The hits just keep on coming constant reader, another brave soul has stepped forward from the crowd of paste-eating mankinder to let his voice be heard. The Manifesto is proud to present an article by noted TFOL Aaron Van Cleave, a.k.a A Plastic Infinity, a.k.a Lego Lemniscate, and I certainly hope it isn’t his last because he’s a far better writer than I am and he classes up the joint with his mere presence. You may remember Aaron for his bold use of color and odd choice of subject matter, from such popular creations such as Turaga Retei-atomn, Symbiote City, and Unidentified SHIP. Take it away Aaron!
When I first discovered this blog, one of the articles that really stood out to me was the first issue of Michael Rutherford’s Fire for Effect column: Unique is not Special. I’d encourage anyone who hasn’t read it to do so; my article is a sort of spiritual successor and you won’t get as much out of it without the conceptual basis Michael sets down. In essence, his article examines how the term “unique” being too closely associated with the term “special” has resulted in “a culture where CRITICAL FEEDBACK IS DISCOURAGED.” That’s a general observation that could be applicable to many different subcultures, but a salient point was that it includes FOL culture. That’s us!
At the risk of overvaluing Michael’s article, I need to point out that he tenaciously covered most of the nooks and crannies of his topic. Couple that with the thorough discussion by the Manifesto’s regular readers, and there doesn’t seem to be much left to say on the subject that wouldn’t be parroting someone else’s statements. If there’s something more to say, I certainly don’t know what it is.
So what am I even doing here, then?
Good question! This article is an exposé of sorts about a social experiment I’ve been running for a couple of months now and some of the interesting observations it has yielded. I use the term “social experiment” lightly because it’s really more of a satirical art hoax (I didn’t want to muck around in the Marianas Trench of social experimentation ethics, but this hoax was technically a social experiment. That makes it dangerous, even at such a small scale, because the medium through which it worked was people unconscious of their involvement. If you’ve interacted with my photostream in any way in the last two months or are already feeling offended, know this: I’ve taken all precautions to protect the privacy of anyone who was involved prior to the posting of this article, except Deus, who consented to publication of his remarks). This project was not intended to glean social data but rather to direct public attention to the important issue at hand: Critique. What better way to do so than provide MOCs that would be easy to critique?
Without further ado, here was my plan:
- Build a terrible build and post it in all seriousness
- Observe reactions
- Figure out how to make a worse build
- Repeat twice for a total of three bad builds
- Expose plan, explain issue
The initial objectives I set included:
- Crafting builds so poorly that onlookers would have trouble honestly responding positively
- Providing plenty of mistakes for prospective critiquers to point out
- Keeping things flexible; basing building decisions on how the previous MAC (My Awful Creation) had been received
Unlike an experiment, the general outcomes of my actions were quite predictable, barring a few surprises. I went into this expecting drastically reduced stats on all posted MACs. People are a lot less predictable on an individual level, but I had three hypothetical groups I expected any commentator to fall into:
- The Bold: Not buying it and quite vocal about letting me know.
- The Brash: Confidently or confusedly buying it; convinced it’s actually good.
- The Beautiful: Probably not buying it, but not letting on. Not necessarily uncritical (whether a comment was Brash or Beautiful could only be guessed at, but comments’ tonal quality provided a reasonable basis for making the determination).
Enough speculation. Here is what actually happened, what I learned, and why it’s of concern to YOU as an FOL.
For my first MAC, I settled on a working title of “this is a test” fitted to a diorama of a scientist in a laboratory. The test was, “How bad do I have to build before people start bashing me?” I love double entendres!
The building process was surreal and brief, though not as brief as the finished product might suggest. I’m tempted to say it took less than an hour and a half, but it might have been closer to two hours.
Fun fact: It actually takes longer to think about what would look good, then determine the polar opposite, than it does to intuitively determine what looks good during the building process. DOING the good building, of course, almost always takes more time (case in point: the angled panels that form the backdrop of this build would look much better if they were level and tiled, but it takes longer to make a stable framework for that and put down all the tiles). Fundamentally, bad building will almost always take less physical effort, but it often takes a great deal more mental effort.
So what was the product of all that effort? How was the MAC received?
Raw numbers first! Since being posted over two months ago, it has accumulated 95 favorites, 14 comments, and over 5,900 views. For reference, my builds generally average 150, 25, and 12,000, respectively, placing This is a test on the low end of the spectrum. However, that’s a large disparity, and an easy one to judge from. Later on we’ll be dealing with much closer numbers, so it will prove useful to determine which of the three values-favorites, comments, or views-gives the best indication of the subject quality. Is it comments? Nah, they can express disapproval, or any number of other things. Views? Nope, the number of people who viewed something gives no indication of their feelings toward the object viewed. By elimination, favorites are the heaviest factor. This makes sense, as they are synonymous with “Likes” and are bestowed solely as a token of approval. Judging solely by them, a reduction from an average of 150 to 95 favorites is no 50% dive but pretty steep nonetheless!
To someone who averages lower, that’s still pretty darn good and probably seems pretty darn unfair, too. Ninety-five is pushing 100, and almost 6,000 people had their eyes assaulted by my skinny triangle scientist! As you can guess, that’s just a result of me being a five-year builder with a decent amount of seniority. If someone far older and more established like Tyler Clites or Nannan Zhang had done this instead of me, their results would be better than I could have gotten if I’d built at my best. The de facto power of following and reputation; something that always needs to be calibrated for.
Moving on to the subjective, let’s take a look at those 14 comments. The non-qualitative words “interesting” and “creepy” were used most often, along with “innovative,” “weird,” “crazy,” and “unsettling.” Skirting around the quality of the build with Beautiful comments was definitely the most socially appropriate thing to do, but there were two or three others who expressed varying levels of criticism, from tentative implication to polite directness. Then there’s Bold Deus Otiosus, who totally passed the test with uncommon brutality: “I thought you said you have higher standard. [sic]” For the record, he didn’t know what I was doing, but he does know me personally to a certain extent. You can always count on a friend to point out your flaws!
Having considered all that feedback at the time, I decided it was time to take things to…
The building process for this horrifying Mario was incredibly swift; only about 45 minutes all told. It’s hard to say for sure because I was so giddy the entire time due to how awesome that pun is.
I should have kept my mind clear, because it was at this point that things started going wrong… Being only a day younger than the first MAC, Mario’s also had about two months. Two months to receive 106 favorites, 10 comments, and just over 6.4 thousand views. Remembering to judge by favorites, you’ll notice that going from 95 to 106 is a marked improvement, which for awfulness’ sake translates into regression.
I had thought the speed of construction was evidence that this MAC would be even worse than its predecessor. Less time = less quality, right?
But as you can guess…
…that logic runs counter to what I asserted earlier on about bad builds requiring conscious mental effort. Sure, this build was abhorrent in terms of technique, but I wasn’t really focusing on how to maximize the perversion of shape and color. Furthermore, I still had one more bad build to go, but was now cornered in by a formulaic “worsening” procedure.
Trying to further degrade the quality on a purely technical level after Mario resulted in this LDD screenshot of a blocky camel with mismatched minifigs. It was supposed to be “The Final Straw,” but it’s clearly too satirical for anyone to take seriously. These builds wouldn’t work if they were received as jokes; they needed to be taken as seriously good or seriously bad to generate serious praise or serious critique.
I was genuinely snagged on how to effect this and even considered it impossible for a brief time, but didn’t want to just throw in the towel without giving it a final shot. Looking back, the problem was that I hadn’t inwardly cemented all the theoretical particulars of my experiment. I intuitively realized that the builds needed to be taken seriously, but was too confused to be able to express that clearly to myself. Fortunately, by this point I was engaged in some private discussion about the ongoing project. Input from various sharp-minded individuals was very helpful in assessing what had gone wrong and what needed to be done.
That feedback and my own ruminations on what constitutes a bad build led in all different directions, but ultimately left the conviction that a successfully bad build needed to look unintentionally bad, as that obvious intentionality was what caused The next level, and to a lesser extent This is a test, to “fail” as bad builds. I also came to the critically helpful revelation that those builds had been widely known subjects (a stereotypical scientist and Mario) and no matter how badly they were built, as long as I could be said to have built something resembling them, they’d still be recognizable, eliminating a whole category of awfulness I could have been exploiting: an ambiguous and ill-conceived concept!
Here’s an expansion on that train of thought: Building an easily recognizable subject, like a pop culture figure or common object, strengthens the basis on which a viewer attempting to interpret the build can make a reasonable assumption of artistic intentionality. Essentially, it would be incredibly difficult to build Mario or something equally recognizable in any “bad” way-no matter how bland, uncreative, repulsive, or bizarre-without those bad qualities being attributed to… *** STYLE ***.
This was certainly reflected in The next level’s comments. Fewer they may have been, but aside from a few excellent instances of criticism and another display of Bold candor, they were overall more positive (or perhaps the consoling tone employed upon the recently insane is not easy to detect via text). Style was emphasized, described as “chaotic” and “wacky,” and even compared to the work of Picasso and Dalí.
Going into the third MAC, I could not combat this by completely botching another popular subject beyond recognition…what would be the point? I would have a blob or something totally unrelated which could then be considered a “great blob!” or “great ____!” By building pop culture subjects, I was actually making building poorly harder on myself! What I needed was something that viewers would struggle to identify, and only succeed in visually parsing with great effort and irritation. A confusing, original spaceship design (my specialty, by the way) would be exponentially easier to fail to effectively convey than a universally recognizable character or item.
With this epiphany in mind, I set forward to give the FOLs of Flickr and myself a…
Nicknaming this spaceship “Maerskdusa” to continue my legacy of horrible puns was tempting, but, it being a sand blue spaceship and all, felt dishonest. I’ve left it nameless.
Nearly a month was needed to finish this MAC. Every horribly mismatched color, skewed detail, and idiotic design choice in the miasma was carefully considered and painstakingly compared to previous versions to see what worked (didn’t work) and what didn’t (did). The goal was to very intentionally create a build that would give a convincing impression of having unintentionally failed; to forge the appearance of effort. To this end, the theory of poorly-conceptualized subjects being easier to build poorly was put to the test. After laying out all of my sand blue (a color I have little of and would have fewer good choices with), I partially sketched out the most confusing spaceship I could muster, keeping it as parts-driven as possible.
Forcing myself to use (draw) 95% of my sand blue pieces in the initial sketch alone was exceptionally helpful in keeping the design confusing. As an aside, I think (and experience correlates) that the converse of that is a good rule of thumb in most cases. Do NOT force yourself to use all your parts in a specific color group or type in one MOC unless you want to risk it becoming a MAC!
Poor pilot… If you can bear to look closely, observe the placement of the standard spaceship structures Cockpit, Body, and Engine(s), as well as a Tail and the quarter round brick, which I’ve dubbed Fender. Most of those are decently easy to identify in both the sketch and final product, but the engines might be harder: they’re the large, printed, clear dish structures. In retrospect, I wish I’d made them even harder to identify, since they bear similarity to helicopter rotors. They also look like giant yo-yos, so I can only hope that spawned some confusion.
One major factor in making this build fail is the placement of these separate structures on the body in a way that produces many contrasting axes of symmetry: one along the cockpit and associated tentacle spike outgrowths, one through the fender and tail, and a group of two or three mildly harmonized ones through the engine system. The axes through the lower structures are perpendicular through the square width of the body, which divides visual impact fairly evenly, preventing the emergence of dominant symmetry between them. The engine structures, on the other hand, are too large not to be a dominant structure, and the harmony in their symmetry also assists in making them a focal area of the spaceship. Without a focus of that sort, the ship would be much worse, but it might be harder for viewers to believe it was not intentionally made so. Point=defeated.
Most of the other details in the landscape and whatnot don’t merit much analysis. Here are my favorites:
- The abhorrent pairing of a classic black rectangular base with an irregular base the color of vomit. Rancid cherry on top is the small amount of off-color loose studs filling the cracks.
- Regularly spacing three of the chaotic alien plants in a perfect line and posing them all exactly the same. Inexplicable!
- Placement of randomly-colored and flesh minifig heads in the dinosaur mouths.
This grueling exercise taught me that building this badly is not fun. The inspiration and passion to work and innovate that I usually feel for a project, no matter how difficult, went to the same place that it would if I were tasked with cleaning rotten eggs out of dense carpet knowing I would be forced to eat them afterward. A normal build grows in beauty and drives you forward in excitement and anticipation of the finished product; this was like seeing that in reverse. I cultivated a rotting plant, making it more garish and repulsive with every added piece. I’d like to add that the thing fell over and self-disassembled at least eight times. Also discouraging.
For all that, I still don’t think I was able to capture the essence of feigned unintentionality I described earlier. Maybe I used too many colors? Maybe screwing up the camera positioning makes it too obvious? Was it the subtle allegory in the description? I don’t know.
Nonetheless, this build did worse than the previous two, so I must have done something right, er, wrong. Last time I checked, it had 79 favorites and just under 6,100 views. Sure, it’s only three weeks old, but the first two had already leveled off around two weeks whereas this one is going nowhere fast. Judging once again by favorites, this is a decided failure/improvement in comparison to the previous MACs!
Maybe too much of an “improvement.” I think my goal to create critiqueable builds was overlooked here, because it’s too awful to critique beyond “destroy it.” On the flip side, it was also darn near impossible to praise! Out of 19 comments, only six or seven were Brash or Beautiful remarks. The rest are flavored with some of everything: concern for my mental state, thinly veiled disgust, disgust, inquisitions about substance abuse, overwhelming confusion, and supplications for mercy. It’s time to end things with…
“Bravo Aaron, this is your worst yet! You really nailed the whole building poorly thing the fourth time around!”
This one was actually intended to be good (for real this time!), but I wouldn’t be surprised if, in a supremely ironic twist, I’ve unintentionally made a seemingly unintentionally bad build after working so hard to build one intentionally (try saying THAT five times fast!). The purpose of this hopefully good build was to lure you all here; at least half of the people who usually see my builds and probably far more clearly ignored all my bad ones, and I don’t blame them.
I’m not going to analyze the technical aspects of this build. The only background information that might require disclosure is the message. It’s a statement whose symbolism is so blatant that explaining it seems borderline insulting, but there are three builds behind it with very deceptive artistic intents that were interpreted in many different ways by many different people. The ultimate purpose of this entire project is to broadcast a very clear message, so there’s no room for ambiguity or uncertainty. Here goes:
The robot is the FOL community on Flickr (we don’t really have our own logo, and using Lego’s logo would DEFINITELY have thrown people off), enamored with (floating hearts) a trashy MOC (colorful thing in a garbage can). It expresses this approval by placing a final straw on an already-collapsed camel overburdened with straw. The straws represent the growing threat that a public and common aversion to critique poses to our community. I’m actually not sure what the camel represents. Our artistic integrity? The ability for FOLs to cooperatively and publicly engage in communal self-improvement? All I know is, the pun in the title wouldn’t have worked nearly as well without a camel. And breaking the camel’s back is bad.
That’s a lengthy and very literal explanation, but it translates into a much simpler message:
Kidding, kidding! Please don’t take that seriously. I see you angrily slinking away over there, get back here! It was a joke!
It’s also here to prove a point. Critique is often construed to mean “Your _____ is bad and you should feel bad.” In a shockingly large number of cases, that’s not actually what the critiquer was trying to convey. Even if they were, you generally shouldn’t feel bad, unless the thing you’re plugging into that blank is something like “genocidal war campaign” or “anime body pillow collection” and not “MOC” or “critique”. What you should do is consider the possibility that they were half right: your _____ is “bad” and could use some improvement. Don’t get mad, don’t get sad, get better!
This article is effectively meta-critique. I’ve tried to be careful and keep it sensitive, but it can only go so far in that direction before it becomes part of the problem or simply loses all utility. Please trust me when I say that the purpose of this article is NOT to make people feel bad, and NOT to dictate how to universally “tell” which builds are good or bad. It would have been too easy to do both of those things at once by juxtaposing all the purposely bad builds with comparable good ones I’ve made in the past, but even my extensive analysis of the MACs was included only to provide reasonable justification for my classification of them as bad, which could be absolutely wrong. Notwithstanding, it was a logical prerequisite for claiming that the praise they received was unwarranted, and a crucial part of this argument. In the end, part of the responsibility is on you to maturely assess what I’ve said here, even if I failed to not make you feel bad or made judgments (of my own work, no less) that you disagree with, and determine whether the way you respond to other FOLs’ work could be improved.
With all that said, here’s the real condensed meaning of The Final Straw:
FOLs are accustomed to giving only praise in situations where it would be better to give critique.
“Don’t try and pull a fast one on me Aaron, that’s just the same thing you said in the meme but phrased differently!”
No, hold up. The meme is saying that FOLs can’t even tell what’s good or bad in a MOC. That’s insulting and not true (have I established yet that the meme was a joke and also not true?). There’s a difference between not being able to assess a MOC and not openly conveying that assessment to the builder. I doubt there are many FOLs who fit the first description, but the latter…it encompasses a pretty hefty majority. To this majority, the concepts presented in Unique is not Special are nothing revolutionary. They’re an articulation of what a lot of people feel when they peruse a comment section and see nothing but glimmering praise that may not be fully warranted. If we’re being conscientious, we brush these feelings off as too judgmental. That’s definitely something to guard against, but we’ve restricted the moderate and healthy use of judgment through, as Michael put it, our fear, laziness, and lack of critical tradition.
The stuff I’m saying right now isn’t revolutionary, either. It’s common knowledge and even common practice in most other artistic disciplines and many other facets of life. So why not ours? This is a conundrum that had bothered me for a long time. Why? Why? Why?
Is it the difference between FOLs who consider themselves hobbyists opposed to artists?
Is there a secret Positive Commenting Cult orchestrating the downfall of all criticism?
Is there a less-secret Positive Commenting Cult orchestrating the downfall of all criticism? (looking at you, MOCpages…)
Is it Flickr’s update tampering scaring people off?
Was it because the past crop of excellent builders all went off to college and are currently darkaging?
Is Lego releasing too many specialized parts?
Is the rise of private online LUGs usurping the role of public critique?
Is this just another instance of humankind naturally entropying toward a less ideal state?
Am I just a cynical teenager?
Eventually, I realized there was no point in spending so much time wondering why. The FOL culture, like all social systems, is host to insanely complex, compound issues. Fear, laziness, and lack of tradition may sum up the root causes of this issue pretty well, but there are certainly many more reasons. I don’t expect anyone to ever fully understand it any more than I expect any human to unravel all the mysteries of the universe. And I no longer care that we’ll never fully understand why. I’m a man of action now. Admittedly, it’s mostly action I can partake in from a stationary position, via a screen, but action nonetheless.
It’s not that the causative reasons for this issue are unimportant, but I think it’s possible to start testing out solutions without that elusive full understanding. This article and the experiment it details comprise one of those solutions.
“But Aaron, my scroll bar is indicating that this article is finally close to an end and you haven’t even talked about a solution before now. This is no way to pitch your crazy newfangled ideas!”
Excellent observation. I took an unorthodox approach to structuring the article’s introduction and left out the fact that it includes a solution at the end. That’s because it was a surprise!
The reason I staged an art hoax was to alert you to this issue and draw you here, and the reason you’re here is to be part of the solution to the issue. SURPRISE!
Here’s how: If you, while looking at another person’s MOCs, see something that looks off, tell that person. If you can think of a way they could have done it better, tell them that too. Write it all in a comment, and post it (Michael exempts new or young builders because they need a hearty diet of encouragement, and I agree). Over the course of the hoax I experimented with this exact action myself, and it worked out fine in most cases-people were happy to receive critique. There’s nothing more to it than being considerate and candid, so far as either permits the other to go.
That’s it. That’s my solution. Until it doesn’t work or someone else comes up with something better, I’d really just recommend that more people give more critique more often. As with all critique, it can only be a subjective recommendation, but that doesn’t prevent me from making it a strong one.
I’d like to suggest once more that those people who haven’t already done so READ MICHAEL’S ARTICLE.
I think it would also be great if more people would ACCEPT CRITIQUE GRACIOUSLY.
However, that’s dependent on there being critique to accept, so another thing I’m proposing that I feel is really important is that lots of people TRY GIVING MORE CRITIQUE.
Unlike those last few strong recommendations, I’ve used a lot of authoritative language throughout this article when referring to subjective qualities like the lacking aesthetic appeal of MACs or the content of comments. If prefacing every sentence with “I think, ” “In my opinion,” and “It appears that” didn’t sound so awful, I would have done that. Were those “bad” builds actually good and I just have narrowminded, prescriptivist views of MOC quality? Were those commentators justified? Is this whole article a bunch of pretentious hogwash? Was this experiment too cringy for your liking? Are you unsatisfied with my pop culture references? Have I committed human rights abuses? Did I spell a word wrong? The comments are there for a reason, folks. If you hated this article, but make no action to provide a corrective viewpoint, the irony would probably kill me.