Opinion

The blunting of the snark

Remember snark? Back in the noughties, snark was the tone of the times: cynical, weary, heavy with irony, urbane, unimpressed, a sort of disgust transmuted through a lifted brow and a witty putdown.

The late newspaper editor Peter Kaplan used snark to great effect at the New York Observer. The newspaper’s tart and arch tone became a blueprint for the websites that followed it.

A grittier form of snark had its genesis in comment threads and blogs – the “rage of the creative underclass”, who wrote for little or no money. Soon newspaper columnists and legacy media co-opted the tone, and before long it flamed across the Australian media, from The Chaser, to Crikey, to The Australian’s Cut & Paste.

The hugely successful website Gawker adopted snark as its de facto house style, which New York magazine examined in an anguished article entitled “Everybody Sucks”. By 2006, US media critic Kurt Andersen observed “attitude can be found everywhere now, except in The New York Review of Books”.

Snark was a dark tone for dark times. It was the decade of the War on Terror, of fear and anthrax, extraordinary renditions and fictions about WMDs, of conflicts only partially explained and hastily entered. It was millions of citizens from Madrid to Melbourne marching against wars, yet their numbers earning no political mandate. Nothing changed.

It was a time of disempowerment and disconnection, ending in financial collapse. The rage at this found its expression in snark.

But now? Snark is dead in the water, killed by its opposing posture – sincerity. We have entered the Age of Nice.

The media is awash with things designed to elicit a positive emotional response. Online, it’s all cute pet videos and “six reasons I feel totally justified wearing a bikini”, listicles and Mashable posts. It’s Jimmy Fallon’s chat show, Pharrell’s “Happy”, Alain de Botton’s The Philosophers’ Mail. It’s viral videos promoting marriage equality, inspirational quotes from Maya Angelou, tear-jerking TED Talks, and BuzzFeed, with its motto “No haters”. Fallon, the new host of The Tonight Show, told New York magazine he aims for “cheers not jeers”. Practitioners of the old ways, such as Jon Stewart, are taking a break. Stephen Colbert has retired his snarky persona as he moves into Letterman’s vacated Late Show chair.

NBCUniversal CEO Steve Burke said Fallon’s brand of “optimistic, enthusiastic, not snarky” comedy is “exactly what America was looking for”.

According to Forbes, “Burke’s comments speak to the rise of likeability, which has in recent years become a basic standard for branding of all kinds. Whether it’s selling a show or a product, a positive tone has become the must-have quality needed to win over younger audiences.”

The late American writer David Foster Wallace, who made his own journey from snark to sincerity, predicted this trend in the early 1990s: “The next real literary ‘rebels’ in this country might well emerge as some weird bunch of anti-rebels, born oglers who dare somehow to back away from ironic watching, who have the childish gall actually to endorse and instantiate single-entendre principles. Who treat plain old untrendy human troubles and emotions in US life with reverence and conviction. Who eschew self-consciousness and hip fatigue.”

And eschewing it they are.

As well as global sensation BuzzFeed, which recently launched in Australia and is branching out from social and entertainment news to investigative journalism, the two-year-old website Upworthy is finding an audience with its packaging of feel-good videos that address serious themes such as marriage equality, cancer and trans rights. The Columbia Journalism Review reports that Upworthy’s repackaged videos and articles receive an average of 75,000 likes per post on Facebook, about 12 times that of any news organisation. Its content is “up” and also “worthy”.

In keeping with the tone of the times, criticism is not welcome in the Age of Nice.

Late last year, Isaac Fitzgerald, the editor of BuzzFeed’s books section, said he wasn’t interested in publishing negative book reviews. “Why waste breath talking smack about something?” he said. “You see it in so many old-media type places – the scathing takedown rip.” Fitzgerald said people in the online books community “understand that about books, that it is something that people have worked incredibly hard on, and they respect that. The overwhelming online books community is a positive place.”

How nice.

You can still find some snark on Gawker, but it exists alongside some of the most powerful and non-ironic accounts of what it is like to be poor in America. Read the archive of “Tales from the Unemployment Line” if you want see just how far Gawker has come from its bitchy NYC media-obsessed posts of the mid-2000s. Poverty and pain will strip away the irony. Instead there are raw, unmediated reader experiences of unemployment that don’t need a raised eyebrow or detached tone to hit their marks.

The rise and popularity of happy or uplifting content points to a growing appetite that is radically reshaping the way we think about what “news” is and how it is distributed. Known primarily for its listicles and cat videos, BuzzFeed’s Australian site is negotiating with Nielsen to be categorised as a news website and to be counted in its ratings survey. It is currently classified as a search engine. If it were reclassified as news, BuzzFeed would be the 10th most-read news website in Australia and a serious threat to more established players.

But the change is greater than just a shake-up of the Nielsen top 10. It indicates a shift in the sort of content people want: funny, entertaining, helpful, inspirational and – most of all – sincere. This new form of “nice” content is a by-product of the Facebook era and the way in which stories are now shared and distributed. The speed and volume with which an inspiring Upworthy video or a funny BuzzFeed listicle is shared via our social media networks has radically altered our media diet.

Facebook is the dominant driver for this shift to happy, inspirational and, most of all, “shareable” content. Facebook has little room for snark – it’s not built into its DNA. Trolling, picking fights, flaming or bullying is not cool. Your Facebook page is your reputation. Haters tend to be isolated. Get attacked on your page and your friends will leap to your defence.

In his book The Filter Bubble, Eli Pariser examines the shift from “human gatekeepers”, such as newspaper editors who curate news by importance, “to the algorithmic ones employed by Facebook and Google, which present the content they believe a user is most likely to click on”. This new digital universe is “a cozy place”, Pariser writes, “populated by our favourite people and things and ideas”. The new sensibility relies on curiosity and empathy.

What people have been getting from the gatekeepers for years may not always have been what we wanted. For too long the news media has been speaking to our heads rather than our hearts. What we want – if you pay attention to the analytics – is big-hearted, inspiring personal tales. We want nice.

Or, at least, the readers of the burgeoning new media do. The communities coalescing on Gawker, BuzzFeed and more are young and tend to have a liberal, progressive bent. Hal Crawford, publisher of Ninemsn, believes that it is the progressive bias in these sites that will ultimately limit their growth.

“There’s a lot of assumptions in the stories and how they are presented, and what’s worthwhile in the world,” Crawford says. “In a traditional news world you aspire to objectivity. It might be a moral position but it’s also a way of talking to the maximum amount of people and that’s what sites like Upworthy and BuzzFeed haven’t realised. Their size is capped – because not everyone is college-educated and shares those values.”

Whether there’s a demographic bias fuelling the Age of Nice, how long can it last? Will we become exhausted by the tricks of clickbait: “You won’t believe what this awesome little boy told the Pope”? And do we have endless capacity for the “emoting” this content prompts? Is our negativity bias dead – that which sustained the values of the Great Newspaper Age, the age of the inverted pyramid news story, the dull but worthy lede, the 25 drowned, the five shot dead, the failed business, the collapsed building society, the corrupt politician?

We can agree that too much snark poisons the well. It’s corrosive to character, to hope, to how we view the world, to our narrative. And the Age of Nice is a correction. But doesn’t a sharp tongue sometimes deliver a much-needed dose of truth? Who can deny the genius of Spy and Private Eye, of a whole lineage of arch, clever and often elitist, knife-twisting writers, from Martin Amis, Salman Rushdie and Christopher Hitchens to Orwell and Swift, Somerset Maugham and Dorothy Parker? I’ll click on an inspirational video and share it as much as the next person. But I’d also rather watch Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert than spend time with Jimmy Fallon.

Despite the moral superiority and barely disguised rage, there is a brilliant, hard energy to snark that is missing from nice. It’s an energy that speaks truth to power, and it’s unafraid to be unpopular – a sin in this world of “likes”. Snark calls out bullshit and prizes honesty. We might be best served by hanging on to some of it.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jun 14, 2014 as "The blunting of the snark". Subscribe here.

Brigid Delaney
is the author of the novel Wild Things.

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