Reader complaints that taught me things

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By: Anthony EastonCC BY 2.0

As y’all know, with a readership as large as the Offbeat Empire’s, we get a fair number of reader complaints.

Last week, we got a couple different reader complaints that were super valid, and I wanted to take a minute to share what I learned.

First complaint: This post is privileged

I got an email last week from a reader named Etalia about this post that Megan wrote: Supporting marriage equality through language on the Offbeat Empire.

In that post, Megan was trying to convey how lucky she is that she works in an “offbeat bubble,” where stuff like gender-neutral and non-heteronormative language is the default.

Unfortunately, due to some word choices, she missed the mark a bit.

As Etalia pointed out:

Saying that the Offbeat Bride bubble is completely safe and inclusive is like saying racism does not exist either. I am Caucasian. I have racial privilege. I try very hard to examine this privilege and understand what it means to live a life of opportunity and relative ease solely because of my skin color. I live in a rather progressive city and work in the performing arts industry (arguably the most progressive and liberal of professions) but I would never say that it’s so wonderful to live in a bubble where racism and racial privilege do not exist. They always exist because they exist in the world we live in. Only privilege exists in a bubble.

If you don’t have to think about it, you are privileged. Privilege is not a bad word. It is a reminder.

(You can read more of Etalia’s thoughtful critique on her blog.)

This criticism was spot-on. While the point Megan was trying to make was valid, the way the post was framed inadvertently conveyed, “Since we use non-shitty language on Offbeat Bride, I get to forget how much people elsewhere suck!” Well, lots of folks don’t get to forget. Etalia and I traded several emails, and I let her know that Megan and I had worked together to revise, with language like:

I’m very proud that this non-gender-specific, all-encompassing love-acceptance has been normalized on the Offbeat Empire. It’s at times like these that it’s crucially important for me to remember that I work in an offbeat bubble. This is a huge privilege. I can’t let myself forget that people make shitty assumptions. I can’t let myself forget that queer and non-binary couples are still dealing with bigotry and bias every day. I can’t let myself forget that there’s still a huge amount of work to be done, and that the work I do with Offbeat Bride is just the beginning.

I also encouraged Etalia to submit a guestpost for Offbeat Bride, because she had some amazing perspectives to share — perspectives I want more of on the site. This exchange was a great example of reader complaints being awesome: a reader got heard, Megan and I got to shift our thinking, an old post got improved, and maybe we’ll even get a great guestpost out of it. Yay!

Second complaint: this post excludes People of Color

On Twitter, someone mocked a post I wrote about dreadlocks in 2008 for only featuring only a few people of color. I hadn’t looked at that post in six years, and I barely even remembered writing it. Clicking through, I was immediately like, “Oh, fuck me. This is a terrible post.

When I wrote the post way back when, I knew that the Offbeat Bride Tribe member asking the question was white, so I catered my answer mostly to white girl dreadlocks. That wasn’t explained in the post, however, and even if it had been? Honestly, it’s fucked up to have a post titled “How to style your dreads on your wedding day” feature mostly women with finely-textured hair.

I responded to the tweets, agreeing that the post was terrible and would be updated it to better reflect the amazing styles we’ve featured in Offbeat Bride’s natural hair archives.

Interestingly, the folks who’d complained seemed irritated by the fact that I responded. They hadn’t @replied Offbeat Bride — they were doing what’s known as “subtweeting” — and made it very clear that they didn’t want to talk to me, or hear my response to their critique. My twitter account was blocked, and there was an extensive subtweeted thread about how much people hate it when brands respond to tweets about them.

I wondered to myself, “…But don’t people want to know when their criticism is taken seriously, and changes are made based on that feedback?” and then the answer is clearly “No, not when you’re not invited into the discussion.” Duly noted!

I still consider this exchange a success: a really poorly-written old post was updated based on valid feedback, and I learned a valuable lesson about not interjecting myself into conversations where my presence hasn’t been requested. I’m not being facetious here: there are entire corners of the internet dedicated to dissecting bloggers, and the folks enjoying those corners of the internet generally do not want the bloggers being dissected to show up and get involved in the discussion. I respect that line.

Y’all know that if you ever want to talk to me directly with concerns about any of the sites, you can always get in touch with me via Offbeat Empire. I love hearing from readers, even (or maybe especially?) when we don’t agree.

Comments on Reader complaints that taught me things

  1. And I find the practice of subtweeting publicly in a setting that is searchable and yet actively being annoyed by a response confusing but also fascinating. It speaks to new concepts of boundaries and privacies that expect functioning like behaviour in elevators in a forum that is actively used by those who specifically have a model for not behaving that way (i.e. brands, companies, famous personalities). Makes me want to find out why they choose Twitter as a mode of conversation, whether there was some intent to publicly exclude or snub, whether it was a way of critiquing something bigger and they just were not interested in being sidetracked, if there was an assumption that the offer of change was false…. Ah, interwebz. You are so neat for studying behaviour!

      • What does this even mean?!?
        If it specifically applies to you in a public setting, and you find it, who gets to say when or how you can respond?!
        That’s like going to a restaurant, and sitting down.
        All of a sudden you hear: “And that Ariel Meadow- who does she think she is?! Telling me how to style my dreads for my wedding, and not even capturing me and my racial profile! THe Nerve!”

        But you *are* Ariel Meadows.
        And you know that’s not what you meant, and your “brand” *is* you.
        So you go up to the table, and say “Hi! *shake hands*I’m Ariel Meadow, and you know what- you’re right! That sucks! I changed it. Yay!”
        And then they call you a petty shitlord for interrupting the conversation ABOUT YOU.
        Bunch of crap.

        • While no one likes being called a petty shitlord, I think the general sentiment is that we should all have better things to do than hang out on the internet, looking for people talking about us, and trying to change their minds.

          In my defense, I didn’t search for the conversation (my beloved Chartbeat automatically displays tweets that link to my websites) but I generally sympathize with the sentiment of “If we’d wanted to talk to you about this, we would have contacted you directly.”

          Sometimes folks just want to snark, and as long as it’s not on my websites (where we enforce our comment policies, so that offbeat community members can feel safe participating) it’s not my job to deny anyone a good snark — even one at my expense.

          • I guess that’s an understandable bit of ignorance. If you don’t do social media marketing, you might not know that lots of brands have software that notifies them whenever someone tweets about them. They’re not sitting there searching yourself every ten minutes (which would in fact be petty shitlordery).

          • Great point, Claire. Thank goodness my social media tools take care of the petty shitlord grunt work for me. 😛 Back in the old days, you did indeed have to search for yourself to be a petty shitlord. Now, the algorithms do it for me.

            *high fives chartbeat*

      • I’ve heard of people reacting like that even if they do @ mention someone.

        On the flip side, VIA rail noticed that I’d tweeted about them, and contacted me to ask how they could fix the problem (vegan breakfast with no protein). I thought it was awesome.

        It has a lot more to do with who’s being contacted than with anything else.

    • To be honest, and at the risk of being a bit harsh… I think sometimes people just like to be angry. They don’t want to hear that you’re fixing what they’re complaining about, because then they can’t be as mad at you anymore, and might feel like assholes for being so rude as to talk about you in front of your back (that phrase was actually a mistake but kind of perfectly expresses what I was aiming for- they want to talk behind your back, but they’re doing it where you can easily see it) instead of actually bringing the concern up with you.

      It doesn’t mean that what they’re complaining about isn’t valid, but frankly I think outrage is a hobby for some people, and if you make it difficult for them to thoroughly villainize the big-bad-wrong-evil-bloggers (or brands, or people, or whatever) it becomes uncomfortable.

      I get it, in some ways- sometimes I just want to vent without starting a whole big thing. But if I’m going to do that, I do that in a *private* space. It’s just ridiculous to think brands aren’t listening to you on twitter, and even more ridiculous to get pissy that they’re actually agreeing with you and changing things.

        • Yup, this is one of the rare instances that I actually disagree with my darling Ariel. I TOTALLY think that if you’re bitching about a company or a person in a public space, you have no ground to be upset about being addressed by said company/person. If you really wanted the privacy in which to vent, you’d do so… privately.

  2. I just need to say that I’m in love with the fact that you take criticism in graceful strides, and that you actually listen!

    I know there are plenty of people who would have shrugged it off by, “Well it’s an old post, get over it.” Not trying to say they are all bad bloggers, but I believe that if you love your work, you’d want to improve where you can.

    It’s like when I write and post fan fiction – I truly appreciate and ask for constructive criticism, and when something valid is brought up, I go back and try my best to correct it. I can honestly say I feel comfortable in this site, not just for the great content, but for the fact that the mods are fairly easy going and open to ideas.

    Also, I’m not sure I’ll ever understand the ins and outs of all corners of social networking.

  3. One thing that I’ve consistently said that I love about the Offbeat Empire is how accessible the staff are. It feels really personal and like you absolutely listen to feedback both good and bad, and really value your readers at the same time as sticking to your own ethical guidelines.

    I give you kudos for respectfully bowing out of discussions you feel you are not invited to – but man, that makes me angry. I think people have to be more aware of how public the internet is, and they have to be ready for the person they’re commenting about to hear it.

    It’s a bit like a post a while ago on being careful when reviewing vendors on public forums. For me, it feels like the internet gives people an emotional distance that they take for granted, and people need to realise that it’s like dissing a colleague in the lunchroom while they’re PRESENT and then telling them to butt out when they try to defend themselves. Not okay, guys!

    As ever, Ariel, I so appreciate the hard work, heart and thoughtfulness you and your staff put into everything you do.

  4. I really enjoy these kinds of posts. I admire how you & the Offbeat staff hold yourselves accountable to the content you create and maintain. I enjoy seeing the ways you participate in (and model!) lifelong human development and work on cultural competencies. This is a difficult and vulnerable place to work from and you all handle it with grace. Thank you for your leadership and awareness.

    • Thank you for this, although I will say that it’s a constantly shifting process and one that I’ll never feel like we’re doing totally “right.”

      There was a time a couple years ago when I felt overwhelmed by the number (and nature) of reader complaints that were coming in. I felt like I needed to draw a line in the sand because we got almost daily emails from people complaining that something we’d written didn’t exactly acknowledge their specific situation, or tastes in language.

      Two years ago, it felt important to take a stand for our ability to make editorial decisions, and say “Hey, please let us know when you think we’ve made a mistake — but understand that we’re not always going to agree.” I pushed back a bit, writing posts like this one and this one.

      I think it was important to draw those boundaries at that time, and to say “You guys, we’re doing our best here, but just because we disagree that a certain word is possibly problematic, doesn’t mean you need to treat us like hateful assholes.” (Because that was what the conversations came down to, sometimes.)

      Two years later… thankfully, the number of the reader complaint emails have gone down from almost daily to monthly. Maybe that’s because I drew that line, or (more likely) maybe online trends are shifting. I don’t know, but I’m pretty sure it’s not because we make less mistakes.

      These days, “petty shitlord” accusations aside, I will say the majority of reader complaints we get are thoughtful and articulate. We don’t *always* make changes based on the feedback — someone flagged the term “nitty gritty” as having a possibly problematic historical background, and after doing some reading, my editors chose to continue using the phrase (for now). But thankfully the dynamic of reader complaints has shifted so that it feels like our readers are less in “semantics scolding” GOTCHA attack mode, and more in “Hey, can we talk about this?” mode.

      (Note that I said this is how it feels to me — for all I know, two years later I’m just in a different headspace and am better at handling complaints. That’s a possibility too.)

  5. Lately, I have been tearing up with joy from the OE posts. It’s like a fresh-picked sanity daisy in my inbox. After swimming through a river of bullshit all week. This is officially my favorite business blog. Thank you Ariel.

  6. So I haven’t commented in a long while, but this one struck a chord in me (ok, ok, so these types of posts usually strike a cord with me). I really love the thoughtfulness the editors/Ariel/Offbeat Empire People make to be inclusive, and the willingness to think about different perspectives. The bubble of privilege is something I discuss with my LGBT friends that are white frequently, as it’s sometimes hard for them to see how they still benefit from a structure that ultimately, they are still enmeshed in (loath as it may be, you can’t “see the gay” in people, but my skin color sure is damn noticeable from just about any distance, no matter how far-sighted the racist is).

    HOWEVER- with reflection, most of us benefit from privilege of some sort- racial, class, geographic area, etc. Keeping it in mind is always a great thing, because it helps us identify ways we can increase equality and acceptance for all of us. I really get all types of warm fuzzy feelings that y’all took the time to address it.

    As to the people of color comment- I have LOVED watching the number of posts and pictures that include people of different shades and hues increase through the years I’ve been reading Offbeat Bride/Families/Home/Empire.

    I do wonder if the subtweets that resulted were from the feeling that Ariel’s comments were insincere? I only say this, because having pointed it out on other sites (and even places where I work), sometimes the changes can feel superficial- like it’s pandering to being called out- and you just know in your heart, they’ll make maybe one or two picture changes and some half hearted gestures, but nothing will really change. You get a little bitter and fatigued quickly. Very, very effing quickly.

    If they don’t know Offbeat Empire, and don’t know that the staff is truly dedicated to being inclusive and have been really working on being more inclusive (especially with remembering the fact that you can only post from the submissions you get)…I can sorta understand them doing the online version of rolling their eyes. Sorta.

    But I can honestly say that I have loved watching the sites get more inclusive. These sites are still my happy place…especially as the years go on and I see more posts that I feel are inclusive of me and people that look like me (those natural hair posts are STILL my fav posts on Offbeat Bride-including the profile of my own wedding lol).

    So this a long winded way of saying…haters gon’ hate, yo. Y’all are thoughtful and inclusive, and it’s awesome how thoughtful the staff is to being as inclusive, responsive and thoughtful as possible.

    • You know, I do think that most companies who reply to twitter always have this air of insincerity to them, like they’re trying so hard to be polite that they ironed all the human out of their responses. On the other hand, I once emailed OBE about a particularly obnoxious pop-up ad I was getting, and the response email was along the lines of “EWWWW!! IT’S HIDEOUS!!!!”

      If I had one word to sum up Ariel’s reaction to that ad, “insincere” would be at the bottom of the list. I don’t know the exact tweet in this case, but I’d assume this is just a hater’s gonna hate thing.

  7. Interesting that I read this immediately after reading Slate’s article on polls showing that Millennials (I hate to use that generalization but here I go) believe the solutions to problems of inequality are largely based in erasing the structure of that inequality from their frame of reference.

    For example, if people stopped talking about race altogether, we could all get along. Of course there are so many things that are wrong with this, the first being the difficulty in seeing your own privilege. But further than that, you rob people of their cultural or historical inheritance, which even if it is a painful inheritance, is often a huge part of a person’s identity and the way they relate to their past.

    To live in a bubble can be very silencing to people suffering from the elements you’d like to change. I know this in part because I have effectively built some strong bubbles in my life, and when I come out of them I am always ashamed of how I lost the visceral connection to what others are going through.

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