Metacritique 1: The Critic's Duty
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by Carlos R. Kalinin, Site Member

1. The Critic's Duty

The SCP Foundation Wiki is known, among both members and the outside readership, for ruthless quality control and unvarnished feedback. This reputation benefits the community in some ways; it encourages authors to put forth their best efforts, it fosters an atmosphere of honest (and therefore valuable) critique, it enhances the experience for the true site user (the reader), and it's something of a trademark for our community. This aspect of the wiki convinced me to start participating on the site in 2012, and it's been a guiding principle in everything that I've done here since.

With the good comes the bad, however.

Many people confuse "being a harsh critic" with "being a dick." As someone who has frequently been called both things, I understand that this can be a tricky distinction to make. The community has dealt with this topic since its inception, and while much progress has been made in internalizing our unofficial "cold not cruel" creed and tamping down the more egregious stuff, it is something that we still struggle with today.

We have the Criticism Policy, of course, which says in big unmistakeable letters, "don't be an asshole." Still, the site's culture is often interpreted as a license to write unhelpful personal attacks disguised as literary critique, and sometimes people still get away with doing it. Part of this is due to the ineffable nature of assholery, and our collective reliance as staff on knowing it when we see it. And part of it is due to another factor:

Those who can't do, critique. Like any other community, our participants are forever jockeying for notoriety and respect within the ranks. One way to gain favor among the membership is, of course, to write successfully and well. And as many of us have discovered (your author included), this can be extremely difficult to accomplish.

This gives rise to the perception of a second, somewhat easier and thus much more attractive path to glory and fame forever: Burnishing one's reputation as a hardbitten critic. A powerful synergy soon develops, between the idea many members have that they are expected to be a merciless jackal picking apart the carcasses of failing articles, and the fact that it is easier to critique something than it is to write something. What we end up with is a predictable and ever-repeated trajectory: A member writes a bad article, it gets subsequently destroyed in the comments, the member sees their work deleted, and decides that from now on they will instead be a part of the lynch mob instead of the one being strung up. This is a completely rational reaction from the standpoint of human nature. From the perspective of a community that is dedicated to producing quality writing and the creative environment that makes that possible, though, this dynamic is slow-acting poison.

There is entirely too much shitcrit on the site right now. One of the reasons I am starting this series, and with this piece in particular, is the fact that I cannot be in eighty places at once. I do not have the time or wherewithal to individually rebut and correct every piece of shitty critique given entirely in the spirit of self-aggrandizement. Every time someone nitpicks the room dimensions while ignoring the basic unworkability of a central concept, every time someone instructs a writer to add a recovery log and three interviews to a Slenderman ripoff, every time someone offers nothing but "read Series II and III" as a form of critique, they are doing a disservice to the writer and the community. These and all the other counterproductive forms of feedback detract from another goal of this community, which is to help users develop their skills and become better writers.

As stated in the byline, I am a member of the Forum and Site Criticism Teams. Many users don't realize that these and the other staff teams exist, something else I hope to rectify here. Among our listed responsibilities is the task of ensuring the quality of critique. I find that more and more of my time, however, is spent on this particular task, to the exclusion of another primary duty, which is critique of the works posted for review and works posted to the wiki. In my mind, this is a twofold problem; not only are articles receiving actively unhelpful reviews, they are also being denied the review of more experienced Criticism Team members because those members are all busy counter-critiquing.

The necessity of time and energy being expended to critique the critics will always be there. I get that. But I do think that there exists a proper balance between the amount of effort spent policing users and that spent making direct efforts to improve the works that are the main reason we're all here. Where that balance lies is inexact and endlessly debateable. As someone who has performed a fuckton of critique over the past few years, however, my personal feeling is that we are spending too much time lately addressing incorrect line-by-lines and one-sentence shitposts.

What's to be done? I don't believe in centrally planned, top-down attempts to force changes in site dynamics and culture. That's not say I don't support a set of straightforward rules. I will most definitely enforce the shit out of those rules that govern critique when time allows. The kind of improvement that we need, however, has to come from the membership, in general, rethinking its attitude about the role of the critic and the amount of effort that it requires.

With that in mind, I'd like to share some guiding principles that I try to apply to my own critique:

  • The critic has a duty to help the writer improve. This community is a compact, of sorts. Not officially, but to me, there's an understanding. The site provides the member with a substantial audience for their works. In exchange, the member is expected to meaningfully contribute to the collective effort to better ourselves as writers. If one is to engage in critique, I believe that this must be at the front of one's mind.
  • The critic also has a duty to ensure the quality of the site. We write for an audience larger than ourselves. And we have a product that we are attempting to sell to that audience every day. We owe the reader a quality experience. That means that certain pieces are going to be swiftly deleted, while others will never see the light of day.
  • Sometimes these duties will conflict. There was a time when I thought that every piece of writing, no matter how terrible, deserved some sort of review and expenditure of effort to point out all of its flaws. That position has proven untenable. Nobody has the necessary time to meet this standard. And in some cases, no amount of help is going to fix someone's lack of basic writing skills. The threshold at which a piece merits an extensive review is tricky and will vary from critic to critic. I will say that not every word salad mishmash of its/it's errors and spelling mistakes merits a line-by-line.
  • You owe the writer more than memes. "Shorter than my thumb." "Thing what does a thing." "D&D Monster Manual entry." "Needs backstory." Too many times, I see catchphrases used as a substitute for meaningful critique. Are there reasons behind why these are phrases that get tossed around? Yes. But if you're going to bust one of these out, you need to explain why specifically this problem applies.
  • Correctly identify the problem. This is an especially pernicious issue. A critique should have holistic integrity in order to help the writer properly contextualize the quality (or lack thereof) of their piece. Too many times, I see people dithering about what backstory an object has or what specific containment cell should be used, when the quality of the writing is atrocious throughout or the concept is fundamentally unworkable. If your only contribution is to point out that something needs to use metric units, consider refraining.
  • Cold, not cruel. Another catchphrase. But it's one that I find applies very well to the writing process. When you critique, you must be dispassionate and objective. If you find yourself replying to something because you are angry, because you wish to get your licks in on a failing article before it gets deleted, or because it's violated one of the critique memes that gets passed around, consider refraining from posting and reexamining your planned critique.
  • Critique without fear. I believe there's another reason that bad articles written by unknown members attract so many responses beyond the fact that they tend to be objectively terrible. Many times, newer members are afraid to take aim at the works of well-established and easily recognizable authors. Where to put that pent-up need to kick something in the shins in order to establish your street cred? Why, WeedLord2233's new skip, "Totally Not Slenderman," of course. When it comes to critiquing, if you wouldn't say it to an admin, then don't say it to a newbie either. Before the power of the rating module, we are all equals.
  • It's not about you. Ask yourself the next time you're going to post a response to someone's work. Is this me trying my best to help another writer improve their work and/or improve the quality of the site's works? Or is this me trying to get the funniest or most cutting insult out on someone who's pretty much guaranteed not to fight back? Many people critique with the idea that it's going to be a way to get their name out there. Allow me to assure those that hold that notion that there are no shortcuts to credibility. If you go out every day with the intent to help your fellow writers to the best of your abilities, respect will come. The only reputation that continually appearing in -25 rated threads and offering insult-laden non sequiturs will earn you is that of being a fucking clown. And probably a ban into the bargain.

I am not perfect, and there have doubtless been occasions where I have not lived up to the ideals set forth above. But every time I post a critique, I think about these criteria, and do my best to live up to them. Other members (of both the site and the staff criticism teams) will likely have differing views about some of the particulars.

Be that as it may, I hold the belief that critique is something to be taken seriously. As seriously as writing for the site. We have come a long way in improving how we provide critique, and regardless of the current issues I think we hold a place of distinction in comparison to other internet-based writing communities when it comes to our creative process. I am convinced, however, that we can see a great improvement in how we offer review and feedback if more people take the role of the critic as seriously as it should be.

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