Past Event

The United States of Snarks

On the Internet people can write almost anything-and write it anonymously. And with anonymity comes a proliferation of snark, says David Denby, author of the new book, "Snark: It’s Mean, It’s Personal, and It’s Ruining Our Conversation" (Simon & Schuster, $15.95).

Snark is the biting, clever put down, the cheap shot, the hateful, snide, condescending, bullying ridicule that Denby says is rampant online, especially on blogs, which allow people to post insults and abusive speech that would hardly be acceptable in polite social settings. And snark isn’t a recent invention. Denby traces it to the 8th century B.C. In ancient Greece, men, especially, entertained each other with their "abusive mouths."  

In his book, Denby writes, "In the wake of the Internet revolution, snark as a style has outgrown its original limited function. The Internet has allowed it to metastasize as a pop writing form: A snarky insult, embedded in a story or a post, quickly gets traffic; it gets linked to other blogs; and soon it has spread like a sneezy cold through the vast kindergarten of the Web."

Denby, a film critic for The New Yorker, calls out a number of journalists for their snarky tendencies, particularly The New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd, who gets a chapter all her own in his book. "Her appetite for ridicule equals any politician’s appetite for power," he writes. Dowd is well known, loathed and loved for her literary-laced lambasting of politicians, both Democratic and Republican.

TV shows like Gossip Girl may be "juicily entertaining," Denby says, but in "real life it’s as hostile as spit." But snark is different from satire and irony. So what’s considered snark and what’s not? Many would say that Stephen Colbert practices irony with his gritty and biting humor. The New Yorker labeled as satire its cover image of Barack Obama in a turban and robe giving his wife, Michelle, a fist bump. Would it be safe to say that Comedian Penn Jillette’s (of Penn and Teller) jokes, rants and musings are nothing more than snark?

What is not controversial is that there is an appetite for snark. Not all are convinced that it’s really so bad. Posting on NPR’s blog, Lois Leader wrote: "Snark, like beauty, appears to be in the eye of the beholder (or ear of the hearer.) It all comes down to intent. Using words to bludgeon or personally tear down another is wrong no matter what it is called. But a well-placed snark to highlight a logical absurdity or challenge a bloated sense of entitlement? I could enjoy that."

Have you encountered a proliferation of snark online? How does our ability to remain anonymous online, interrupt social graces?  Do we live in a culture increasingly characterized by abusive language and gratuitous insults? What are the benefits of snark? Do you think blog posters and journalists use snark? Do you hear others using snarky language?  Have you snarked with the best, or worst, of them? Snark or no snark, how can we foster meaningful civic dialogue and engagement in our society?

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