There is an art to feedback.

"Do unto others as you would have others do unto you" - Matthew 7:12

Feedback. There's an art to giving it, and an art to receiving it. So why am I discussing this? Because of the principle that kind words beat upvotes and C!s every day, that's why.

So you just read someone's work, and you upvoted it. That's nice, and I dare say there are few people who don't appreciate watching a positive rep grow over time. You have been on the receiving end of upvotes hundreds, maybe thousands of times, and you have doled out goodness knows how many votes on deserving work, and gained XP as a direct result. In so doing, you participate in a form of feedback which helps improve the database, by providing encouragement that things are going well.

Now however, you read something you don't like, and maybe you're one of those who downvotes it. After all, the power is yours if you're a Level Two noder onward, and it's part of your freedom here. And yes, you gain a small reward in that you gain XP over time, in the same way as an upvote. Is there anything wrong with downvoting? No, else the power would not be given you.

One of the most frequent wails from newbie noders is that they don't understand why something has been downvoted. So they get in the catbox and ask why. Then they get deluged with commentary. We've all seen it, and we've also seen responses along the lines of "Shit happens, deal with it - downvotes are part of the process". Of course that is right, but doesn't always necessarily help. Is downvoting wrong? Of course not.

So voting is good. Now what?

Think back. Think back to your first few nodes. Did they get nothing but upvotes? You're the lucky one. Was there a mix, positive and negative? More than likely. Consider your thoughts now though, if you're on the receiving end. "Upvote? Great! I must be doing something good. I'll carry on doing just that, because it gets my writeups a good reputation". That's good to a degree. People will often upvote because they learned something, or laughed, or cried or thought as a result of what you wrote. But it didn't mean it was perfect, did it? Then, if you had lots of downvotes, it was "Downvote? Ack! WTF did I do wrong? It's lovely, is this, why are people downvoting it?"

As writers, whether factual, funny, creative or thoughtful, we are left to interpret the votes based on an imperfect understanding of what the reader felt or thought when voting. I think of one of my earlier efforts, which was a sparse paragraph on a factual topic. It received several upvotes, which I enjoyed. It also attracted a downvote, which I didn't. In my innocence, I didn't understand, and sent a newbie's plea to the catbox. I received another downvote, and a /msg to say effectively "Don't do that again!". Nothing about why it was downvoted.

Some months later, someone gave me a node audit, and this was one of those which came under scrutiny. I was advised that it was good as far as it went, and that the topic could probably use some research and expansion. I went away, did some work on it and presented it for comment. I got the upvote and a message to say "Well done, much better". The ensuing conversation did much to strengthen my resolve to work harder at the level of content.

On another occasion, one of the gods sent a /msg, praising me for my balance of research, presentation and personal comment. The feeling I had from that one personal comment did more to warm me to E2 and strengthen my resolve to improve, than anything else. In short, it made me feel like a king, and to this day, I cite that as one of the main reasons I stayed on E2, and worked to develop my writing skills.

Okay, what's the point?

Back in the day, there were three ways of feeding back. The voting system I have discussed. You could send a /msg, which took a little effort. You could add a softlink - and many did. You'll see countless insulting softlinks throughout the database, and doubtless the anonymous cowards felt that they were doing their bit.

When the blab box was added in November 2001, I rejoiced. You see, I'd gotten into the habit of writing to people and telling them what I liked. I told them if they'd made typos, told them if I disagreed with something. I told them why I disliked something, too. I never was a fan of the softlink feedback, and the blab box made it so easy - a brief comment, click the appropriate vote button, and away!

Yes, I tell people why I don't like something, why I downvoted it, if you like. Not that I always did - frequently, I'd withold my vote until I had a response from the author. A "thank you, I corrected that" made me feel very different from a "sod you, I don't need you telling me what to do, or how to write". I began to get pleasure knowing that I was doing my bit to help the database become a better place. Newbies were grateful, the old lags were grateful, everybody won. The number of messages of thanks always outweighed the others, and I rarely got any negative comeback, nor the rash of downvotes some people seem to expect.

As an editor, I know that the Klaproth message¹ is important, when removing below-par work from the database. Now I will be the first to admit that I have occasionally slipped in my resolve, and sent scathing or sarcastic messages. Just one or two, and I was picked up and slapped soundly for one, and quite rightly. Nowadays, all my Klaproths are signed. My name appears on each and every one if I wield the axe on something. I try and provide enough information to help the noder understand why I did it, and frequently (especially with a new noder) offer to discuss it.

Lastly, let's not forget positive feedback. I often read something that moves me, intrigues or informs me. In such cases, I often drop a note to say "Thank you", or "I like this" or "You made me feel better/laugh/weep with you". If I read a lot of good things by one noder, I like to tell them. Largely I do this because if they're doing something good, I want them to carry on.

So how do I do it?

Simple. First, ask yourself one question - "if I am getting feedback, how do I want it?" The answer to that is the most important thing to understand. Compare these messages:

"You mis-spelled 'parameter', you moron!"
"Typo ALert: 'parametet' -> 'parameter' in para 3"

"Why not do some more research, pinhead?"
"Good as far as it goes, but could use some expansion"

Now, ask yourself which you'd rather get. Yes, I know there's a slight exaggeration, but the point is this. "Typo ALert" suggests something altogether different than "spelling mistake". It suggests that the writer acknowledges human error and frailty. I know, I'm possibly the King of Tyops, I'm renowned for it, and no matter how many times I run a spellchecker (I can spell quite well) or proofread, I frequently miss things. So in my feedback, I err on the safe side. This softens the message and still gets the point over, everyone wins.

Even if I'm being critical of content or style, I see no point in being harsh. Frequently I come across writeups whose content is lacking. So I tell the author, or refer them to an FAQ. Frequently they write back, sometimes after months, and say "Thanks, I did something about it", and I go and look and lo! it is better. Often the improvements are sufficient that I reward the author - along with a suitably blab!bed message, of course.

I intend my feedback to be constructive, to offer something to the recipient. I like it when I get comments back, it proves that I'm doing my job right. As members of a community of writers, we all appreciate feedback. I'd like to see more people doing it, and doing it well. A recent comment from one of the gods made a valid point: "I consider all of the users editors." In one sense we are each responsible for the improving standards on E2, each of us is a content editor, in the sense that we can impact the content through our feedback to others.

Always, I end my messages with a friendly offer of further help, along the lines of "Feel free to approach me with any questions or comments!" This has enough positive effect that I do get a response in about one-third of cases, and on occasion hat turns into quite a friendly relationship developing.

Receiving Feedback

On the rare occasions I'd had a negative response to feedback, it's had an equally negative effect on me. When I trained call handlers in customer service skills, one of the buzzphrases used was "Behaviour Breeds Behaviour". They get angry and shouty, it inclines me that way. They whinge and whine and attempt to justify themselves, it makes me despise them. You see the point?

Feedback is just information. It's just data. It's meant to help you. There are those who say that the only acceptable response to feedback is "Thank you". You are free to use the information, or not. If you disagree, by all means say so, but appreciate that it was given in a kindly spirit, and treat it as such.

A hostile or defensive response is not going to endear you to anyone. One reply I kept from years ago: "i never asked for your advice nor do i need it. i also find this whole experience leaving a bad taste in my mouth...stick it up your ass". A wonderful response that made me want to track down their every poorly-written piece of junk and nuke it to hell. It only amused me, and did the writer no good at all.

A sweeter response might have opened a dialogue which might have resulted in the growth of that noder. They might have stayed on, produced something fine and worthy, and improved E2 into the bargain. As it was, they left, taking their anger with them, and learning nothing. I feel pity for all such poor souls.

I'd like to suggest March as the month we all try harder in this endeavour. "Feedback Month" would be a great way to start the Spring. I think it goes without saying that I'd appreciate your comments. 18 people, 1 great suggestion, 8 typos alerted (1 is deliberate!), 3 anonymous downvoters/cowards

¹ Klaproth was a bot-generated message that the editor sent explaining why a writeup was deleted. At one time there was no such facility. This was a big step forward, and how different editors used it demonstrated their accountability and integrity.