Snark and Advocacy Online
Over the weekend, I read David Denby‘s new book “Snark: It’s Mean, It’s Personal, and It’s Ruining Our Conversation”. Denby, a film critic at the New Yorker magazine, is concerned by the prevalence of the snarky style of discourse that is emerging in and, he argues, dominating discussions online. His book is not anti-Internet. In fact, he exclaims “We have this incredible took. Let’s not screw it up.”
What is snark? Well, Denby asserts that
Snark is a teasing, rug-pulling form of insult that attempts to steal someone’s mojo, erase her cool, anihilate her effectiveness and it appeals to a knowing audience that shares contempt of the snarker, and therefore understands whatever references he makes.
I know too well what Denby is talking about. Check out any comments on any blog post or YouTube video. I’m concerned that this style has thoroughly infected all of us that it also colors well-meaning advocacy work on important social issues. Instead of movement-building, I’ve witnessed advocacy groups “snark on” their opposition. Perhaps because I worked for a Quaker organization that believes in the inherent worth of everyone (i.e. “God’s light in each of us”), I am bothered by campaigns that demonize others. Often these campaigns utilize a snarky style that excludes outsiders rather than builds bridges.
Denby isn’t against political or critical humor per se and he argues that we should always challenge powerful people, especially when there are important things to say. According to his chapter Anatomy of a Style: Principles of Snark, Denby says snark is “hazing on the page” and adheres to one or more of the following practices:
- The “Whatever” Principle: Attack without reason
- The White Man’s Last Stand Principle: Appeal to common, hackneyed prejudices, the more common and hackneyed the better. But disguise the appeal a little.
- The Pawnshop Principle: Reach into the rotting heap of media referents for old jokes, old insults and give them a twist.
- The Throw-Some-Mud Principle: Assume anything negative said about someone with power is true – or at least usable.
- The Reckless Disregard Principle: Ignore the routine responsibilities of journalism. The more flagrantly you ignore them the better.
- The Hobbyhorse Principle: Reduce all human complexity to caricature. Then repeat the caricature.
- The You-Suck Principle: Glom on to celebrities in an attitude of adoration and loathing; first adoration, then loathing.
- The Pacemaker Principle: Attack the old. Your editors and Web publishers want young demographics, so they won’t mind.
- The Gastronomic Principle: Attack expensive, underperforming restaurants.
(There is much more describing each principle in the book. You can read the first chapter of the book here.)
I admire Denby for his attempt to save the wonderful tool of the Internet from sinking into a swamp of snarkiness. It’s an interesting (and quick) read and I recommend it highly.