Press the Issue a MasterWP Podcast

How to Handle WordPress Criticism Online

Press the Issue Episode 10 - How to Handle WordPress Criticism Online
Press the Issue
Press the Issue
How to Handle WordPress Criticism Online
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When you put out your thoughts and opinions online, you’re bound to eventually get opposing views in reply. But what do you do when your professional reputation is tied up in those exchanges? In this episode of Press the Issue, Teron Bullock and Allie Nimmons explore how to navigate negative criticism online.

This podcast was sponsored by LearnDash. Your expertise makes you money doing what you do. Now let it make you money teaching what you do. Create a course with LearnDash. Visit LearnDash.com.

Press the Issue is a production of MasterWP. It was produced by Allie Nimmons. It was hosted and edited by Monet Davenport and mixed and mastered by Teron Bullock. Please visit masterwp.com/presstheissue to find more episodes. Subscribe to our newsletter for more WordPress news at masterwp.com.

Episode Transcript:


Monet Davenport:
Welcome to Press the Issue, a podcast from MasterWP, your source for industry insights for WordPress professionals. Get show notes, transcripts, and more information about the show at Masterwp.com/presstheissue.

Monet Davenport:
When you put out your thoughts and opinions online, you’re bound to eventually get opposing views and reply. But what do you do when your professional reputation is tied up in those exchanges? In this episode of Press the Issue, Teron Bullock and Allie Nimmons explore how to navigate negative criticism online.

Teron Bullock:
Hi, Allie, how are you doing today?

Allie Nimmons:
Hi, Teron, I’m good, how are you?

Teron Bullock:
I am well. I know today we have a great conversation in hand. We’re going to talk about criticism on social media and how do you respond properly if you respond at all. So I just want to send this question directly to you. We’re going to get started. And so I guess the first question is, how do you respond to social media criticism if you respond at all?

Allie Nimmons:
Yeah. It’s complex, right? Because it depends on a lot of factors. I’ve definitely criticized people on social media and I’ve definitely been criticized. And I think that if you are responding to something that is criticism and not an attack or inflammatory, that’s going to change how you’re going to respond. And I think that somebody is really being nasty or mean or cruel or those kinds of things, I tend to try not to even engage at all with those sorts of things because that’s not… I’m not entering into a conversation, I’m going to be entering into a fight. And a fight is not about let’s get to a resolution, a fight is about who’s going to win. And especially on social media, I don’t think that that’s useful. But if it’s criticism where somebody is saying this was not the strongest choice, or why did you do this this way, or whatever the case may be, that is usually more of something I will try to respond to.

Allie Nimmons:
And I mean that happened to me literally today. I was posting about the BlackPress Slack group, I said, “This is a group for Brown/Black people.” And someone was like, “You say that this is for Black people, but then you just used Brown in the tweet, well, what’s the deal?” And they criticized my word choices. And my response was like, “Yeah. No, that’s a great question, and thank you for identifying that.” And I went into detail of more of what I meant and we understood each other. And I was embarrassed because I kind of got called out for not using the correct words to describe people, but I could tell they were coming from a good place. So the criticism was easier for me to respond to and clarify what I was talking about.

Allie Nimmons:
But that’s not always the case, right? People get really heated and up in arms and then things can get complicated. And so I think that, if you’re responding to criticism and you’re taking it as that, it’s important to understand where is this person coming from. What are they trying to achieve? Are they just trying to understand me better? Are they unhappy with the choice that I’ve made? Are they hurt? Have they directly been affected by something I’ve done? Does this warrant an apology? I think it’s most important to come at it looking at the other person’s perspective first and then saying, okay, well, what did I mean? How can I bridge that gap and find the resolution? And that’s not always possible in a single tweet. Sometimes it’s a thread. Sometimes it has to go into a DM, but it should start with looking at, how is this person feeling and how can I meet them where they’re at.

Teron Bullock:
Absolutely. Let’s pull the layer back a little bit. So when you first received the tweet, you said that you have to make the determination between whether this is criticism or if this is something that’s more harsh. How do you first gauge yourself? Because criticism can hurt just as much as something that is more harsh, and how do you take the emotions out of it to be able to determine which one it is?

Allie Nimmons:
Yeah. That’s a good question. I mean, a lot of the times, it’s two things, right? To me, at least. It’s word choice and it’s tone. The person I just talked about in that example, their word choice was very neutral. They were asking me a question, right? It wasn’t like, oh great, this idiot doesn’t even know what they’re talking about. Once it starts to being insults and that kind of stuff, that sets it over the top. And then the tone, which can be really hard on social media. But a lot of times when people will come with more harsh criticism, it takes the form of sarcasm or really glib, quippy sorts of language. It’s not about them trying to gain understanding, it’s about them trying to blame or make the other person in the situation feel badly.

Allie Nimmons:
And so a good example of that that I’m guilty of is a couple months ago, I criticized publicly the WordCamp Europe organizing team for not having what I thought was an appropriately diverse group of people organizing that event. And my tweet was kind of sarcastic, short, and not helpful, right? It wasn’t a hey, I’m really trying to understand why this is the way that it is, or I feel unhappy about this and I’d like to talk to somebody about it. I went for more of a irritated sarcastic approach and that did not go well.

Allie Nimmons:
And so if you find yourself writing something like that, that’s the kind of time where it’s like, okay, maybe I should take a step back. And if I still want to tweet this tomorrow, I’ll come back to it. But a lot of those things come from a place of anger. I think it presents itself in bringing out insults and things like that, and then bringing out the sarcasm and that kind of tone, which feels good in the moment, right? Because you feel like, yeah, I’m going to dig into this and I’m going to make them feel X, Y, Z. But it doesn’t serve for anything, right? That ends up not being criticism, that’s just complaining.

Teron Bullock:
That’s an interesting point of view because when we first started the podcast or the idea of the podcast, we really were thinking about attacks or criticism coming towards us. But that’s a good point that when we sometimes are thinking that we’re criticizing or trying to help express our point of view, sometimes it kind of crosses the border, crosses that line of criticism, or like you said, complaining. And the fact that you was able to recognize that and give that helpful point is a good idea. Like, maybe we shouldn’t hit that send button right away, give it a day or so.

Teron Bullock:
So the other side of that, flipping back to windows, comments are coming towards us, do you ever find yourself not being able to hold back when it comes to negative criticism or complaining coming your way? And have you ever found yourself wanting to just send a nasty tweet back? And if so, what did you do to stop yourself from doing it, or did you do it?

Allie Nimmons:
Short answer is just, yes. I find myself wanting to clap back at people on Twitter on a daily basis. I care about this community a lot. I care about a lot of things a lot. And I tend to run hot when it comes to how I feel and I can be a little bit overly judgmental of some people sometimes and I’m trying to rein that in. But yeah, I feel consistently angered by things I see on Twitter. And I don’t think that that’s special, that’s not just me, right? Anyone who uses Twitter will say, “It’s not always a place to go to feel good about the world or about life and stuff like that.”

Allie Nimmons:
I think in the past, I was more quick to reply to things out of anger or out of dissatisfaction. And especially after that WordCamp Europe, and since I’ve been a lot more careful about how I reply to things and I find that… I’m really trying to pick my battles. And a lot goes into that. It’s a thing of if I respond, do I think this person will respond in kind, right? Do I think that they will argue with me in a way that’s counterproductive, or do I think that they will engage in the conversation with me? So going back to that first example, that BlackPress example, I responded because I could tell that if that person had additional questions or if they didn’t understand me further, just from the way they came at me, to begin with, I could tell that they were going to be easier to talk to. If I get some kind of rude, insulting, sarcastic tweet, I’ll respond in my head. I’ll tell them all the things I’d love to say in my head. And then typically, I’ll just let it go.

Allie Nimmons:
I posted this morning in our company Slack, a tweet that somebody actually responded to that same BlackPress tweet. And I believe that they were angry about what I posted. I believed that the message was sarcastic, but I didn’t fully understand what they were trying to say, and so I was like, “You know what? I’m not going to walk into this room blind and not know what’s going to come back at me.” So they could have been trying to give me constructive, positive criticism, or it could have been something nasty. And I was like, “I’m just not even going to respond at all because there’s really nothing that I benefit from that.” I said what I said, it wasn’t something… I don’t think what I posted originally was any kind of hot take. And if they feel some kind of way about it, that’s on them, that’s their problem.

Allie Nimmons:
Sometimes I think that, especially in our WordPress community, conversation back and forth in terms of critique can be helpful because we as a community have so many nuanced issues that need to be worked out. Given that this is such a community-run software, right? The open-source community around WordPress is built on the people. And I think it’s really important for everybody to feel like I can share my thoughts and views and opinions. I can ask questions. I can call somebody out for doing something that might be harmful, and that we all go into it with this idea that we’re trying to make the overall community better. It’s not about winning or losing or being right or being wrong, it’s about the improvement.

Allie Nimmons:
So that’s why I am more willing to get into arguments on Twitter because sometimes an argument can lead to a resolution and that’s a good thing. Like that WordCamp Europe circumstance, while I did not initially approach it well, good did come out of it. A lot of good things came from it and so I don’t regret it. Yeah, I think that all the stuff is super necessary, and it just kind of takes moving slowly and being thoughtful and not responding out of a place of anger, but out of a place of trying to understand each other.

Monet Davenport:
Thank you for listening up to this point, Press the Issue by MasterWP is sponsored by LearnDash. Your expertise makes you money doing what you do, now let it make you money teaching what you do. To create a course with LearnDash visit learndash.com. MasterWP is also sponsored by Cloudways. Supercharge the speed of your WordPress site and save with Object Cache Pro now available for free with any Cloudways 2 gigabyte plus hosting account. This is a savings of $95 per month. Visit cloudways.com and save with the promo code MasterWP25. Now, back to the podcast.

Teron Bullock:
You brought up a good point. Actually, two points that I want to touch on. But the first one is, it sounds like you take the approach of kind of trying to anticipate what the conversation will be before you decide whether it’s worth taking on the task of responding. That’s a great approach, it really is. If we did that more, we might have less Twitter arguments.

Allie Nimmons:
I think so. I think it comes in handy, right? I’m a lot more likely to respond to criticism on Twitter from a person I know and have already spoken to than a stranger. Because if it’s somebody I know and spoken to, we have some kind of understanding or some kind of mutual ground that we can share and come back to. So I got in a Twitter argument with my friend the other day about Harry Potter. Like about something Harry Potter related. And another friend was like, “Why are you fighting with him?” And I’m like, “Because I know him. I know him. I know it’s going to be all good. We can disagree and we’re friends, it’s going to be fine.” If it was a stranger entering into the same conversation, it would be like, well, where is this going to go? Where is this going to end up? Is it that important for me to sit here on company time and be tweeting to somebody about Harry Potter just because maybe I’ll be right, it doesn’t feel worth it.

Allie Nimmons:
I mean, to me sometimes debate about things that don’t matter as much as fun. I find that like a good time. But yeah, I think thinking about it in terms of where is this conversation going to go and what am I going to get out of it? Is it something worth standing up for? If it’s a conversation around race or gender or equality, diversity, those sorts of things I find worth getting into a more heated argument over because those people need advocates, right? I want to be able to advocate for the people who need that kind of discussion. But sometimes it’s just sort of like, you just want to be right. It’s not worth my time to show you why you’re not right, so I’m just going to let it go.

Teron Bullock:
Plus, healthy debates is like the staple of probably every barbershop in America.

Allie Nimmons:
There you go. Healthy debate is what moves the world forward. You don’t grow, you don’t learn new things, you don’t challenge your viewpoints unless you’re able to have a healthy debate about something. I love disagreeing with people that I like, because it’s like, oh cool, we don’t only see the world the same way, there’s something I can learn from you or something you can learn from me, and let’s figure out what that is. And I think that a lot of times criticisms can turn into that, but it’s kind of taking the high road sometimes.

Allie Nimmons:
I spoke with my friend James when he tried to basically start a DEI effort and somebody accused him of not approaching it in the right way. And he responded politely as much as he possibly could to explain himself. And the other person was just being nasty and eventually, he just walked away from the situation. And I think sometimes that’s really the best that you can do, is to say, okay, well, let’s see what we can accomplish in this conversation. And once you realize we’re just going to accomplish nothing, then you move on.

Teron Bullock:
I agree with you. I think that there’s two different sides to this. There is criticism for the goal of accomplishing something, and then there’s debate. And I think that, like you said, there are certain people that you can have those type of debates with and it’s most likely because you guys have that social courtesy. You guys have spent enough time together and you understand each other to the point where you will never let it get to a point where you destroy the relationship.

Allie Nimmons:
Yeah. You don’t let it get personal.

Teron Bullock:
Right. And I think that’s the key, is even for somebody who wants to offer criticism, it’s probably a good start to ask yourself what is the rapport that I have with this person or company before I go down the road of debate. Criticism is another thing because again, we said that goal is we’re trying to fix something or to help a process. But just the debate side, that’s a really thin ice. And I just think that you have to make sure you know who you’re debating with.

Allie Nimmons:
Yeah. I personally don’t feel like we have enough spaces in this community for healthy debate. We have Twitter, which is not conducive to healthy debate at all. It breeds confusion and it limits the amount you can say literally at a given time. And then Slack just creates these silos. And we have comment sections and blog posts and stuff, but that ends up kind of being similar to Slack. And I wish that we had more of almost like a debate club, right? If we had a WordPress debate club, but it’s not all hypothetical, right? Like we’re actually debating real things in a safe space where people are encouraged to debate each other without the risk of getting personal with it. I think that would have such interesting effects as far as what gets done and how people understand the problems that exist in our community, because then also people may not feel the need to resort to public criticism.

Allie Nimmons:
If they feel like, okay, I can go into this space and share how I feel and hash it out with somebody else who feels differently, or at least then you can share that critique in a more informed way. Because then that’s the jump side is we could have a whole other conversation about uninformed critiques and how easy it is to just post something on Twitter without doing any research, without finding out any other information first, and just going off of one circumstance or one thought that you had. But yeah, I like what you said, it’s a really good distinction to make between criticism and debate. There are different use cases for both, there are different environments for both, and I think different people are better at each one.

Teron Bullock:
Right. I like your idea of setting up a space to do it. And I honestly think that Twitter’s Spaces is actually a good format for that. It may not be the best, but I think that if a group of people come together and really think about how you could develop something within that space would be very beneficial. Like maybe, you have a certain group of people that you decide ahead of time will do all the debating, everybody else will just be able to listen like the audience. And then you have a person who’s a moderator and both sides… Kind of like you said, debate club, and there are rules that have to be followed in debate club and just [inaudible 00:21:34].

Teron Bullock:
I think the problem with Twitter Spaces is that there are no rules. So if we could bring some rules in ahead of time because we have a certain amount of people that have agreed to it ahead of time, I think it could work there.

Allie Nimmons:
Yeah. I think that’d be really cool. And even taking it a step further, I would love to add like a WordCamp. Have something like that where it’s kind of like a panel style, but it is almost like a presidential debate, right? Or a debate club where you have people up on the stage and they’re able to explain the case for one thing or the other. Maybe there’s a Gutenberg debate of like why Gutenberg is great and why Gutenberg is awful. And maybe the point at the end of the day is not to have a winner, right? It’s not to declare that one person did better than the other, but for all the people listening to really gain an understanding of both sides of the issue because that is such a rare thing these days.

Allie Nimmons:
I mean, maybe always. Maybe it’s always been a problem, I don’t know. But it’s kind of feels like a rarity for people to really seek out an understanding of both sides of one issue. And I think having some kind of organized debate thing, whether it’s virtual or in person or both can help people understand both sides of one issue. And then bringing that back to the overall ecosystem and people who own companies and build products. You have to understand all sides of the perspective to build something that’s effective. That’s a good quote, it rhymes and everything. But yeah, I think that’d be super cool.

Teron Bullock:
I’ll piggyback on that. I think that just as a human being, being able to see all sides of anything would make you better. So I would love to see that at a WordCamp. If somebody can make that happen, I think that would be awesome. So shifting to the other side of this. So let’s go to the criticism part of this. As a company, there are times where you receive criticism that you may not want to address, and always wondered, what is the best practice when it comes to criticism that is said about your company that like you say, you don’t want to address, is it okay to delete it? Is it okay to just ignore it? What is the best practice when you come across something like that?

Allie Nimmons:
So I don’t have as much experience from that perspective, but I have some. First of all, I don’t think that it really is ever okay to delete criticism because that implies that you want to hide something, that you’re ashamed, that you’re guilty. You’re messing with the narrative of what’s actually going on. You’re editing that narrative and that’s not fair. So I don’t ever think that it’s okay. I mean, if somebody has come on your page and is posting racial slurs, like really harmful crazy stuff. Yeah, delete that, because that’s not criticism, that’s just crazy. But if it’s criticism, I don’t think it’s ever appropriate to hide or delete it.

Teron Bullock:
So what about, is it okay to just ignore it or do you have to face them head-on?

Allie Nimmons:
Again, I feel like it depends on what it is. I think in most cases you should acknowledge it in some form, right? Even if it’s the very standard typical, hey, thank you for sharing this criticism with us, we’d love to take this to a DM or a email to talk about it with you directly. Because sometimes it really isn’t in a company’s best interest to have that back and forth online. Because again, you can have the best intentions, but Twitter and a lot of these forums, even if it’s like in a Facebook group or online anywhere, these are not places that were built for this kind of conversation. They were built to be echo chambers and to breed misunderstanding so people would stay in the website longer. I genuinely believe that. It might sound like a conspiracy theorist saying that, but I genuinely believe it.

Allie Nimmons:
So if you’re a company, sometimes it might not be a good look for you to have this back and forth with somebody on social media. So bringing it into a private message where you can actually type out full responses and have nuance to the conversation is probably a good idea. At the same time, if it’s an instance where maybe somebody has criticized something that your company has posted. Just saying, can you explain more of what your problem is? Can you give me more information? Like allowing that person to really share what the problem is. And then if there is a resolution, if there is something that you can say to provide an explanation or provide a solution, I think providing that publicly is contrary to what I just said, right? Is very useful because then others who might have that same criticism or others who might not have noticed that criticism can see that and say, oh wow, they acknowledged the criticism. They made sure they understood it and they replied to it in a healthy way.

Allie Nimmons:
I think that replying to that criticism in a way that’s polite and thoughtful and considerate can actually make the company look good at the end of the day. But again, it’s kind of looking at it from where is this going to go? Is this person really angry with me and they’re trying to fight, let’s take it into a DM. If this person has expressed a gentle, hey, I noticed this and I don’t really know how I feel about it, I don’t really like this, that can be a conversation.

Allie Nimmons:
Good example, today, a company posted about an event, like a virtual event that they’re holding. And the page title to the link that they shared was basically a pun on Make America Great Again. It was based off that phrase. I was like, “Hey, y’all should change that.” I think I just retweeted it and I said, “Please, somebody change this bit to something, literally anything else.” And I even went so far as to tag the two people that I know run that company. And I got a very brief perfect response where one of the people I tagged said, “Let me talk to the person who created that page and we’ll take care of it.” That’s all I wanted. That’s all I needed, right? I wasn’t here to fight. I was just like, “This specifically is probably not okay.”

Allie Nimmons:
And I’m familiar with the company, I know and have had conversation with both of the people that I tagged so I felt comfortable tagging them. And I on purpose did not come at it from a like, oh my God, this is so racist, blah, blah, blah. I was just like, “This should be changed.” And they replied and said, “We will change it.” And that’s all that needed to happen. And yeah, from a company perspective, if you can approach it in that way, that’s really the best that you can do. And then if it escalates, I think it’s better to take it off social media.

Teron Bullock:
I totally agree. Just using that example and giving the other side of that. I don’t know the intent of why the person would’ve chose to use a phrase that was similar to that and they could have been completely clueless about it. However, just putting something like that out there, they had to be aware. And even if not, at least you or somebody was aware that it would cause some type of debate about it because there would be people who are offended, there were people who would agree with it. And it’s like, is that really the focus of what you were trying to do? So the fact that somebody… I say somebody, but you decide to step up and say something is a good example of good criticism.

Allie Nimmons:
I hope so. I thought I did okay. I mean, at the end of the day, I think me just pointing it out was enough for them to see like, oh yeah, that is a problem, we’ll fix it. If I came at them angry, angry, angry, calling people racist, that puts people’s walls up, and it stands in the way of an actual healthy dialogue. And I knew that it wasn’t an intentional thing. I knew it was an oversight. And so I tried to treat it as such, rather than treating them like they punched my mom or something like that.

Teron Bullock:
Yeah. I think you have to take the emotions out of it if you really want to make change. It reminds me of like the videos you see on the internet where there’s a person who’s like angry in the Dairy Queen because they didn’t get their order right. And it’s like, you’re not going to get anywhere with that approach.

Allie Nimmons:
Oh, absolutely not.

Teron Bullock:
Well, Allie, it’s been great talking to you. I think we had a great conversation today. And before I close out, is there anything that you would like to say?

Allie Nimmons:
Yeah. I had a really great time. I always love chatting with you. I want to challenge people. Let’s have a debate about debate. If you’re listening to this, go on Twitter, tag MasterWP and tag me allie_nimmons. And let me know how you feel about what we talked about today in terms of where we can be holding more healthy debates in WordPress. Do you feel that Twitter is adequate? Do you feel like we should be using Twitter Spaces or something else? Let us know what you think and why you think that, and let’s start a conversation around that.

Teron Bullock:
Absolutely. And so this has been a great episode, at least, in my opinion. I think that this is a conversation that should definitely continue like Allie just said. So thank you for your time. And let’s continue to keep the conversation going on Twitter @MasterWP.

Monet Davenport:
Thank you for listening to this episode. Press the Issue is a production of MasterWP. Produced by Allie Nimmons. Hosted, edited and musically supervised by Monet Davenport and mixed and mastered by Teron Bullock. Please visit Masterwp.com/presstheissue to find more episodes. Subscribe to our newsletter for more WordPress news at Masterwp.com.