The LEGO community and the dark side of comments

The online LEGO community is an all-around friendly place and quite open to newcomers, with very few exceptions. What few realize is that this comes at a high price; the comments exchanged by builders are friendly and positive — and often that means only positive. And here lies a potential pitfall, because honest critiques and (seeming) negativity tend to be avoided for fear of creating awkward situations. Additionally, not all builders want to receive constructive feedback. The end result is that most creations gather a plethora of dry comments that do not really help the builders improve much. I have been passively raising awareness to this problem for years now, but never have I gone to such lengths as Aaron van Cleave, who has made a series of bad creations as a social experiment.

ART HOAX: The Final Straw

Aaron has summed up the project (as he calls it, ‘art hoax’) with a satirical but purposefully well-crafted creation of a figure representing the Flickr LEGO community breaking a camel’s back with one final straw. While the build is great, the message is the interesting element here.

The goal of the experiment was to expose the deficiency of criticism in the tight-knit LEGO building community and possibly induce a change of attitude. With Aaron having a substantial presence in the community, it is little surprise that Aaron’s intentionally bad creations still got a very positive response. Some people were intimidated by Aaron’s reputation, some took it as expressionist art and some were simply confused. But few were brave enough to be brutally honest with the builder, which was actually what he was hoping for. For anyone who is interested in reading more about this, Mr. Van Cleave has writen quite a lengthy blog post about his experiment over at the KetihLUG Manifesto.

I think we can all learn something from this. First of all, while it has not been explicitly stated, we can probably all agree that constructive criticism helps people improve over time. Even though we all like those juicy positive comments, they are not the driving force of improvement. It is not all black and white though; while honesty is a virtue, so is being considerate of others. There is also an onus on each builder to let their friends and followers know what sort of critiques they are open to receiving. Ultimately, there is a fine balance that needs to be kept, and while the pendulum for the moment may be too far to the overly positive side, I do not want it to swing into a dark direction that may be offputting to new and younger LEGO enthusiasts.

11 comments on “The LEGO community and the dark side of comments

  1. David Koudys

    Gather ’round you young ‘uns and let Gramps tell you ’bout LUGNET…
    If you wanted honest and unvarnished truth (or anyones opinion about, well, anything), you posted to LUGNET. It didn’t matter if you were new, old, a leader of the community, or even a rep from the LEGO company–you got honest feedback.
    I’ve stated as I can that since the exodus from LUGNET to a plethora of diverse and specified communities, many of those communities either tacitly or explicitly enforce a ‘happy happy/joy joy’ environment for presumably the preservation of ‘fragile egos’,and, moreover, the stroking of the admins’ egos–‘look how wonderfully happy our lego user group is!’ ‘look at the wonderful MOCs we post–we only post the best and most perfectly worthy of creations from our not-so-humble community’… LUGNET admins were mostly in the background–seldom seen, rarely heard, and people had the freedom to post whatever MOCs they wanted, and others had the freedom to critique as they felt.
    True growth comes from hearing the truth of what you did wrong and maybe, presumably, how you can make it right. My robot building ‘back in the day’ was directly improved by the posters on LUGNET. Yes there were harsh posts, yes some would deem some posts way past the pale. But there was freedom there to post such things, and everything else that you felt needed posting.
    I, for one, sorely miss LUGNET and the freedom to see exactly what was on the minds of the LEGO community at large. It showed the truth of our chosen hobby.

  2. b0neskull

    If more people knew how to give and receive constructive criticism, then there’d certainly be plenty more of it. It’s also important for builders to let others know that constructive criticism is (or is not) appreciated.

    But this is a good first step–admit we have a problem.

    Unfortunately, I don’t see something like this ever resolving itself organically on, say, Flickr. The community is too large, and the expectation of pure positivity is deep-seated.

    Idea: a site like Brothers Brick could take a page from GitHub.

    1. Accept submissions (which are public, and analogous to a “pull request”).
    2. The submissions would be critiqued by the owners, contributors, and community (a “code review”)
    3. MOCs are necessarily improved, and the submission updated until it meets community standards.

    There’d need to be a theme, though; it couldn’t just be “cool MOCs”. GitHub projects don’t just accept *any code that happens to be good*.

    Anyone want to help me build it?

  3. Purple Dave

    @David Koudys:

    Exactly. As I recall, LUGNET was very reserved in terms of banning users. Mostly, they cut off access to robospammers that managed to get in, but a bit of conflict and some heated arguments were known to happen. The place didn’t burn down, the planet didn’t crack in half, dogs didn’t get along with cats…

    But, yeah, constructive criticism is both constructive and criticism. The public may be amazed at the effort that goes into a display, but they rarely understand the craft involved. AFOLs often do. We owe each other more than endless strings of empty praise. If all I can come up with to say about your MOC is, “that’s cool”, I feel it’s no more worth saying than, “that sucks.” Neither actually amounts to much. If you really like it, point out specific details or techniques that got your attention. If you see things that could be improved, remember that criticism left unsaid is a lesson left unlearned. But it should be constructive. Suggest changes, techniques, and such. And don’t be offended if they disagree.

  4. Russ

    I think to me the best way to describe it is there are people here who are trying to further their art and those that just want to play with those who make art. the ones that just want to be associated with the artist are hard to distinguished from the former which makes it hard to give constructive feedback. if you just wanted to show what you could do next to the rock stars of your hobby do you really want to hear how glaringly obvious it is that you do not know what you are doing? not really thats not fun, which is not in the general nature of Lego.

    i think if there were more places that you could go where it was 100% obvious that if you put in you will get honest feed back, that is only constructive and not negative for negatives sake then there would be an over all improvement in the Art form of lego.

    some people want to feel like they are apart of the cool kids club and thats fine, and others want to gain a higher level of skill in their art form and that is something we should encourage. the trick is being transparent enough to not hurt the overall community.

    i am all for a dedicated panel of advanced artist that review and give positive constructive criticism. (hey this section is lacking, why not try this technique, this doesnt really fit with your overall theme, this section needs more focus, etc) however that happens would be great, the github idea sounds really cool!

  5. Michael

    My Flickr presence is pretty light as I don’t have a lot of time to build and less to photo edit and social network about it. I think a good starting place is for contest judges to write a little something, if you enter a contest. The Speeder Bike contest (ted @ndes) did that and gave some light but insightful critique (both pro and con) to the bikes I put together. I know on some contest this isn’t practical, but it would be a good place to start, as if you are entering a contest you are expecting to be judged.

  6. Purple Dave

    @Russ:

    I still agree that the overall atmosphere would benefit from change, not just select corners of the AFOL community. A handful of submitters receiving advice from a handful of “experts” is still going to leave the majority of the community in the same leaky boat they currently occupy. It might work well as a supplement to an environment where criticism is generally acceptable, but first the community needs to get to a place that’s somewhere between trolls and participation trophies.

  7. David M Pickett

    I’m all for constructive criticism, but I am honestly confused by the idea that public Flickr posts are a place people want or expect criticism. Flickr has always felt more like an art gallery than a creative workshop. Group discussions/contests on Flickr can be a place for criticism, but in general Flickr is geared toward posting/hosting photos, not deep discussion.

    When I need critical feedback on my LEGO builds in progress, I share it privately with builders I trust and get their opinion. Or I put it on YouTube and let the commenters point out flaws my build and then I fix those flaws in a later revision and recognize the commenters by including their comment in the video.

    I think one problem with MOC blogs (like this very fine one) is they they tend to only post about really amazing creations, which leaves very little room for anything other than praise. It’s more an act of curation than criticism. It’s very rare to focus on the failings of almost great MOCs. This was one thing I always appreciated about the now defunct Twee Affect, they took MOCs to task.

  8. Chris

    @David Pickett: I have a lot of thoughts on this topic that I’m not going to take the time to write up at this moment, but in response to your last point, I can give some perspective.

    As mentioned in the article above, there’s responsibility on both the part of the audience and the creator to open the dialog of constructive criticism. Many of us, myself included, feel that by publishing one’s own models on a place like Flickr among a community of fellow builders, a builder is inviting some level of scrutiny implicitly. But to avoid any confusion, a builder should also make their desire for feedback clear.

    A site like TBB is inherently different, since we are not the builders, and we’re not the audience in the same sense as commenters on flickr are. Instead, in our day-to-day posts our role is not to actively critique specific builders, but rather to shape the broader dialog through our choices of what (and what not) to present to our audience. Unlike, say, a film reviewer, we’re bringing our audience only the pre-vetted 4-star-rated hits.

    But the real key difference is that 99.9% of the builders we feature are not professionals. They’re hobbyists, and as such it’s fine for them to seek and receive feedback in personal venues such as flickr, but it’s inappropriate to publicly critique their work on an independent platform with a massive audience without their specific consent.

  9. kayakermanmike

    That’s funny because I found many years ago the mods of the Lego group on flickr were negative bullies in a lot of their interactions. As someone who works with students as they work to complete video projects for courses, I’m not confusing constructive criticism for being petty and mean, either.

    I ended up leaving the community because of it.

  10. David M Pickett

    @Chris Thanks for the thoughtful reply. I should have worded my comment differently. What I really meant is not that MOC blogs should suddenly start critiquing builds. You’re absolutely right that the purpose of MOC blogs is to highlight the best of the best.

    I am just yearning for more critical conversation in the LEGO community akin to film reviews. Where are the Roger Eberts of LEGO MOCs? A regular MOC blog might not be the right vehicle for such critics. I’m very fond of the work David Alexander Smith is doing at Building Debates and eagerly anticipating Roy Cook’s forthcoming book on Philosophy and LEGO. I’m curious if there are any other people doing that type of work though. As someone who spends more time reading think pieces about movies than watching movies, I am hungry for more LEGO criticism.

    I have to disagree with the hobbyist argument though. Anything released into the public sphere is fair game for cultural criticism. The boundaries between hobbyists and professional LEGO builders are also quite porous these days thanks to LEGO Ideas, No Starch Press, YouTube etc.

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