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The Empty Thrill Of Snark

18th May 2015

Amelita Galli-Curci seated at desk , photo source unknown.

I’ve been thinking about snark lately, about creativity- poisoning, and the meanness and ugliness of it all.

There’s a real high-school thing happening out there where the online mean-girl gang gather to speculate about blogs they love to hate. Poison pens hovering, they wait for bloggers to write something stupid, outrageous or thoughtless. How very dare you! cry the commenters on these snark threads, as they idly rip apart every aspect of a persons life and crow over the remains.

Bloody hell, who would be a blogger these days? Nobody gets out alive.

Way back in ye olde blogging machine, bloggers would comment on each others sites, because it was the only contact we had with each other. People would write to say hello, I’ve had that experience you talked about, nice hat, etc. People didn’t bother to write mean stuff, usually, and if they did it was the aggressive act of an anonymous weirdo  and other readers jumped in to defend you. If  there was a blogger who you couldn’t stand you either clicked away or you quietly texted your sister to have a laugh.

Times have changed.

Blogging is different now in lots of ways, good and bad. The existence of anonymous snark websites changes the atmosphere profoundly from a largely supportive and warm community space to one where you need a very thick skin to express yourself with vulnerability and truth. I think it’s  a sad development.

Ira Glass from This American Life  has a wonderful theory on the development of creativity: that it takes time to hone a craft. If you’re going to get good, you have to be really crappy for a while first.

Nobody tells this to people who are beginners, I wish someone told me. All of us who do creative work, we get into it because we have good taste. But there is this gap. For the first couple years you make stuff, it’s just not that good. It’s trying to be good, it has potential, but it’s not. But your taste, the thing that got you into the game, is still killer. And your taste is why your work disappoints you. A lot of people never get past this phase, they quit. Most people I know who do interesting, creative work went through years of this. We know our work doesn’t have this special thing that we want it to have. We all go through this. And if you are just starting out or you are still in this phase, you gotta know its normal and the most important thing you can do is do a lot of work. Put yourself on a deadline so that every week you will finish one story. It is only by going through a volume of work that you will close that gap, and your work will be as good as your ambitions. And I took longer to figure out how to do this than anyone I’ve ever met. It’s gonna take awhile. It’s normal to take awhile. You’ve just gotta fight your way through.”

The problem with writing online is that the development process is public. Every half-arsed idea you float could possibly be captured and examined in all its shameful amateurism by this court of self-appointed, nameless meanies, these arbiters of taste and intelligence.

Snark culture has a particular language and behavior.  Writers call each other ‘hams’ and are saccharine sweet, ham to ham, in the manner of adolescent girl-gangs wanting to prove that they are not the bitches they appear. ‘You hams are the best,’ they say, and ‘this is the funniest thread on the internet,’ all the while inserting the salty blade into strangers relationships with their children. In this language, children are ‘kittens’ and to defend a blogger is to WK, or white-knight them, and this is usually done apologetically, as in  ’can’t believe  I’m WK’ing for….’ The given wisdom seems to be that the bloggers they dissect are utterly craven, and deserve every ugly slur hurled their way. While many writers are measured,  there is a significant percentage who  seem deeply and inexplicably invested in the lives of the strangers whose blogs they read.

There are some nutball narcissists out there writing blogs, no doubt.  But it’s a pretty hard to defend a website that has a thread with over 1000 pages dedicated to parsing and mocking every word written by a Mormon mother of five who writes about life after surviving a plane crash that burned almost all of her body.

The argument for snark says that it is a useful counterpoint to the over-familiar, fan-girly commentary that can appear on blogs. That stuff is skin-crawly, to be sure.  Guardian writer Sady Doyle says it’s useful and necessary. ‘Snark is the kids at the back of the class,’ Doyle says, ‘heckling the substitute teacher; it’s the voice of people who feel stifled, talked down to, or left out; the tool of people who have discovered that honing in on the weaknesses of those in power, exposing them publicly (if only to their own circle of friends), and reducing them to figures of fun (if only in their own minds), makes them feel a little less helpless.’

I think the problem lies in the combination of anonymity and groupthink.  We get encouraged  into a kind of  folie à plusieurs, or ‘madness of many’ - where an idea gains credence by being held by lots of people, no matter how batshit crazy it might be.  Soon we are inhabiting this awful, ugly landscape where people speculate on the mental health, marriage status and pants size of lady-writers  (the bloggers, like the snarkers, are overwhelmingly female).  This mother doesn’t love her child. This child has a developmental delay. This woman needs medication. This one needs cosmetic surgery. The pearl-clutching, body-shaming and moralising goes on and on.

Who are these people?

Who would bother to write these things?

It’s all such a buzzkill.

Reading blog snark sites, when you are a blogger,  is like a secret, guilty pleasure. Some of the gifs are superb, and many of the writers are intelligent and funny. But it doesn’t take long before the sweetness starts to pool in a sour puddle, like reading ‘celebrities without makeup’ or watching Dance Moms. It’s not the behaviour of a useful person, to insert this kind of information into your brain.

Here’s how Caitlin Moran puts it in her book ‘How To Build A Girl’:

Because I am still learning to walk and talk, and it is a million times easier to be cynical, and to wield a sword, than it is to be open-hearted, and stand there, holding a balloon and a birthday cake, with the infinite potential to look foolish. Because I still don't know what I really think or feel, and I'm throwing grenades and filling the air with smoke while I desperately, desperately try to get off the ground: to get elevation. Because I haven't yet learned the simplest and most important thing of all: the world is difficult, and we are all breakable. So just be kind.

Creating content is really hard when out there is a living embodiment of your inner critic, hovering over the keyboard waiting to mock your your thoughts. Me, I like to imagine the snarkers like my friend Anthony describes, tapping away in front of a mirror, with a Casio keyboard by their side, set permanently on the Applause button. I wish they would turn their talents to making something instead of tearing at things others have made.

Lets create, not spectate. Let’s allow each other to be nobby, idiotic and dim sometimes. Let’s leave a little wiggle room so that those amongst us with thinner skins are not afraid to speak their truth, make their offerings, and let their freak flags fly.

It’s how Leonard Cohen tells it: ’Ring the bell that still can ring. Forget your perfect offering. There is a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.’

PS - I enjoyed writing a post on my old blog called The Best of The Angry Shriekers That Hate Me.  It was therapeutic.

PPS - Cooker and A Lookers video of bloggers reading mean comments.

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