I’m Into Something Good: A Saturday Stroll about Recommendations

I’m one of those soppy sentimental types who had “a football in his throat” and cried when watching Love Story in the early 1970s. I’m the kind of person who enjoyed listening to Herman’s Hermits. I can remember going to the cinema to see Mrs Brown You’ve Got A Lovely Daughter with my brother in 1968 and loving it. I still enjoy listening to No Milk Today, My Sentimental Friend, I’m Henry the Eighth I am, There’s a Kind of Hush, just to name a few of their songs.

And “I’m Into Something Good”.

Which brings me to the point of this post.

Many years ago I remember reading a book called “Tip On a Dead Crab” by William Murray. Great title, and a pretty good book as well. The thesis behind the title was simple: You took a bunch of crabs with numbers on their backs, put them into a basket, then unloaded the basket near a stake. The crab nearest the stake after a minute was the winner.

Why did I find this fascinating? Because until then I lived with the received wisdom that gamblers wanted to know about guaranteed losers, not winners. A tip on a winner meant nothing; what you wanted was a tip on a loser: a horse that was going to be pulled, a dog that had been nobbled, a team that was going to throw the game.

The theory ran like this: Claiming that something was going to win was worth nothing; everyone would say that. But claiming that something was going to lose, that was different. It was useful information, you could bet on the best of the remainder of the field. If the field only had two in it (like in soccer or boxing) even better.

So the best tips were about losers, not winners. Except when it came to dead crabs.

Sometimes, when I see what’s going on around me, I get the feeling that too many people think that way. That the best tips are about losers. And as a result, everyone’s a critic. What a shame.

Even when I was young, I never really enjoyed criticising people. I was happy to use my feet and vote my feelings that way. If I didn’t like someone I didn’t have to spend time with them. If the food at a restaurant was bad I didn’t have to go there again. If a film wasn’t worth watching I could walk out and not recommend it to anyone.

Now, as I’ve grown older, I fail to see the point in criticising people. We all have beams to cast out of our own eyes before we get involved with the motes in others’ eyes. So why criticise them? Why don’t we build them up instead?

When it comes to reviewing things like books and films and music, why don’t we spend time telling people about the things we liked, rather than spend a great deal of time trashing the things we didn’t like?

It’s easy to criticise. Much harder to say good things. Good things about a person, a novel, a song, whatever. Particularly good things about a person.

We all use phrases like “constructive criticism”, yet too often that translates to “we’re cool about dishing it out but not okay about taking it”.

Of course criticism can be useful, especially when provided constructively and as part of a relationship of trust and openness. In places where trust has broken down, of course there is a place for a different form of criticism: whistleblowing. Of course generalisations are odious.


What would the world be like if we spent time encouraging each other rather than the opposite? Think about it.

You rarely see advertisements that extol the bad things about a product. Ads are about recommendations. This isn’t wrong per se. The wrongness comes from the fact that the recommendation is being made by that which is being recommended in the first place, so there’s a bias.

Endorsements are a little better, but only a little. Tiger Woods may know a lot about golf, but that doesn’t mean I have to trust his brand of consultant.

In the age of television, in a broadcast paradigm, all this was understandable. But in the age of the internet, in a network paradigm, it is no longer so.

We keep getting told that the new world is about recommendations. In a world that revolves around recommendations, the absence of a recommendation is telling. So if you don’t like something or someone, just withhold your recommendation. There is no need to criticise.

I want the people I trust to tell me what’s good, not what’s bad. Telling me what’s bad is easy, everyone does it. The scarcity that I’m prepared to pay for is to be found in the good things, in the people who can tell me about good things.

Take Kirkus Reviews. When it comes to books, I really value their views and comments. But I don’t go looking for the reviews that pan books. Instead, I spend time searching for the books they recommend, particularly those that receive “starred reviews”.

Take Christianity. The etymology for “evangelism” is about sharing good news, not bad.

I want to know about the plumber who turned up on time and did the job well, the restaurant that dazzled, the song that made hearts sing, the book that couldn’t be put down, the film that was spellbinding.

I want to know what’s good, not what’s bad. In the age of advertising, the brand was meant to do this. In the age of the internet, the personal microbrand (as I’ve heard Hugh describe it) can do this, but only if it is made up of unbiased recommendations.

There’s a lot of noise out there. There’s an abundance of gossip, of opinion, weighted towards the bad. Who’s bad. What’s bad.

In the early days of the Web, everyone used the tool to talk about the bad. Criticising, ranting, flaming, outing. Whatever.

More and more I tune out the bad stuff. I’m interested in the good. Life’s too short.

[And if you feel like, you can criticise this post and call me Utopian or whatever :-)]

Update: I just love Gapingvoid’s latest print-to-be: Ordered it straightaway. Why? Because I’m into Something Good.

14 thoughts on “I’m Into Something Good: A Saturday Stroll about Recommendations”

  1. mostly i agree, but isn’t feedback important, whether it’s positive or negative–how else would anyone know what to change or improve? maybe feedback is something different than what you’re talking about?

  2. You raise an important point. I think feedback is meaningful *only* where there is a relationship. And when there’s a relationship, the feedback tends to be given in an atmosphere of love. In which case it isn’t criticism. Make sense?

  3. if by relationship you include the consumer type, and if of love can also mean with respect. if i am silent when something doesn’t work, works badly, is other than advertised, etc., i feel like it’s irresponsible of me and promotes declining standards. when this happens, i do, for the most part, try to be polite & frame the feedback as positively as i can. this has always seemed like very reasonable and appropriate behavior to me, but, i admit, it has fairly often seemed to embarrass my family and others.

  4. JP, to fully trust the restaurant recommendations of strangers, I would prefer/need to see that they have a balanced approach to reviewing (some dazzling, some ordinary, some perhaps downright disappointing).
    For a singular event-based recommendation like for an emergency plumber, a single glowing (though genuine) recommendation may be enough, but could there be ways to rank those endorsing the service and thus the services themselves?

    Separately, I often post photos to Flickr which get 1,000+ views and 100+ comments/favourites but despite 100,000 visitors to my images, I still crave informed (“constructive”) criticism to improve my photography.
    The absence of negative (yet positive?) criticism risks letting all Flickr users believe they are Ansel Adams and will therefore never learn to stretch themselves and improve.

  5. Conor, a few observations. Firstly, I don’t *want* to trust the recommendations of strangers but of friends.

    The same goes for criticism. I would prefer the “criticism” of people I have a relationship with, because it is given in the right spirit.

  6. Ah, JP I do see your point(s).
    Of course I would prefer to trust the recommendations of people I know and share values with wherever possible.
    I guess I’m just thinking that my network is relatively small and if I need recommendations on family-friendly ski resorts for example, I can’t expect that I know and trust enough people who can give me a subjective opinion that I will value.
    In those instances, whilst I’d be willing to trust the recommendation from 2nd/3rd derivatives of my own network, I’d rather find a way of matching my “likes/dislikes” with relative strangers and use a pool of their recent experience.
    For criticism, yes of course, ensuring the spirit is “right” is optimal, but a little distance can sometimes help in the right circumstances.
    In my coaching experience – I have found some – particularly Gestalt practitioners – who don’t “know” me yet can help me achieve my very best.
    I suppose I can trust them not because of their qualifications/training but rather because I can assess their advice dynamically and choose to stop listening.
    Rather more difficult with plumbers.

  7. No, no, no, no.

    I’ve no interest in what someone thinks is good until I know what they think is bad. Otherwise its like a scale with no zero.

    Good things share many common traits, but bad things are often unique in their tragedy. Sometimes bad is true genius – that will later understood to be good.

    It has become common place for the immature to have a negative attitude. That should be tuned out. But the shiny veneer of good should should not blind you to the boundless weirdness of bad.

  8. @DE try this. friends know that I like japanese cooking, so they recommend restaurants to me. when they do so, quite often I have no idea what their “zero” is. So I go to the restaurant and inspect. I look in, and if there’s a whole lot of Japanese people there, I sit down.

    Collective intelligence and crowdsourcing are good ways to find out what your friends’ recommendation calibrations are like.

  9. Yes, collectively you can still calibrate without a bottom – just hope everyone is truly on a similar scale.

    And remember the Alexi Sayle joke?

    “People say you can judge a restaurant by looking at how many natives are eating in it. But thats crap – loads of English people eat in Little Chef “

  10. I whole heartedly agree with this blog, as a broad society we have been trained that constantly being negative towards individuals, organisations, the news and in everyday life is deemed to be acceptable and worse, has become the norm.

    Take a glance at the news over the past 6 months; would we be in this “credit crunch” recession/depression if it wasn’t for the doom mongering of the media, who are even responsible for the term “credit crunch” after all. For just one example, would there have been a run on Northern Rock if the media hadn’t broadcast they were in difficulties?

    Now, I’m not saying we should withhold information or mislead, but if there could be a different, more positive, slant put on news as apposed to the headline grabbing negative ones, wouldn’t that benefit businesses and the economy in the long run?

    As previously said, feedback allows for growth of ideas, and it is the individual’s prerogative whether they acknowledge, value or use that feedback. Criticism and positive feedback are both good, but you can’t have a positive feedback without a negative to compare it to.

  11. I always thought the image of the sandwich was best when it comes to feedback. A good bit, a bad bit (marmite maybe – I know some people love it) and a good bit. Simple, reasonably balanced, and does the job.

    I do agree that there is too much tendency to focus on the bad when it comes to opinion and feedback – maybe this is how people think they will be heard. The problem of course is that this behaviour skews things. It’s a form of sensationalism and one of our less endearing traits as humans.

    It reminds me of how we (humans) assess risk. A small but terrible risk becomes magnified through this sensationalism loop (media, commentators, ill-informed) and distorts the truth.

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