I once heard Pete Holmes describe art as "highly sensitive people reporting back to the rest of the group what reality is like for them."
All creators are artists (whether you're comfortable accepting that label or not). So, chances are, you're more sensitive than most.
That means negative feedback hurts. It feels like a personal attack – especially in the beginning!
When you're met with negative feedback, your fight or flight kicks in. You may jump into the comments to destroy the trolls, or maybe you close your laptop and curl up into a ball.
But whether or not you go into "fight" mode at the moment, many creators have a delayed, second reaction to negative feedback: they soften their work.
And this starts a slow march towards irrelevance.
Where negative feedback comes from
First, you have to understand where negative feedback comes from. And I'm talking about negative feedback on the work itself – not baseless, personal attacks (which do happen and also hurt).
Negative feedback comes from disagreement. When you express a belief that is directly opposed to MY beliefs, I might have a negative emotional reaction. The more strongly I identify with my beliefs, the more likely I am to defend them (and therefore defend myself).
You may not want to upset anyone! So, to prevent future negative feedback, you become less opinionated. You don't share your true beliefs. You stop taking stances. You take the middle ground whenever possible. You generally get much softer with your language.
All those sharp edges that made your work interesting? You polish them down.
This will have the desired effect – you will get less negative feedback.
But you've started to cultivate a much worse reaction: indifference.
Content and emotional responses
Think about the spectrum of emotional reactions someone could have to your content. The spectrum moves between strongly negative reactions to strongly positive reactions.
Our instinct is to believe the magic happens when you have a strong, POSITIVE response to your content. The more positive the reaction, the higher the engagement.
Well, strong positive reactions are absolutely a good thing. The fastest growth comes from high levels of sharing – and that often happens when you create something people resonate with so strongly that they have to share it – as a way of expressing themselves.
But here's what most creators miss: you can't have strong positive reactions without creating the potential for strong negative reactions too.
It's NOT an exponential curve where only positive reactions spread, it's a U-shaped curve. Wherever there is strong agreement, there will be strong disagreement.
Love and hate aren't as far apart as they seem – they both stem from passion. When someone is strongly opposed to something you do or say, it's because they have a strong positive reaction to the opposite.
Early on when I was writing my newsletter, a reader unsubscribed and left me a LONG note about how disappointed he was in something I had written. He misunderstood me, so I sent him a personal note. I apologized, explained my intent, and he did a complete 180. He resubscribed and became one of my biggest supporters.
Sometimes, strong negative reactions are a conversation away from a strong positive relationship.
Negative feedback isn't the enemy – indifference is the enemy.
Indifference is death
Indifference is in the middle of the emotional spectrum – the absolute bottom of the engagement curve.
We are indifferent to things that we see as universally true or inconsequential.
You don't need to convince anyone that the sky is blue or that gravity exists – that's universally accepted. If you try to build a platform on something no one is talking about or struggling with, you will fall flat.
Indifference doesn't warrant a response.
No response to your content is a death sentence. No response is a signal that people don't care, and if people don't care, there won't be conversation. No attention and no conversation makes the content useless to the individual, the creator, and the algorithm.
Contrast that with content that even receives a lot of negative responses – that's still creating conversation!
Beware audience capture
Some people will read this and conclude that optimizing for negative feedback is a smart strategy.
And yes, we've all seen that playing into outrage can get a lot of engagement.
But creating controversy and fueling anger is not something I recommend. First and foremost, it's a disservice to society.
Second, as a creator, you need to defend against audience capture.
Audience capture is the tension between your audience's beliefs and ideals and your own. It's a downward spiral of building an audience who project a certain image on YOU, while your self-image becomes increasingly out of alignment with that.
Let me give you an extreme example. In politics, candidates find that the more they lean into extreme stances, the more engagement their content receives. The more engagement their content receives, the more followers they gain. The more followers they gain, the more influence they have.
But look closer at that chain of events.
By sharing an extreme opinion, that will be shared by people with strong agreement and strong disagreement. Those with strong agreement will choose to follow. As time passes, a larger and larger percentage of the audience is made up of people with this very extreme opinion.
Now, how do we keep that audience's interest in our content? Easy – by sharing more of that extreme opinion. Otherwise, they'll be indifferent and the content will die.
As time passes, the ONLY way to continue to get attention to your ideas is to lean into the strong opinions you built the audience on. And if your beliefs change, that audience will either ignore or even turn on you.
On a smaller scale, this is what makes pivoting so difficult. You depend on the support of your audience to start the spread of your ideas. But if you start sharing ideas your audience is indifferent to, there is no spread – only death.
Tying it all together
Negative feedback feels like a negative signal – but it's actually positive.
Negative feedback signals the potential for strong agreement as much as it does the existence of strong disagreement.
When you try to neutralize negative feedback, you will also neutralize positive feedback and cultivate indifference to your work.
Indifference doesn't serve anyone – you, your audience, or the platforms themselves. As a result, indifference leads to the swift death of your content.
Resist the temptation to optimize for strong negative responses. Though it may feel easier than optimizing for strong positive responses, it can quickly turn into audience capture. This isn't just a threat to your work, it's a threat to your emotional well-being.
Create work that people can see themselves in.
Negative feedback will come, and that is OK.