Reviews: it’s the middle ones that matter

Whether you’re selling ebooks or giving away MP3s, designing T-shirts or creating iPhone apps, if you’re creating something for public consumption then sooner or later somebody’s going to criticise it.

How you feel about that will depend on the mood you’re in at the time, the way it’s expressed and the critic’s grip on reality — iOS app reviewers in particular often appear to come from different, more stupid planets — and even the nicest criticism can sometimes feel as if somebody’s ripped your heart from your chest and stomped on it as you stand there jetting blood – but it’s important to separate the reviews that matter from the ones that don’t.

As a rule of thumb, if the review’s at either end of the scale — if it’s one star out of five, or five stars out of five — then the review doesn’t matter. As nice as they are, five star reviews often mean that the reviewer knows you and likes you, or quite liked the thing you did and wanted to give you a big thumbs up. Similarly if it’s a one-star review, the reviewer may have decided in advance to hate what you’re doing, and only paid attention to it to confirm the initial prejudice and give you a good shoeing.

Sometimes — I’ve been guilty of this — the score is pushed in one direction or another because nobody reads or cares about two and a half star reviews, so you try and entertain with fulsome praise or a devastating slagging. I once wrote that Feeder were the best live band in Britain when what I really meant was that of all the British bands I’d seen that week, a list that began and ended with “Feeder”, Feeder were definitely the best.

The ones that do matter are the ones that say “but”. This looks good, but. The story is believable, but. The drum track is amazing, but. That’s criticism you can use. You might not agree with it — your response to it may well be “You BASTARD! How dare you suggest that my description of thirteenth-century dentistry was irrelevant to the wider narrative! I am AWESOME!” — but if you choose to pay attention to it, it can be a really big help.