There is an interesting type of feedback, which you can often find when people tell on the web that they are disappointed in a product they are invested in.
“I waited 10 years for this release and I had high hopes. But after trying it, I was shocked by the style of the graphics. Tried to find out what you were going for, but it is impossible. I could not recognize anything and the colors are awful. This looks as if a 3 year old smeared their food on a wall. What were you thinking? I loved this game series, but I won't hurt myself by buying this game”
(The statement is made up, but based on real examples)
It struck me that such feedback frequently uses similar sentences and that it is very theatrical: There are grand gestures, and exaggeration shown on the stage of web-forums, product reviews and talk pages. This does not mean that the emotions are not real; the performance would be less convincing when played without any personal investment 3.
While negative feedback is very common on the web, this particular type of feedback needs the personal investment and a potentially positive relation to the creator of the product. Very often, the people writing the feedback (the “accuser”) will consider themselves to be part of a community, a fandom or some other group that is relevant to their identity. “Identity” does not mean that it is purely symbolic; a craftsperson’s tools might be relevant for their identity and help them to get work done because they care for their tools. The users of a product can plausibly assume that the product creators themselves draw parts of their identity from the existence of a devoted community.
This relation between the accuser, the product creator and other people in a community is an important resource that the feedback draws upon.
To explore this type of feedback, I collected negative feedback on the game “Return to Monkey Island”, posted under an announcement trailer on the game creator’s website 2, as well as some statements given as feedback to a new feature introduced to Wikipedia several years back. The statements are a subjective selection. I did not look at short, negative statements (“bad!!!!!”) or ones that were describing a problem (“When clicking on…the program crashes”); I was interested in the expression of disappointment and the public accusation of the creator.
There are specific types of statements that are repeatedly used in such feedback. Interestingly, many of these types of statements serve two functions at once, and thus serve like interlocking parts to craft a disappointed feedback.
Almost every feedback will put forward that the product in question is bad: “cheap looking”, “ugly”, “useless”, “off putting”, “disturbingly bad”. These are simple attacks on the product, but other statements can also call the creator’s skills into question at the same time: “bad design choice” or “terrible decision”. This is still a subjective asessment and thus it would be easy to dismiss as subjective. Thus, problem descriptions are added: “I could not recognize anything”, “It makes my work cumbersome and slow” to underline that the problem actually exists.
To further strengthen the argument that there are actually problems, the accuser can also describe the effort they made to like the product: “I gave it a try for some time” or, again in the double function to attack the creator “I tried to find out what you were going for…”. They can also praise one aspect, showing that they not just hate everything, bolstering their core complaints further: “I like the general idea (but the execution was terrible)”, or “The audio is great (but the visuals are terrible)”.
“Great”, “Terrible”: Extreme statements are common in claims that might be doubted. Anita Pomerantz coined the term “extreme case formulation” for them. They are, she writes “A way to legitimize claims”, and can serve to defend against doubts of legitimcy of complaints, avoid the assumption that a problem is due to circumstance, and to communicate that what one does is common rather than unusual 1.
The feedback gains an explicit moral quality, when the accuser is describing their emotional state that the product caused: “I am so sad”, “I am confused confused”,“I don’t understand” etc. Not only is the product bad, it made the accuser feel bad in extent. This draws on the connection to both the creator (who should care for them as part of the community the creator is assumed to draw identity from) and the rest of the community (who should not want to see a fellow community member being treated badly).
Accusers can invoke the community more directly: “I waited 10 years for this release and I had high hopes”, “I have been using this feature for ten years”: They show that they are really invested; someone the creator and others in the community should care about. They can also claim to speak for all: “Stop hurting your long-time fans!” or state that “we do not deserve this”, conveying community belonging and accusation at once.
Accusers also combine community belonging and wickedness of the product in a statement. This can be done by using comparisons, in which the product is compared to something that the audience and creator are assumed to see as bad: “This looks as if a 3 year old smeared their food on a wall”. Actions of kids, for example, are suitable negative comparisons in many communities, particularly in the ones that consider themselves to be serious, manly, rational. Statements that distinguish the community from the everyperson are also common: The interface or graphics might be described as “corporate”, appealing to the mass market. The product might also “Look like a mobile app” or "…mobile game", if people from their community are assumed to use computer, not a smartphones for their activities 4.
Last, but not least, accusers can threaten to take action. This can be as simple as publicly stating they would not buy or use the product. The threat is less the (non-)action but the gesture towards the audience, particularly if community belonging has been emphasized before. In case there are enough disappointed people who make the threat, the initially symbolic action can have actual consequences if they act upon it.
The performance of disappointment demands high rhetorical skill, attuned for this specific audience. It is very easy for the communication to come across as entitled, overly emotional, theatrical. Particularly if the community is serious, manly, rational, this would be bad. The complainer needs to know what framing will resonate with creator and audience, otherwise they will appear ridiculous. The comparisons need to be to things that are really bad to be compared to, the problems need to describe things that are really problems. Aside of this, complainers also need to know where to complain so that their complaints are seen by both the community of fellow users and particularly, the creator.
It would be easy to dismiss such feedback as merely show, a well-rehearsed performance. I believe the grievances are actually felt, even if the absolute statements of “totally” and “never” are not true from a logical point of view. Neither do I think that such feedback is “wrong” in the sense that it is merely based on the wish to be destructive. After all, maybe there are problems with the readability, maybe the new workflow really causes problems for some users. It is not that this feedback should not be listened to. But it needs to be carefully put in a context.
While the emotions are real, their communications is carefully constructed for impact. Giving devastating feedback needs a lot of skill. People who are not attuned to the implicit community culture will not be able to make their voice heard in the midst of a discussion.
The ethical problem is not that there is a performance and skillful construction per se, but that it allows some people to have a huge impact while also often attacking the creators personally by using the implicit connections of creator-community and product, disparaging the creator’s work and frames creators as personally acting wrongly, or at least extremely careless.
- 2022-10-09: The disappointment of the accuser depends on showing a connection between them and the product as well as a disconnection between creator and community. (I noted this after reading a section on polarization in this text on toxic influencers ). The claimed (dis)connection does not exists outside of social relations; in a sense, it is created by stating it as a speech act.
- 2022-10-09: clarifying “~~disparaging work~~” → “disparaging the creator’s work” and correcting “~~and frames creators~~” → “and framing creators”
Pomerantz, Anita. 1986. „Extreme Case Formulations: A Way of Legitimizing Claims“. Human Studies 9 (2–3): 219–29. https://doi.org/10.1007/BF00148128. ↩
RockPaperShotgun has an article on the feedback and the developers’ reactions ↩
For a discussion of theater for understanding social actions and why performance does not mean artificiality or deception, see Goffman, Erving. 1959. The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life. New York, NY: Anchor. ↩
Belonging to a community also implies that there are outsiders who do not belong to one’s community—and these outsiders are different from insiders in some way. In the context of open source projects, games, online-platforms etc., the word “community” is often used positively and valorizing. But the concept cuts both ways and does mean both inclusion and exclusion. When push comes to shove, and people assume they or their community needs to be protected, they can easily point out how members and non-members are to be distinguished (For a discussion of exclusion and inclusion in communities, see Cohen, Anthony P. 1985. Symbolic Construction of Community. 1st edition. London New York: Routledge) ↩