, or less invested – particularly when they seem to be doing well – it’s hard to handle. We feel defensive. WE had to give up so much to get to where we are – who the heck is THIS clown?? And they’re making more money than me? Ridiculous. An outrage.
It’s a toxic cocktail of cognitive dissonance and sour grapes. If someone in your neighborhood bought the same house you have for 25% of the price, you’d feel sick to your stomach – you don’t want to think that you wasted all that money. It’s physically uncomfortable. So you look for reasons why their house might actually suck. It’s on a worse piece of land, the materials used were shoddy, the contractor was just copying your design. There must be SOME reason why it’s okay that you spent all that money. And you’ll find it, even if you have to invent it.
Little wonder why people attack others online when they’ve entered this mental place. The minute their hands hit the keyboard, they’re no longer speaking like the decent person they probably are. They’re writing from a place of fear and anger, a fight-or-flight reaction to survive and defend their holdings.
Reason, consideration, and kindness flee.
Reason #2: Criticism is a bonding tool.
Oh, the juicy, guilty pleasure. To sit in a group and dump on someone, to point out all the reasons they stink, and re-validate why you are better than they are. When you’re feeling small, it’s the fastest way to gain the illusion of greatness and make some new ‘friends.’
Richard S. Gallagher wrote: “There are two essential ingredients to a clique: a sense of who you are, and a sense of who you are not. This is why there is often a strong incentive to gossip about people who aren’t like “us,” and why this kind of criticism often bonds people closer together.”
When we feel threatened by the “state of the industry” or by “all those cheap photographers,” it feels safe to turn to a forum for validation that our sacrifices are worth it. That WE are the REAL photographers. We are not like THEM, those un-talented dolts who don’t know what they are doing. And WE are going to verbally shut them down so that they can’t threaten us anymore.
Then we lock arms like some sick game of Red Rover to keep anyone else from joining our team.
Reason #3: We feel validated when we finally know enough to be able to critique someone else.
We remember too sharply the days when we didn’t know what f/2.8 meant. It’s crystal clear in our minds what it was like to ask questions and get dumped on by others. Well guess what, we’ve now been around the block a few times and we’re not the slowest kid in the class anymore. We get it. And here’s our chance to show it!
We want to appear as smart as we now feel, so instead of caring about the recipient’s feelings, we write coldly, clinically, and sarcastically.
Reason #4: Mean = Lazy.
Paul Saffo said “There are two ways to get famous in cyberspace: Say something clever and memorable, or say something outrageous. And unfortunately, it’s a lot easier to be outrageous than clever and memorable.”
It’s easy to be sarcastic and hard to be supportive. It’s faster to be angry and harder to be helpful. Building is a heckuva lot harder than destroying, so the quickest way to get our validation fix is to selectively shoot someone down. It’s the lazy man’s choice. And we’re all lazy at some times in our lives, especially when we’re hurting.
Reason #5: People are more comfortable inflicting pain when they don’t see the consequences of their actions.
A variety of stomach-churning studies suggest that people are more at ease inflicting pain on other people as their physical distance from them increases. When they’re up close and personal, compliance with study procedures drops – no one wants to confront the results of painful actions up close.
Although these studies weren’t examining emotional pain, I would bet the principle translates. If you had to see the flushed faces, the tears, the dropped jaws, the wounded expressions, and the wilting “I really was trying my best” sentiments, people would be significantly kinder.
Partly because we don’t like feeling like jerks, but partly because we’d see that the recipients of our words aren’t so different from us. It’s a mom who is struggling to learn a new skill with four hands tugging at her leg all the time. It’s a burned out graphic designer who just took on a second job and is still trying to reignite his passion. It’s a human – a real person – who is probably a lot like someone you already know and care for. Someone of value, someone who wants to go home and fall into the arms of someone they love, just like you do.
We all say we know what the solution is.
If you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all. Etc etc. But I think we can expand that a little. Judging from where we are, kindergarten rules appear to be forgotten when faced with the hurricane winds of adult insecurity. Here are some additional alternatives to avoid acting on the bitter emotions described above:
Practice self-care. When you’re frustrated and threatened, recognize it and step back. Go look at your best work. Re-read happy emails from past clients. Re-affirm why you became a photographer. (It wasn’t to feel like this.) Seek validation from the people who love you, and then go create more beautiful work. It will do much more for you than an outburst.
Understand that success is not a fixed commodity. There is always more. If someone else grabs some, it doesn’t lessen the amount that remains.
Commit to always using your energy to support.
If you want to validate how much you know, start teaching. Add value to other lives.
Above all, never say anything to another photographer that you wouldn’t say to your grandmother (or insert other beloved elderly relative here). Sometimes it doesn’t matter what is “true” – “truth” can be reframed and told in a kinder way. Take the time to look for it.
And the biggest secret I can share: Selflessness always fills the hole inside you faster than selfishness will. It will seem counter-intuitive, but when you’re hurting, try it anyway.
UPDATE: For thoughts on giving constructive feedback (the non-nasty kind), check out this post.
For a post about receiving critique, click here.