I have opinions. I state those opinions. Not everybody likes my opinions. And sometimes it’s not just a matter of opinion, but also of tone and approach. Criticism can be a useful tool or it can be an angry attack. Figuring out which is which isn’t always easy while you’re doing it.
Why Be Controversial?
When I started writing here, I had only just started as Assistant Professor at UNC Charlotte. It’s not a common thing for an academic to loudly voice opinions in public, especially one who wants to eventually get tenured (good thing I had no clue what others thought you were supposed to do to get tenure!). It still isn’t. That’s why nobody in academia blogs.
But I’ve always felt that it’s part and parcel of being an academic (in spirit, if not by employment anymore) to be visible and have opinions. That’s a bizarre thing to say when you consider that in the past, university professors were considered intellectuals. Whatever happened to that?
When I voice opinions, I also find that people agree. Not always, but more often than I sometimes expect. When I wrote about the sad state of paper writing software, people agreed. My review of Tufte’s one-day course still gets comments occasionally, four years later.
People have opinions, and as researchers ours tend to be the more informed ones (as long as we stick to our fields of expertise, of course). Such opinions are valuable. We could benefit tremendously from more academics and otherwise smart people making their voices heard.
I already mentioned this yesterday, but my posting on the informative art paper didn’t go over so well initially. It was a fairly strong piece of criticism, in part because of my concise and clever title. A longer title would have had room for more nuance.
What’s interesting though is that when I later emailed Lars Erik Holmquist, one of the authors of the criticized paper, he was open to working on a visualization viewpoints piece with me. That’s clearly not my achievement, but I think good illustration that initially negative sentiment can lead to constructive outcomes (and also that time heals all wounds).
I followed Many Eyes very closely from the very beginning. In fact, I wrote about them almost the moment the project was publicly launched. Part of this was that I thought it was a really interesting project with huge potential, and part was that I had had a similar idea for this website before realizing that I just could not actually do that by myself and instead turned it into a blog.
In 2012, I started scraping data from Many Eyes because I was interested in what kinds of visualizations people were building there. In the process, I found some interesting things about what people were doing on the site and how usage was apparently declining. I also had not been paying attention for a while and was surprised to see that almost none of the original people were still there. That is a big deal for a project started by two people who are as accomplished and well-known in the field as Fernanda Viégas and Martin Wattenberg.
The resulting blog posting was not received well. I had just started my sabbatical at Tableau, and didn’t realize that people would immediately accuse me of being a corporate shill. I didn’t help matters by briefly claiming that IBM and Tableau weren’t really competitors, which was clearly not true (but also something I had not in any way seen, so I was really naive about this).
This was pretty unpleasant at the time, but it led to some good conversations over the following few months, and I think I ended up talking to almost all the people who were unhappy with it. I also heard through the grapevine that my posting had hastened some changes.
In the end, I think my main mistake was thinking that Many Eyes was some sort of product. IBM clearly considered it an experiment, but I don’t think that was clear to most of its users. So when it languished and eventually disappeared, that wasn’t just the end of an experiment but the disappearance of something that many people used and had expected to be available indefinitely.
Fry’s Sick Chart
One of the fiercer pieces of criticism I’ve written was of a piece Ben Fry and his studio Seed Media created for GE Health. Despite appearances, I don’t get angry at things easily. But this thing just rubbed me the wrong way. I wrote a long critique not just of the piece but also of GE and Fry. Many people agreed with my general points, but also found the tone rather destructive. I then grabbed the data from the piece and did some analysis of my own – not quite a redesign, but a different look at the data.
Looking back, the direct attack on Fry was clearly uncalled for. For some reason, I was really disappointed to see somebody like him build what seemed silly and frivolous, and felt like he was obfuscating the actual data. A better approach than my posting would have been to stick to the criticism of the piece, but cut the overly direct personal attacks. It would still have been strong criticism, but without the destructive elements.
Things I’ve Learned
The visualization community has a reputation of being dogmatic and unfriendly, and I haven’t always helped change that. I don’t think that controversy is a bad thing – quite the opposite. It’s important to keep asking questions and have clear points of view. The key though is to not go after people, but keep the criticism focused on the work or the topic. This is something I’ve also realized more lately as I’ve seen other people do it, and do it wrong.
This is a matter of degree though, too. To finish the thought about academics not speaking their minds above: having a clear position and talking about things in public is important. Most people currently err on the side of caution. I’ve sometimes erred on the side of being too loud and to aggressive. The right approach is somewhere between those, not on either end.