I recorded a piece for BBC Radio 4 about online snark, which was broadcast today. It’s available online here for the next two weeks; I’m at 21mins:30 but the whole programme is worth listening to.
Just in case a) you missed the two week deadline; b) you can’t bear to hear the sound of my voice; especially when I seem to have adopted that delightfully pompous Radio 4 tone or c) you want to read the bits they cut in the edit, including my Wales joke – here’s the full uncut, linked-up transcript……
As a columnist and a blogger, it’s my job to be cynical about things. Rude even. And yet when I go online even I’m frequently amazed when I see the things human beings are capable of saying about each other from the safety of their computer keyboards. Spend just a couple of minutes trawling the blogosphere and you’ll see what I mean.
Start off with Perez Hilton.com. Hilton – whose name itself, by the way, is a snarky jab at American IT girl, Paris Hilton – is the current crown prince of online snark. The queen of all media, as he puts it. His blog specializes in poking fun at celebrities through a combination of short snarky posts and photographs with unspeakable things photoshopped into them.
Recently Perez Hilton was in the audience a judge of the Miss USA pagent and asked Miss California whether she supported gay marriage. When told that she thought marriage should be between a man and a woman, although she was proud to live in a country that supported both, Hilton posted a tirade on his blog in which he called Miss California a “a dumb bitch.” Jonathan Swift, he is most certainly not. Mr Hilton describes his work as snarky – a word that lacks a precise definition but seems to cover a multitude of sins including sarcasm, bitchiness, smug superiority and – let’s say it – outright bullying.
But Hilton is just a wannabe next to the towering pillar of snark that is Gawker.com. The Manhattan-based media gossip bog, founded by a Brit – Nick Denton, formerly of the Financial Times, believe it or not – specializes in tearing down celebrities and anyone else they feel worthy of their unique breed of wrath. One popular target is Julia Allison, a 20-something year old blogger – who you’ve never heard of – who writes a great dating column for Time Out in New York. Everything from Miss Allison’s dating life, to her attempts to promote her blog come in for microcriticism, despite – and it’s worth saying this again – the fact that almost nobody outside Manhattan has the first idea who she is. In the world of online snark, nobody is immune. Or perhaps I should say nobodys are not immune
But what’s interesting about Perez Hilton and Gawker and the zillion other snark blogs available online is not the actual editorial content – if that’s what it is – but rather the comments posted by visitors in response to each story. That’s where we see the real, hideously deformed face of online snark. “I don’t think I can ever forgive Gawker for introducing the world to this creature.” says one reader in response to yet anpther Julia Allison related post. Another adds “I’m concerned about the pose she frequently adopts in photos, right shoulder back and slightly down with the humeral head cantilevered forward, spine spiraled towards the camera, and almost always to the right – is she trying to disguise some sort of scoliosis?” Oh yes, sometimes snark carries a dictionary.
Back at Perez Hilton and the news that Jamie Lynn Spears’ boyfriend had been seriously injured in a car accident prompted one sympathetic commenter to ask “who cares?” and another to add “I bet the redneck wasn’t wearing a seatbelt.” Wow.
Even on supposedly serious business sites, snarky comments are seen as just as valid as sensible ones. When the world’s leading technology news site, Techcrunch, hired Business Week columnist Sarah Lacy as a reporter, commenters immediately weighed in on such important matters as how attractive she is, with one anonymous – er – fan saying “she looks sexy, I want to kiss her”, while a somewhat lesser fan added “I really really dislike her for some reason, I can’t remember what though”. I’d quote some of the more tastless and vicious remarks but a) I don’t want to give them any wider audience and b) there might be children listening. They’re not hard to find though, that’s the beauty of the Internet.
But back to the question – while the Internet is undoubtedly packed to the gills with snark, is it actually making us more snarky? Before we were all connected to the world wide web did we seriously not make disparaging remarks about pretty women, or say mean things when people we don’t know get injured? Of course we did. I went to an all-boys school and some of the things we said to each other – and about each other – would make Perez Hilton blush The difference is, nobody outside of the school heard us doing it. Sure, mean jokes were passed around but only as far as the school gates – after all, who outside our tiny little community cared about who we thought was fat or who we had decided lived in a caravan park. Not, before I get letters, that there’s anything wrong with living in a caravan park. Unless of course it’s in Wales.
When it came to celebrity snark, that existed too, of course, with jokes about celebrity paedophiles – you know the ones I mean – and the challenger shuttle disaster enjoyed by young and old alike back in the 80s. But spoken jokes don’t leave a papertrail so we can’t look back and measure just how snarky we were in those days. Maybe old magazines will give us a clue. Long before Tim Berners Lee invented the web, we had publications like Private Eye to keep us stocked up with snark. But looking back at Rupert Murdoch being called The Dirty Digger or the Guardian being spelt as Grauniad (brilliant), what we see is cynisism and satire of a much gentler kind than can be found today on Gawker. And the satire and the cynicism was always a means to an end – adding color to a story about alleged dodgy dealings or to poke fun at poor journalism and press pomposity. Much of the online snark we see today is an end in and of itself. There’s a famous person – let’s call them a rude name or Photoshop some genitals on to their picture. All done. Next victim please.
What we’re seeing today is the Internet not as media at all but as a giant school playground, where we’re still making the same childish jokes we always made but now everyone in the world can listen in. It doesn’t matter that you haven’t heard of Julia Allison, because Gawker will quite happily link to a dozen or so previous stories about her to get you up to speed. And once you are, you can join in the hate too.
And it’s not just Internet comments. Today we have Facebook, where you can post mean comments on your friends’ virtual walls, or post photographs making them look foolish. We have Twitter, where through 140 character mini-messages, you can broadcast your latest snarky thought to the rest of the planet. And of course we have Google, which ties everything else together making it easier than ever to find snarky remarks about just about anyone. Google me, I don’t think you’ll be disappointed. Actually I just did, and my favourite is the person commenting that reading my column in the Guardian is like watching someone dry heave. You should trying writing it, love.
So is the Internet making us all snarky? Of course not – but what it is doing though is making snark more accessible than ever. In fact, it’s almost as if the Internet was designed specifically with snark in mind. For a start, it rewards brevity and speed – blog posts tend to be super-short and Twitter forces you to be concise by limiting the number of letters you can use. And brevity and speed are the mother or snark. To be snarky takes just a few words and almost no brainpower at all – it’s a game for everyone from 8 – 80 as I think connect four used to say. I doubt very much whether the person who wrote “I hate Sarah Lacy but I don’t know why” spent more than a nanosecond preparing that gem before putting finger to keyboard. And once it’s out there, it takes even less effort for other chumps to simply copy and paste it to their blog.
Another boon for the online snark is the anonymity and distance the web affords us. The chances of running into the object of our hate is almost zero – in fact they quite possibly don’t even live in the same country. And yet thanks to Google, your hate can be served up, anonymously, right into their lap. It’s like driving past someone at 100mph and throwing faeces at them out of the window. Actually no, it’s like getting someone else to do it for you while you sit safely at home laughing at how clever you are. Well done you.
When historians of snark look back at the dawn of the Internet age, they’ll see a perfectly preserved record of how mean we were to each other. And many of them will assume a correlation between the web and that meanness. But they’ll be wrong. Technology may move on but our basic level of snarkiness will stay the same. The difference now – and the real risk to civilization – is that it’s no longer confined to the playground. And as we get more used to it, it’s inevitable that other media – TV, radio, print, will try to keep up to keep their audience from migrating on mass to the web looking for their daily snark fix. There’s no doubt: the future is snarky.
The question is whether we can evolve thick enough skins, quickly enough, before we’re all reduced to jibbering sobbing wrecks.