Essays on Technology and Culture

On Being Nice, Part 1: The Snark Problem

It’s hard to be nice, these days.

It seems to me, now more than ever, that our interactions with others often turns into the trading of barbs. Any opinion expressed runs the risk of being reacted to with snark. [1] I know I’m not the only person who sees this. My friend Andrew Marvin touched on this a few months ago.

We allow other people to affect ourselves like this all the time. It’s a perfectly natural, human thing. Of course we should care about what our loved ones think. But when it comes to minutia—like what someone’s drinking—I can’t see any worthwhile reason to care.

Ask yourself, “How does this person’s decision affect me?”
If the answer is that it doesn’t, that’s great. Let go, and become a little bit more free.

If the answer is something negative, ask yourself why. Is it a good reason, or is it kind of silly?

These are important things to ask, but another important thing to ask is why we are compelled to even remark? What is the root of the snark problem? Why is so much of my dialogue, and other people’s, so concerned with negativity? What purpose does snark serve, and what drives us to use it when there are far more constructive means of communication at our disposal?

For me, the problem took focus as we wrapped up Episode 5 of Crush On Radio. What I intended to be a sedate discussion on special editions of albums and their bonus tracks became a very opinionated, and often very nasty rant on my part. After we wrapped up, I immediately laid down a rule for the show that we can’t have another episode that is all griping and snark. It’s not constructive and contrary to the spirit of the show, which is about sharing music and stories about music with people.

What makes avoiding being snarky so difficult is that it’s omnipresent in society, and on the Internet especially. One can’t state an opinion in a public forum without having at least one person insult not only your opinion, but you. For an example, look at the comments on almost any story on a newspaper website. No matter what the topic, politics, culture, technology, food, you’re bound to say something that will set someone else off. After enough of this, it becomes natural to take the defensive position and pepper your statement of public opinion with harsh invective from the start.

Who knows the reason for this? Some suggest the anonymity afforded by our means of communicating with each other frees up the asshole that lurks within us all.[2] There are multiple attempts to deal with the problem in the digital sphere, ranging from “Karma” systems such as on Reddit to enforced “identity” systems like on Google Plus. The effect on behavior varies depending on the method, but nothing ever can completely remove the snark problem, short of making the entire site read-only. [3]

The worst part of all this snark is that it’s not constructive. Even if there’s something of value buried beneath the vitriol, it doesn’t get through. When someone is snarky, even if the point they make is valid, it automatically puts the recipient on the defensive. They don’t take the time to ponder the valid point, they only defend themselves harder. Facts already have a tendency to make people who disagree with them strengthen their disbelief. Delivering a valid statement in a way that is going to cause offense certainly isn’t going to help.

It’s a leap to say that the problem of snark in offline life, whether we speak it aloud or not, is a direct result of Internet-based snark. Despite this, immersing oneself in this well of negativity, anger and trolling has to have some effect on how we conduct ourselves when we’re away from it. Was I so willing to be an aggressively sarcastic, snarky jerk—even if it’s in my head—before I got involved in online discourse? Who can tell? Either way, as I get older and, presumably, wiser, I see this becoming a problem for myself and others. Since I can’t change their behavior, I’ll have to start with myself.

Next week, I’ll be proposing a Solution

  1. For those new to the term, “snark” is a neologism, a shortened form of “snide remark”.  ↩

  2. See also, John Gabriel’s Greater Internet Fuckwad Theory from 2004.  ↩

  3. Which is what I did on Sanspoint, not because I had a problem with comment moderation, but because I want to own every pixel of this page.  ↩