Handling Negatives

Turn your frown upside down and don't panic when your plugin gets bad reviews.

Positivity is two way streetEvery once in a while, someone raises a stink about how their WordPress plugin or theme got a bad review or comment on the forums and how the mods should delete it.

We rarely do.(We have, on occasion, done so, but usually only under sever provocation, and often that ends with the developers making the demands being blocked for being jerks.)

The issue at heart is not ‘OMG! Someone hates my plugin!’ but how do you handle the negative remarks. I mention this in passing (multiple times) in my ‘How to Support Plugins’ presentation, but text is really a terrible medium to communicate. You know there’s a difference between these two sentences:

“I want a unicorn,” she said, bubbling with delight and hope.


She jabbed a finger in my direction. “I want a unicorn!” Her voice pitched in a low, guttural, growl.

But the reason you know that the first one is nice and the second a little threatening is the context. Prose lends itself to this quite well, because authors take the time to explain what’s being felt and evoked. A help ticket, on the other hand, is pretty dry and plain stuff. And because we’re humans, we attempt to put meaning into the words, often ones the author never intended. We’re programed to look for the meaning, hidden or otherwise, and we always interperate based on our mood and our situations.

This means when you see a ‘complaint’ like this, you have a reaction:

Ipstenu’s Really Awesome Plugin has a security hole. If you go to /wp-content/plugins/really-awesome/readem.php?=../../../wp-config.php then you can totally read the contents of your wp-config!

Obviously as a developer my first reaction should not be to yell at this user and remind them to email me about my plugin.(Protip, developers, always put your email or a contact link in your plugin! If they can’t find you, then you don’t get to bitch they didn’t contact you. At the very least, put it in your source code.) And even though people should email plugins@wordpress.org they don’t always know that, and it’s okay. You can’t know what you don’t know, after all. No, my first reaction, as a dev, is to plug the hole! It’s that obvious. Fix the problem, push a new version, and then come back to the post and reply:

Wow, thank you for letting me know. I’ve fixed that and released a new version. If you find things like this again, please email me at ipstenu@….. Again, thank you for reporting this.

Then in my plugin, you’ll see a credit in the changelog and/or the version history:

Version 2.0 – Security update thanks to RandomUser. readem.php let you read any php file on your install. Please upgrade ASAP.

That’s it.

The idea isn’t to hide any mistakes I make, or act out of fear and desperation, but to take a hold of the problem, resolve it, and move forward. Check out WPSecureNet and their list of plugins. Normally they’ll only post when an exploit is closed, but sometimes they report while vulnerable. There’s no shame in being listed there, unless you haven’t patched your plugin yet, and realisticly there’s no shame in being listed anywhere as having a bug.

Look, bugs happen. We can wish we’d never stub our toes, but we will. We can wish we’d never stab our toes, but someone will find a way to do that too. Humans are imperfect. We make mistakes, we don’t see things that are ‘obvious’ and it happens. Consider the number of books you get when typos: that’s after an author, an editor, and a test reader has proofed the book. With most code, you have fewer eyes than a book, and bugs still slip in. Clearly it’s going to be impossible to prevent any and all bugs, and once we accept that, then we can move on to taking these moments as less painful.

It is painful to get a security report, or even a bug report. Even if this is ‘just’ a hobby, you’ve spent hours of your free time banging away, trying to make something awesome, and now you found out it just wasn’t. No matter how experienced you are, you take this personally, even for just a split second. Getting over that hurdle, that fear that everything is ruined, isn’t easy. And this is why I keep saying that you shouldn’t worry as much about the bugs as how you handle them.

Your users, be they just the folks who use the plugin or people who pay you, will follow your lead. If you’re calm, collected, and honest, then they’ll value you and your product. They’ll appreciate you and what you can do. By taking the negatives and turning them positive (sorry, that’s cheesy) you will improve your relationship with users, clients, and the community.

I want that unicorn!But what about those angry ‘You suck!’ posts? Oh, they happen, and with a bit more frequency than we’d all like. Often people like to lump them with those posts where people complain about your plugin, only to have the wrong plugin… Look. The way you handle those negative people is the way you will set the tone for your entire online life. You can react aggressively, or you can handle it calmly and rationally. Personally, when I see someone rage on about how the original poster is a moron, and they don’t know what they’re talking about, I put them on my blacklist. I will never again use their plugins or themes or any code, if I can help it. I’ll sooner fork it than anything else, because the best way I can vote is with my feet.

What about you? How do you handle the angry unicorn lovers? And what do you do when the devs go postal on you?


  1. Well said. My professional career was born in the high end customer service industry and as a product creator and marketer, the points you make are critical pieces for any dev to remember and implement.

    It sets the tone for your entire business:)

    • It’s even more important for the low-end little gays, when you think about it. The margin for failure is so slim. Microsoft can get away with acting like a jerk sometimes, just based on the percentages.

  2. Nice post. Biting your tongue…. hard to do in practice, but thoroughly worth it in the end.

    • I just walk away now. I have a life offline, and outside work (still!) so when it gets to be too much, I step away, ask someone else to proof my reply, or just say “I’m sorry you feel that way.”

      But yes, it’s hard. It’s also a part of growing up: the learning how to deal with crap.

  3. As far as negative criticism goes, there’s basically been two ways that I “handle it.”

    First, the longer that I’ve been releasing stuff to the public – be it software or even something like a blog post – the easier it gets to take criticism. At first, it hurts and very few positive comments actually offset a negative comment.

    But hang around long enough and keep doing what you’re doing and usually you develop a thick skin … then stuff kinda becomes the norm. I don’t know if that’s good or bad, but it’s true. So I just roll with it.

    Plus, it’s a little humorous. The level of animosity people can work up for a given blog post or a plugin is funny. There’s a level of absurdity.

    Besides, what positive are they contributing back to the web? Most of the time, the people that act like jerks aren’t doing much. The people that do call you out on “doing it wrong” usually do so with the intent of showing you how to do it right :).

    But anyway, as far as handling the case when “devs” or customers go postal on me – and it’s happened a few more times than I’ve liked – I’ve done what I can for damage control, given them props in the fixes I provide, occasionally tweet out a “thanks to @unicornlover for pointing this out – will be fixed soon!”, offer a refund, whatever, and move on.

    Long term, it doesn’t matter. The Internet’s memory is short term. One week later, it won’t matter. I’ll have a better product or blog post and they’ll be on to trolling someone else’s work.

    • The internet’s memory is why it’s so important to set the tone right.

      Sometimes those jerks aren’t being jerks, though. Otto’s constant ‘I’m an asshole!’ remarks aside, he can sound like a real dick when you read what he says the wrong way. If you assume he’s saying something to be an ass, you take it badly. But remember, ass on not, those trolls may have valid points. Even if that point is ‘I don’t really like unicorns, so I added a narwhal instead. And bacon.’

    • The internet’s memory is why it’s so important to set the tone right.

      Touche – and we as developers (or customer service advocates or whatever role manages feedback) have this is responsibility. Absolutely agree.

      And you’re right – there are jerks that have valid points. I don’t dismiss them, either. I try to sift through criticism to find the valid points. If one is there, I’ll take the hit and go for resolving or addressing it.

      But there are lost causes … abject trolls as you mentioned on Twitter .. and are they really worth the effort?

      Finally, sure, sometimes people are going to come off like asses, some aren’t. Sometime back I read that the written word (be it in paper, the Internet, etc) is reduced to something like 7% of what constitutes natural human speech (93% being made up of tone of voice, facial expression, inflection, and so on) so there’s a big gap we have to fill in our heads.

      So, in those cases, I just try to believe the best rather than assume the worst.

      Unless of course they’re abject trolls. Because, you know, there are always exceptions :).

    • they’ll be on to trolling someone else’s work.

      That’s another thing the long term will show you – that often the really sucky naysayers are like that about *everything*.

      It’s a better perspective when you realize it’s not personal. Even tho initially it feels like it.

      Sometime if it really gets to me (I want to be nice and everyone to be happy! lalalallala!) I will even run it by someone else with a “Am I all being butthurt? Do they have an actual point here or are they a jerk?”

      My real friends will tell me when I’m being butthurt. 😉

      And those sorrys go a loooong way, so do super nice responses. Most people can’t continue being a dick when you are consistently nice back. They can’t see how hard it is on your end either.

    • Yeah – no one really likes criticism but we implicitly invite it by publishing anything (be it a post, a plugin, a theme, a product, whatever).

      And you’re right – I have close team / friends to help validate how I should respond if I need advice. Rely on those gays to hold you accountable.

  4. I updated my theme (let’s call it xyz theme), there was something wrong. The preview and what I got on my site were different. The theme had 3 widget areas on the footer. I thought I did something wrong. So I deleted it (obviously I changed the theme then deleted xyz).

    I went to Appearance > Themes > Install themes. same issue

    I installed xyz originally by downloading the zip file then uploading it that way.

    I now downloaded it, unzip, upload the directory to /wp-content/themes/xyz. SAME ISSUE.

    I deactivated all 32 plugins. VOILA the 3 widgetized areas showed up. So it WAS one of my plugins.

    I re-activated 5 at a time. switched to the other browser tab and refresh the page. Roughly my third set of 5 plugins had the one affecting the footer.

    So I deactivated those 5, then re-activated one by one. Found the plugin.

    Thank Zeus that WordPress is so amazing, that there are a million plugins to do any functionality.

    I e-mailed both the theme creator and plugin creator.

    I explained that I downloaded xyz, and had an issue with a part of the theme not showing up, I explained (in point form) what I did (see above), and which plugin was conflicting.
    I mentioned that I am not blaming either one for anything, just that I found a conflict.

    One of them…not even a thank you (theme creator)
    The other told me to F———- off (plugin creator)

    Am I missing something? I am sure if you are a theme/plugin creator, you will want to know.

    I go on my blackberry a lot when I am out travelling and if I see something broken when I visit a website. I e-mail the admin/owner, explaining the brokenness and what bb I was using and so forth.

    Most have told me thank you and will look into it. I even seen most of those most that fixed the issue(s).

    With the plugin that told me to f off, it is now up to 15 that got defensive.

    I have never once said their product is bad, attacked them, told them that their product sucks and/or so forth. I have never asked for money compensation for finding that conflict.

    The only compensation I want is really a thank you and that they fix the plugin/theme to benefit him/her (author of plugin/theme) and the community.

    Actually the real compensation I want is an authographed photo of Mika, that way when she takes over Matt Mullenweg’s WordPress empire, eventually taking over the entire planet. I can sell the authographed photo on ebay.

    • And it’s plugin devs like that who end up banned on the forums for bad behavior.

      I really don’t know why they’d act like that *sigh* Well, no, I do. They took it the wrong way, which is fairly common.

      (Maybe I should get headshots made…)

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