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Why I'm writing a book about criticism

I’m writing a book about criticism—specifically, the innumerable cases where critics get it wrong.

And not just critics—great artists’ works are often ignored or disregarded by the general public, other artists, even their family and friends.

Seems like a ripe topic for an artist, or art historian, to take up. But I am neither—I do website strategy and experimentation for a living. What does that stuff have to do with criticism?

As it turns out: quite a lot.

Criticism as noise

When you redesign part of your website and launch an A/B test to measure its performance, the biggest risk isn’t that the new design will do poorly. That’s a risk, but it’s also the whole point of running a test—just hit the STOP button, you’re fine.

Nor is the biggest risk that you’ll break the website—that happens! But with some caution and attention to detail, it’s seldom an issue.

The biggest risk of running experiments on your website is that you’ll draw a conclusion from insufficient, or misleading, data. That you’ll see a few extra purchases—or downloads, or form fills … whatever your site wants people to do—and conclude that you’ve improved things when in reality those results come from random variations in your data. Noise.

The same risk applies even when you’re not running fancy experiments. Every time you peek at analytics data, there’s a chance you imagine trends and effects that aren’t there.

After nearly a decade of working in this space, I’ve learned to be extremely skeptical about data and the conclusions we draw from it. I disregard most possible conclusions as a matter of course—I need to observe a strong effect, measured rigorously and extensively, ideally supported by other evidence, before I’ll believe in it.

Traffic went up for a few days? Probably nothing. Form fills decreased by 50% last week? Probably nothing. Usually nothing. Just noise.

Contrast this approach with how we typically interpret criticism. A single critic’s take on a novel, or album, or painting, might be the only source of data we consume in forming an opinion. Even if we read two or three reviews, it’s still an embarrassingly small sample size.

Of course, critics’ opinions should be valued more highly than average people’s, since critics are experts in their field. But … are they? Is anyone keeping track of how often they get things wrong? Does it even make sense to speak in terms of “right” or “wrong” when it comes to criticism?

Maybe not. But if not, why pay attention to critics at all?

What criticism does to our brains

In addition to nerdy statistical methods, my work has led me to study cognitive biases. Marketers of questionable ethics exploit these in order to influence our behavior, online and off. I’m not one of those shady individuals, of course—but understanding how brains process information and make decisions is central to making websites better.

One crucial aspect of how our brains work is negativity bias—the observation that as a general rule, humans “attend to, learn from, and use negative information far more than positive information.”

In other words: the pain of dropping your phone down a storm drain is greater than the joy you felt when you first unboxed it. In fact, the pain of the thought of losing a phone outstraps the joy of the thought of getting one.

The way to overcome this bias in website-land is to address risks and fears directly and clearly, while emphasizing benefits—knowing all along that the latter must disproportionately outweigh the former.

What does this have to do with criticism?

Unfortunately, your brain (and mine, and everybody else’s) is wired to feel the sting of a disapproving review much more strongly than the pleasure of a favorable one.

I doubt it can be precisely quantified, but I’d imagine most of us need at least a dozen points of positive feedback to balance out a single negative one. And even then … maybe that critique still nags at us.

My own story

So: criticism is unreliable data in insufficient quantity, and our brains are ill-equipped to process it. Great theory, what should we do about it?

I suspect the right answer is literally “avoid and ignore criticism.” That’s certainly what I’d do with website analytics data of a similar character.

But I’m not sure—I think we should look to accomplished artists for perspective on the question. That’s a big part of why I’m writing a book! To figure it out.

In the meantime, though, I can share some details of what I’ve tried, and how it’s gone.

A few years ago I decided to pursue teaching website strategy on the internet. I’ve made some courses about it, and I spent about two years aggressively promoting it on social media.

Putting myself out there in this way was scary. I was afraid people would judge and mock me. And guess what? They did.

I was ignored more than critiqued, but over the span of my very niche career as a would-be web strategy influencer, I was told by strangers and friends alike that I was no good, wrong, uninspired.

It hurt a lot! Enough that I decided I needed to take action, for the sake of my own tender feelings.

Here’s what I did: I blocked those people. First on social media, then on private channels. They are dead to me.

It’s a harsh solution, but given the outsized impact of negativity on our brains, it feels appropriate.

Here’s another thing I did: I made sure to note, save, and revisit the positive comments I received. There were a lot of them! Here are some:

And one more thing I did: I resolved to fill my brain to the brim with examples of critics getting it wrong. In hopes that at some point, those examples would train my brain to disregard critique the same way I would disregard an incomplete data set on button clicks.

And that’s why I’m writing a book about criticism.

You can sign up 👇 to get updates on the work in progress. If you like it, let me know! I’ll add your feedback to my wall of kind words. If you don’t like it, that’s fine! Please keep your opinion to yourself.

    © 2024 Brian David Hall