Constructed Criticism: Just Hit 'Send' on Those Helpful Insults

On NiceCritic.com, a cache of messages that are less than complimentary.
On NiceCritic.com, a cache of messages that are less than complimentary. (NiceCritic.com)

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By Laura Yao
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, August 15, 2008

A couple of months ago, my friend was walking down the street when a raggedly dressed man coming toward her stopped, circled around and tapped her on the shoulder.

"Yes?" she inquired.

"You got a big butt and an ugly face!" he said. Message delivered, he turned and wandered off.

Unlike Raggedy Man, many of us are reluctant to offer criticism face to face. So for those of us who don't have the "courage" to personally warn neighbors and co-workers of their flaws, there's NiceCritic.com.

NiceCritic has a cache of pre-written messages that can be sent to your target with the click of a mouse. And, good news for those who are judgmental but timid -- it's anonymous. Messages are sorted into categories such as "Personal Hygiene" and "Neighborly Suggestion." There's also an "Anonymous Praise" category. (The site only addresses problems with quick fixes, though -- like stained pants or bad breath -- so issues of butt size and attractiveness will still have to be dealt with in person.)

The messages are courteous -- in the language a British butler would use, the site's founder Erik Riesenberg says -- to dull the embarrassment that the recipient no doubt feels.

Such as: "Please do not remove your shoes. Your feet tend to give off an aroma."

And: "Please refrain from slapping people's buttocks."

Riesenberg, a 38-year-old from Weehawken, N.J., was inspired when a friend told him, "You could really use a trim of the nose hair." The encounter left the woman more embarrassed than he was. "I had this idea that there's got to be a better way to facilitate that kind of communication," Riesenberg says.

But on the Internet, any dialogue can quickly sour. Despite Riesenberg's good intentions, what he's created is, in essence, a stockpile of politely worded insults. As Peter Post -- grandson of the great Emily -- puts it, "How would you feel if you got one of these in your inbox?"

One academic study has shown that people correctly interpret the intended tone of an e-mail only about 50 percent of the time. Justin Kruger, a professor of marketing at New York University who co-authored the study in 2006, says NiceCritic is a bit like teasing. "Good intentions are often much less obvious to the other person than the teaser thinks," Kruger says. "Even well-meaning individuals can be expected to have their well-meaning attempts go awry."

Teasing can also be passive-aggressive behavior. The polite tone of NiceCritic, Kruger says, "makes us feel better but doesn't exonerate negative content as much as the people on the other end think it ought to."

Riesenberg thinks that not allowing readers to compose their own messages will prevent flaming. "There have been other sites like this but that let you write in messages," Riesenberg says. "It usually turns into something negative; people use vulgarity or profanity."

It's unlikely that flame wars will ever start over NiceCritic, because if you're insulted, you won't necessarily know whom to insult back. But the anonymity might lead to a lot of low blows.

"Anonymity leads to deviant, socially irresponsible behavior," Kruger says, for the obvious reason that if your comment can't be traced, there are no checks on what you can say.

Riesenberg, in a slew of caveats in the site's About section, urges users to keep the recipient's feelings in mind. "This site is NOT meant to make anyone feel uncomfortable," the site reads.

Still, there's one thing that can be said for taking the easy way out, and that thing is: People love it. Launched in early July, NiceCritic has drawn more than 100,000 visitors. Riesenberg estimates that about 80 percent of them actually send messages. He's not making any profit from advertisements on the site yet, but says he's been approached by a few literary agents to write a book on constructive criticism and the lure of anonymity.


© 2008 The Washington Post Company

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