It’s not easy being a critic

This chapter deals with the harsh realities of being a critic, officially or not.

In the army, I earned several nicknames. “King Kong” for being beefy right out of dragonboat training the year before. “Lt. Smallbutt” for having a skinny derriere under the King Kong torso. And “Complain King”, a less glamorous, but probably more apt nick for me.

Now I’m not making any excuses for being a guy who likes to point out what’s wrong with stuff. I only do so because I think something could be better, and not simply because I like to criticize and make myself feel better about myself. I’m sure you’ve met other people who feel a need to criticize simply as an ego booster.

I believe my penchant for pointing out issues is somewhat genetic too, as my mum was like that, and my daughter takes every opportunity to pour out her woes over the smallest things.

Is being critical a good thing though? Like many things in life, the answer is : “It depends”.

The bigger challenge comes when you become a critic as part of your job scope.

From 2003 to 2007, I had the opportunity to do tech journalism and along came the chance to review almost any consumer gadget on the market. To many guys, this is a dream job, and I must admit it was pretty spiffy. All the toys in the world and you could not only test them out, you could have an opinion on them and actually tell the world about it!

What a great way to become an “opinion leader”! Or more commonly known today as an “influencer”.

Well, reality soon came crashing down when I had to review terrible products.

There was this MP3 player made by a European MNC, and try as they might (even today, for the record), they couldn’t design a player that was suited for consumers’ needs. It was obviously the brainchild of some graphic designer or engineer, created to suit their bosses’ demands and not the market. It baffles me why they continue to create products that nobody would buy.

In my review of this product, I wrote something along the lines that “this product has amnesia. Whenever you switch it on, it forgets the last song that was played previously and always jumps back to the first song in the playlist.”.

Almost immediately after the article was published, the vendor sent angry emails to our ad sales department who in turn gave the feedback to my boss.

They were upset that I had not only pointed out a “minor flaw” in their new product, I had decided to personify it and give it a dreaded human condition.

To his credit, my editor gave a really balanced rebuff to the advertiser: “This is just one review and there are many publications out there. Why not give the product to other publications to review and see what they think about it? Don’t let one review from us be the final word.”

Honestly, I don’t know if they took his advice.

Then there was another series of poorly designed handphones that was slammed by my colleague in another article and what we heard later was that the resellers refused to carry the product as a result. Oh the power of print media!

Now at that time, I thought that we were doing the right thing.

After all, is it not the right of the media to give an objective opinion on all things, be it an event or product? From our perspective, it was the moral high ground and we were happy to stand on it. It felt good to pass judgement, even on an unfeeling piece of plastic and wires.

But after a few more run-ins with advertisers, I found that we were on the verge of pissing off every vendor in town and endangering our fledgling tech section. Who would pass you the latest gadgets for review if they feared being scrutinized “objectively”?

Of course, I refused to go down the route of many publications, which will give you coverage, or even a favorable review if you were constantly advertising with them.

There was one publication that gave out so many Gold and Platinum awards, these accolades become worthless like WWII banana notes after several years, when every vendor realized they were getting the same plaques. As if they didn’t see that coming.

I can understand the need for these publications to placate advertisers and secure revenue, but because they ran their publications like a business, they gave little emphasis for the credibility that good journalism desperately needs. So even though they had earnest writers in their ranks who wrote objective pieces, there wasn’t much respect to be earned.

That’s why today, you don’t see many talented people aspiring to be technology writers – the money isn’t fantastic and you’re often caught between the advertiser and your ad sales people.

But back to my problem at my tech section.

I hit upon a simple solution, and it was workable only because we didn’t have many pages for tech each week.

Simply review only the good products, and return any crap gadgets to the vendor.

Naturally this thrilled the ad sales department and the advertisers. The revenue for special tech projects soon came rolling in and all was good. But internally, I wasn’t that happy because my tech section was too “feel-good”, and all cynical journos know that it’s bad news that sells (sadly).

Nevertheless, I let it be because this was the path of least destruction for all parties involved.

But even then, by the end of 2007 when I left journalism, it dawned upon me that I really wasn’t fit to be a product reviewer. And upon joining Microsoft to do PR for the same products I used to critique, the message really hit home.


Anton Ego’s quote

This turnaround happened when I watched the wonderful, if somewhat draggy, Pixar animated movie called Ratatouille.

In the final climatic scene, both human and rodent protagonists had to prove their culinary worth to the world’s toughest food critic, a sour old man called Anton Ego. Their cover was blown and Anton was stunned to find out the food he had swooned over was actually dished out by a pantry of rats.

Everyone thought Anton was about to tell the world the truth, but instead, he wrote an editorial that attacked his very position as a critic:

“In many ways, the work of a critic is easy. We risk very little yet enjoy a position over those who offer up their work and their selves to our judgment. We thrive on negative criticism, which is fun to write and to read. But the bitter truth we critics must face is that, in the grand scheme of things, the average piece of junk is more meaningful than our criticism designating it so. But there are times when a critic truly risks something, and that is in the discovery and defense of the new.”

When I heard these lines for the first time, my heart sank.

The moral high ground that I had undertaken upon myself as a critic was nothing more than petty self-justification.

As someone who had no stake in the creation, marketing or distribution of the product, who was I to judge whether a product was great or rubbish? How could I bear the pain of a product manager who just saw his product die on the shelves just because of a few snarky paragraphs?

Yes, as a consumer, I have all the rights to judge a product before I buy it, but what does a journalist know about bringing a product to market amid intense competition? What gives him the right to evaluate a product for the masses?

And when I joined Microsoft as a PR guy, I saw for myself how it easy it was for the media or consumers to criticize your products and services, regardless of how much work we might have put into improving or marketing them.

But having come from the other side of the fence and remembering the words of Anton Ego, I never took offence whenever we had a negative media review, unless it was based on unsound facts (which was rare, thankfully).

So today, I read all reviews (products, movies, food etc) with a mixed cocktail of feelings.

Does this writer have the necessary experience to evaluate this product? Is he aware of the context of how the product was produced? Why should I believe his review? Is he or the editorial impacted by advertising pressures? What does he really think of the product?

It gets to the point where I no longer enjoy reading reviews, because I often spend too much time pondering on the actual value of the writing.

There are too many reviewers today, both offline and online, who want to prove their worth to any reader. Many bloggers seem to think that writing a preview or review of something is enough to earn them stature in the online world (but that’s another chapter).

This doesn’t mean all reviews are not worth reading, because there are does who review stuff with absolute passion and credibility.

There’s Makansutra founder KF Seetoh, whose love for great food bubbles out of every pore. There’s Edge Magazine from UK, the absolute last word in all gaming reviews. There’s Chris Tan from ST who does some of the best motoring articles in the region (I got to meet him recently and asked him what his favorite car was. He said “None.”)

I haven’t lost my faith in reviews, but I don’t think I can ever write one again. At least for a living.

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