Why You Should Embrace Public Criticism


I’ve been watching some Favorites partake in an interesting discussion the past few weeks. It’s all centered around whether there’s too much public criticism on the Web. And while it’s somewhat amusing to listen to people publicly criticize others for publicly criticizing I’d thought I’d hop in to the conversation. Because, to be honest, I think we live in a world where most people are afraid to criticize. And I think we live in that world to our own detriment.

Chris Brogan asked people to look at their blogs from the prospect’s point of view and to ask themselves how it looks to be constantly critiquing others. At BlogWorld, Deb Ng supports disagreeing with your favorite bloggers. Gwenbell argues that praise should be done in public but wonders if maybe criticism should be done in private.

I think we all need to stop being so afraid of having people say bad things about us and learn how to use it. Here’s why.

Public discussions inspire change

If no one ever calls you out on your opinions, then you’re never forced to reevaluate them. I happen to think that for most companies this is more effective when you do it in public because it forces them to pay attention. Had I emailed Seth Godin about his Brands in Public service, that email would have been ignored. When you throw things into the public realm, you give brands a reason to pay attention and acknowledge them. You also force them to reevaluate their own opinions before they become beliefs that never change

Monica O’Brien wrote a great piece on opinions vs. beliefs. Sometimes when you’re challenged you reaffirm what you always believed. But sometimes it changes you.

You could also find the new information is so convincing it completely blows your old opinion out of the water. When this happens, you’ve experienced personal growth and reached a new understanding of who you are and how you think. That’s what personal development is all about – finding out how little you know, finding out how wrong you are, and learning new thought processes. In order to get to that next level, you must be willing to debate and challenge your opinions over and over again.

‘Nuff said.

It shows respect

Social media has made us far too conservative with our opinions. We’re afraid to say anything that someone else may disagree with. We won’t call others out in fear that they’ll call us out right back. Because if that happens, then we have no one to vote for our crap. We think by blindly following the leader we’re showing respect and courtesy. God forbid we’re labeled aggressive. Or a bully.

That idea is crap.

Debate shows respect, on both sides. If I didn’t care enough about you, I wouldn’t waste my time offering a dissenting opinion. How many public disputes have I had with Michael Gray, one of my strongest friendships in this industry? Michael and I agree on everything and nothing at the same time. We see things from completely different viewpoints and when we battle, we both come away learning something. That’s why he’s valuable to me, both as a colleague and a friend. If you’re a company engaging back and letting customers debate, I respect the chutzpah it takes to enter that conversation. If debate scares you or you’re not confident enough in your beliefs to defend yourself or your product, then it’s possible you’re too sensitive for the Internet and you need to leave. You may also be too sensitive for business. Without debate all we have is a bunch of superficial, watered down relationships. People in love fight. People on the verge of a breakup blindly coexist.

It shows who you are as a company

I understand Chris Brogan’s stance that constantly picking apart others may cast a negative view of your own company. And I agree, if that’s all you’re doing. But sometimes speaking out against something publicly also shows who YOU are as a company and what YOU believe in. I can tell you all day that I think SEO is important for SMB owners, but if I’m not willing to speak out against someone putting dangerous truths into the air, then how passionate about that am I really? By critiquing someone else in public, it also gives me a chance to reiterate our company stance, and I think that’s important. It shows people what you’re about and how you prefer to do business.

Some people and companies are afraid to get negative in public because they don’t want ‘to look bad’. But no one is happy all the time. No one agrees with everything that everyone is doing. In order to have thing you like, there must be things that you don’t like. That’s how we can tell the different. It creates balance. People who are happy all the time are liars. And possible serial killers.

Road map for the future

I left a really rambling comment over at Gwen’s yesterday trying to debate this same topic (sorry Gwen!). One point I mentioned over there was how having these conversations in public helps other people who find themselves in the same situations. If I watch someone both a social media campaign, by pointing out the error and offering a constructive and preferred course of action, I help the next company who stumbles across that post and was thinking of something similar.

I think the SEO industry is a great example of this. Imagine where we’d all be if all these public blog posts and site critiques were done through private email threads. Imagine all the knowledge we would have lost, all the experiments we would have missed out on. When you create an open forum and allow others to participate, you’re creating a breeding ground for knowledge and a resource that people can access when they need to. There’s value in that.

Obviously at Outspoken Media we’re not ones to shy away from publicly disagreeing with someone. Our posts on Seth Godin, Robert Scoble and that damn ReTweet button were some of our most successful posts of 2009. And they were successful because we hit on something the community was passionate about and provided an open forum for that debate to take place.

I think the problem people have with ‘public critique’ is that it gets lumped into the same baskets as those dreaded Internet trolls who just come by to kick you in the face and leave. But that’s not critique. That’s a Snark Attack and I don’t think we should think of them the same. There is a difference between creating debate and flaming someone else simply because they’re bigger than you and you have no other way to get attention. We’ve always tried to create a forum here where it’s a community, not a cult. It’s okay to disagree and it’s okay to be disagreed with. Life is in the debate. And it’s the debate that causes opinions and policies to change. That’s how we become better businesses (and, okay, people).

[If you want to play a fun game, hunt for the comments that Dawn has left on the blog.  She typically comments solely to disagree with me. It’s why we love her.]

Your Comments

  • Phil Buckley

    I agree that disagreement doesn’t mean being an asshat. I think that’s where the ‘spine-challenged’ lose track of an actual debate around a subject that has multiple points of view.

    Sometimes both views are valid, sometimes the persone with the stronger personality wins because the other person gives up, and that’s another reason to speak your mind.

    To me, the money line is, “People on the verge of a breakup blindly coexist”. Great post.

    • Lisa Barone

      I would definitely agree that often “wrong” people win arguments because they’re the only people willing to speak up. The person who actually has a leg to stand on is too timid and won’t say anything…so their side gets lost in the mess, which is unfortunate. Because no one wins that people. I don’t know when it became a bad thing to disagree, but I wish we could end that mentality. If we all agreed on everything, no one would get anywhere.

  • Alec Perkins

    I think a lot of people are afraid of criticism on the Web because there isn’t actually enough criticism there (or in the real world). It’s almost all trolls and snark, not useful critiques; it may be cliche but ‘constructive criticism’ is wonderful. Finding a legitimate opposing viewpoint on some things seems to be a lot harder than it should be. Without a moderation system, the personal attacks and flame wars always drown out the voices of reason. The moderators have to be willing to let the opposing views in, of course.

    Criticism only sucks when it’s personal, either because the receiver mistakingly takes being told they’re wrong as a personal affront, or because the giver focuses on the person and not the idea.

    • Lisa Barone

      Agreed. It’s sad that disagreements often end up being flame wars. But that’s because it’s just so much easier to revert to that kind of behavior. It doesn’t take any thought or any courage. You just blurt it out and walk away.

      I also agree that there’s not nearly enough constructive criticism online or IRL. People are afraid to be wrong, so we don’t put ourselves out there in any way that could be construed as wrong. We just fake agree.

      • Dawn Wentzell

        People don’t want to risk “flame wars” in real life, either. So many times a disagreement turns into name calling. Who wants to debate anything when you risk personally attacked?

        • Lisa Barone

          I wish people could sit in on an Outspoken meeting and hear the shit that comes out of our (find, mostly me and Rae) mouths. We disagree and debate because we respect each other and we respect what we’re doing. And after we’re done calling one another bitches (and other words I won’t say here on the nice Internet), we’re left better understanding each other and finding a middle ground that makes us happy and clients VERY happy.

          Disagreeing turns into name calling because people have forgotten how to do it and it’s easier to call someone a name than to articulate why it is you disagree with them.

        • Alec Perkins

          That’s why when working with a team I always prefer to reference the idea by something self-descriptive (e.g. the river idea or the four-bar linkage idea) instead of by the person who proposed it (e.g. Mike’s idea or Rachel’s idea). That way, the focus, comparison, and criticism is on the ideas, not the people. I’ve noticed it makes people much more willing to put their ideas out there, because they are personally detached from the idea — which is good when solving problems for a variety of reasons besides criticism.

          I find it funny/sad that people are so afraid of being wrong that they avoid a chance to become right.

  • Dawn Wentzell

    I’m sorry, I have nothing to disagree with this time.

  • Dave mcclure

    in the words of a Contrarian far more thoughtful than me:

    “Jane, u ignorant slut…”

    I completely disagree with everything above, and would like to ahedule time for further disagreement at your earliest convenience.

    (srsly great post :)

  • Gary Walter

    Well said – and I’ve been trying to say this for years – in many venues. My thought is that if you truly care about me, you’ll tell me when I’m wrong, could use improvement, or am on track. If you only compliment me, pretty soon your words lose credibility.

    However, if you help me grow and improve, I am a better person – and you will get better content. This applies to blogs, interpersonal relations, and business.

    Thank you.

  • Ian Shea

    Great post – really enjoyed it.

  • Gwen Bell

    Lisa, you’ve given a lot of food for thinking on. It started over at Ari’s with the post on the Green Police. And I was like, if I was Audi America and someone got their knickers in a knot over naught, things’d be riled up in the marketing dept.

    Perhaps the larger issue for me is on what I’d call the meddling end of things. If you’re not a parent with kids in diapers (or don’t have kids at all) but you take offense at a diaper ad, who cares? You’re not the target demo and calling out a company just makes their lives (more) difficult – stirring the pot really could result in you making something out of nothing.

    Is that helpful? Does that serve the greater good? Part of our responsibility to our fellow humans is to (put aside our personal brands for a minute and) do that.

    You’re an example of someone who calls it with an end in sight – a happier, better end. I’m going to practice working on the criticism bit, if only because I think you’re right – it makes us more well-rounded.

    My tendency to move towards the center, towards equanimity, comes out of my practice. My tendency is towards giving the benefit of the doubt and assuming that no matter how badly a marketing firm effs up their hearts were in the right place. Bottom line: they were trying to connect the right people with a product/service they believe in. That (giving benefit of the doubt) won’t change, but in my most recent post (about United & two different flights handling customers differently), is an honest attempt at looking more critically for the purposes of learning – and thinking.

    Which is what you do – in elevating criticism to an art form and a science, you have accomplished what few can.

    • Nathan Hangen

      Did you just say that a marketing firm’s heart is in the right place?

      I’m not so sure it’s that sugar coated. I mean…their job is to get dollars out of the hands of the consumer, regardless of the means. I don’t know if heart has anything to do with it.

  • Vikas Gupta

    Allow me to criticize you! The copyright notice in the footer on your blog is still dated 2009! ;)

  • Vikas Gupta

    Allow me to criticize you in succession. In a world where blogs are changing the way media works you should not have such constraining copyright notice “No content on this site may be republished or reprinted in any fashion without written permission from Outspoken Media, Inc.”! You are not even allowing citations/quotes from here! :o

    And you are called Outspoken Media!

  • Vikas Gupta

    Allow me to praise you now, better late than never! I like this blog, come what may. The look and feel, the content (it is like essays that I can write; I’m a PhD student) and last but not the least, to use the popular Indian phrase, your photo in the Gravatar! :)

  • Alan Bleiweiss

    If it wasn’t for others who care about me that took the time to call me on my own insanity a few years back, I’d have probably not reached the bottom I did that led me to getting drug free- saved my life.

    I’m clearly one to criticize when I think there’s an injustice. Yet I’ve found a lot lately that I get lost in the fever-pitched thrill of it a lot and go too far. So these days I struggle with speaking out, not speaking out, being polite to fit in… yet at the end of the day, speaking up is part of who I am in the world.

  • John Burton

    Hi Lisa,

    Not a “criticism” per se, but I think you meant to write the word “botch” rather than “both” in the sentence, “If I watch someone both a social media campaign…”

    But don’t worry, I kan’t speel gud eithr.


  • Heather Villa

    There’s a difference between giving constructive criticism and criticism just of criticism’s sake. Some people just disagree for no other reason than to raise hackles and cause problems. If you have a reason to disagree with someone and can articulate it well, then the criticism can be helpful.

    I agree with this statement – “People who are happy all the time are liars. And possible serial killers.” lol

  • Phil Powdrill


    You said the following

    “It’s okay to disagree and it’s okay to be disagreed with. Life is in the debate. And it’s the debate that causes opinions and policies to change. That’s how we become better businesses (and, okay, people).”

    I agree whole heartedly with this view we need to be big enough to accept criticism and use that criticism to improve ourselves and our businesses. If all you receive is criticism then clearly you’re not doing the right thing. If you accept the good then you have to accept the bad.

    There will always be attention seekers that criticize for their own ends. I think we have to live with that, sad as it is.

    The manner of our response to criticism is vital to the way forward. I always find it best to tackle it head-on in a non-confrontational manner.

    Anyway thanks for the really interesting post.


  • Vikas Gupta

    Your site lisabarone.com gives error and does not load. Looks like you have not configured any site on that domain!

  • Deb Ng

    Thought-provoking post, for sure – and one that inspires us to look within ourselves. I can tell you that sometimes I feel as if more people disagree with me than the other way around, but I can also say that all feedback is good feedback. It can be unnerving to constantly see your name associated with negativity,but it also causes us to pause and consider. Even the worst possible feedback is a good opportunity.

    The key, again, is in being respectful. How you present yourself means everything. I wish I could find something to disagree with, but it’s all good.