Michael B. Duff

Lubbock's answer to a question no one asked

Is snark killing the web?

“There’s this ‘new generation’ that has grown up online only knowing blogs as having snarky comment areas and never realizing it used to be a personal, intimate space where you’d never say anything in a comment that you wouldn’t say to a friend’s face.”

That’s a quote from Matt Haughey, a quote that’s haunted me for a month, ever since I saw it on Rex Sorgatz’s Fimoculous blog.

Rex and Matt are self-identified members of the “old guard” — guys that started blogging before blogging was cool — before journal scripts and social networking sites put every angsty teenager and every narcissistic college student on the web.

I started my first blog in 1992, when web publishing required a degree of technical skill. The requirement for HTML coding created a barrier to entry, so the only people who had blogs were geeks who already made web pages for a living, or dedicated diarists who really had something to say.

Or, in my case, people who were so simultaneously lonely and full of themselves that every random thought in their head was deemed worthy of publication.

The web was a smaller, more intimate place then. Blogs were like diaries — raw, emotional and real, with none of the self-conscious hedging that goes on now.

These days, even blogs from “the overshare gang” read like magazine copy.

Haughey is lamenting the de-humanizing effect of modern blog comments, where sincere questions and emotional disclosures are met with banality and scorn.

I think the culprit, beyond the well-documented effects of anonymity and the general pettiness of human beings, is the culture of snark that has come to dominate writing on the web.

“Snark” is actually a contraction of “snide” and “remark”. These days, snark is a writing style, like the worst kind of celebrity journalism, wrapped in a faux-intimate first-person style.

A snarky writer is the ultimate outsider. He’s outside of everything, poking fun at the elites, tearing down institutions with insults and dry humor. That’s all well and good when you’re an underpaid assistant poking fun at editors from Condé Nast.

But somewhere along the line we stopped using snark on the people who “deserved it” and started snarking at normal people. In fact, with the advent of email and open comment sections, many bloggers have discovered that the line between celebrities who are worthy of scorn and normal people who are just doing their jobs is a very thin line indeed.

I remember tearing into Ken Levine when he mocked my favorite television show on his blog. Ken is an Emmy winning writer/producer/director — the creator of some of the most popular shows on television. Exactly the kind of elitist celebrity jerk that it’s safe to make fun of — until he shows up in your comment section and turns into a real human being.

Suddenly this Hollywood luminary, so famous I couldn’t really conceive him as a person, was addressing my comments and taking me seriously. He tried to be polite and respect my opinion, and it’s very hard to snark at somebody after that.

We could blame it all on Nick Denton, I suppose — publisher of the infamous Gawker sites. Gawker didn’t create snark, but I’d say they perfected it — applying the snarky writing style to everything from fashion to video games.

Snark is fun to write and fun to read, unless you’re on the receiving end. It’s fun to sit in the cheap seats and throw tomatoes at the stage, but what happens when you read an article or get an insider email and are suddenly forced to see your target as a real human being?

What if all the celebrities we enjoy making fun of are just hard-working artists struggling to make a living, struggling to stay on top of this shifting mountain of pop culture crap?

Sure, a lot of idiots get famous by accident, but what if some of them actually deserve what they have?

And what about people who aren’t celebrities at all? What about the army of normal people who share their thoughts and feelings on public blogs — where every confession, every lament and every honest question becomes a straight line for strangers to pounce on?

I don’t know the answer. I don’t know if we can get back to a “simpler time.” I was on the Internet at the same time Matt Haughey was and I’m not sure this golden age even exists.

I remember mocking people and being the target of cruel jokes back in the days when blogs were called bulletin boards and you had to dial in to them one at a time.

I don’t think we can ever really un-snark the web, but we’re definitely seeing a backlash. Writers like Choire Sicha and Jess Coen rebelled against the culture of snark established by Gawker and have tried to make blogging a kinder, if not entirely snark-free, enterprise.

Figures like Keith Gessen, Julia Allison and Emily Gould have taken it on the chin for their unironic sincerity and come out as wry, almost heroic figures by charming their critics and refusing to shut up.

I don’t hold out much hope for reform, but maybe we can start small. Try to make the blogs and forums you frequent a safe place for sincerity. Next time a blogger takes a chance or reveals something personal, bite your tongue and reward them for it.

Spending too much time immersed in blog culture can ruin you for real communication. Every straight line starts to look like a big, fat softball cruising across the plate, waiting to be hit out of the park with a clever insult or a snarky turn of phrase.

But being funny isn’t everything, and what we’re destroying may be worth more than a laugh.

UPDATE 9-30-08: Some good discussion of this topic coming from Snarky Amber. Amber led me to a point I wish I’d thought of yesterday.

As I said in her comments:

I don’t want to eliminate snarky websites, but I would like to keep snarky comments out of the sincere ones.

I think Matt’s original post was not about snarky web sites as much as it was about people who try to write snark in the comment section of posts about grandma’s battle with breast cancer.

The real problem is people being snarky in places where snark is not appropriate.

I also think it’s useful to make a distinction between professional snark, where a web site has a distinct voice and you know it’s just business, vs. amateur snark, which is just random people being jerks.

And we need a third category for sites like Gawker that make a living by periodically ruining people’s lives.

A coven of artists making fun of Heroes every week will not destroy the web. What concerns me is a generation of commenters that thinks every post, no matter how sincere, deserves the same level of sarcasm.

UPDATE: So far, my first Gawker link has been a bit of a letdown. For my followup, I’m gonna go kick a baby in the face.

UPDATE 10-19: Quick shout-out to Metafilter visitors. MF commenters have pointed out two errors that I’d like to acknowledge. I started writing blog-style stuff on BBS systems in 1989 and started posting to Usenet in 1995. I had a vanity newsgroup that I’m too ashamed to link here. This newsgroup was very bloggy, including political commentary, random links, and intimate blog-style diaries.

I put up my first personal web page in 1996, including a “journal” feature that would have been a blog if the word had been invented yet. Blogs were called “diaries” and “journals” back then. You can see some good examples on the Diarist Award archives.

I tried to remember when I put that first (awful) page up and got the date wrong.

I found a definition of the word “snark” in the Urban Dictionary and thought the combination of snide+remark was about as plausible as a word origin can be. I thought it captured the current usage very well, and that was my goal – to provide a definition that readers could easily understand.

Matt Haughey has moved his blog to typepad but the link should work now.

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Written by Michael B. Duff

September 29, 2008 at 04:07

Posted in Culture

10 Responses

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  1. I don’t know that ‘snark is killing the web’ so much as ‘snark on the web is a symptom of the cynical society we live in’, which is not nearly as catchy a title.

    To be genuine and to put real thoughts and emotions out there requires you to pin your dignity up in what is effectively a shooting range for every teenager who thinks he’s God’s gift to sharp, incisive comedy. And dignity is such a very ripe target, even – or especially, online – when it should be respected and treated accordingly.

    Degraine

    September 29, 2008 at 05:52

  2. A good half your audience is desperately trying to suppress the urge to post a snarky comment now…

    In my experience the Internet has always been snarky, no matter what the technology we use. However, in recent years either the quality of the snark has gone down, or I’m getting old. Looking at the calendar I’m pretty sure it’s the latter.

    The Golden Age never was. We just remember it that way.

    Tom

    September 29, 2008 at 07:21

  3. I can remember snark-free days on the web, and even snark-free BBSes (depends on the BBS, of course).

    I too get the feeling that we’re losing something of great value and gaining not all that much in return.

    Great article.

    Lubbock Left

    September 29, 2008 at 08:59

  4. “A good half your audience is desperately trying to suppress the urge to post a snarky comment now…”

    How well I know.

    michaelduff

    September 29, 2008 at 09:44

  5. Just wondering, is this in response to all the snark that is going on over in CVW’s business blog? Seems the poor guy can’t win for losing with all his snarky posters.

    Scott

    September 29, 2008 at 14:25

  6. What’s happening to CVW isn’t snark. Snark implies at least an attempt to be clever.

    admin

    September 29, 2008 at 14:35

  7. I’m a 25-year-old full-time blogger and am utterly blown away by how much snark has stood up to “the old guard.” I often fuse it into my writing, but I really feel most comfortable reading what the original bloggers offer, most often being tidbits of life that are merely interesting and usually worthy of a smile.

    Eliot

    September 29, 2008 at 16:27

  8. […] On his “Geekcentric” blog, journalist Michael Duff wrote a post entitled “Is Snark Killing the Web?” in which he writes, “A snarky writer is the ultimate outsider. He’s outside of […]

  9. […] unfortunate symptom of writing on the internet is that it’s almost impossible to avoid snark. Snark, for my own definition and uses here, refers to that writing style we affectionately refer […]

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