I'm Giving Up Snark In The New Year

Snark discredits people and ideas by refusing to engage with them. Instead, we talk around our targets, mock until it’s safe again.
Publish date:
January 8, 2013
snark, new year's resolutions

The other day was awful. There was a lot going on and a friend dragged me to the mall after work to wander and maybe indulge in a little retail therapy. I found myself standing in the middle of Sephora with a sampler of L’Occitane hand creams, realizing that I don’t even LIKE hand cream. (They just smelled so good.)

That’s when I saw the Clarisonic display on the wall. And, in pursuit of my First Resolution (Be More Vain), I purchased one. While I’m generally a skeptic when it comes to expensive beauty tools, I gotta say, results are positive.

In light of this success, I will tell you about my Second Resolution: Be Less Snarky.

Urban Dictionary says “snark” is, essentially, a portmanteau of “snide” and “remark.” It’s a meanly meant sarcastic comment. It’s belittling. It’s a signal that the person or thing or idea being snarked is not to be taken seriously. (It’s not to be confused, of course, with Lewis Carroll’s snark, which is a creature to be hunted.)

We live in a culture of snark. As Anton Ego put in “Ratatouille,” “We thrive on negative criticism, which is fun to write and to read.” He was speaking about critics but I think it’s more broadly applicable than that. I’ve had to write negative reviews before; without snark, negative reviews tend toward the banal and deadly boring -- or, at worst, the truly depressing.

Snark can, I think, be a useful thing, as well as an entertaining one. When snark is used as a tool to criticize oppressive power structures, that’s valuable. But, I gotta be honest, my friends: I don’t think that’s how snark is used most of the time. Most of the time, we snark because there is something we just don’t like. A few years back, Roger Ebert went so far as to call snark cultural vandalism.

What concerns me is that snark functions as a device to punish human spontaneity, eccentricity, non-conformity and simple error. Everyone is being snarked into line. All celebrities are under unremitting scrutiny. How dare Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt, or Mia Farrow before them, adopt more than one Third World baby? Do they have nothing better to do with their money?

While I think it’s totally valid to critique the actions of famous people (I’m uneasy about white people with savior complexes collecting little brown babies), critique and snark are not the same thing. And I think Ebert is right -- folks snark at people and things who step out of line.

There’s also a component of defensiveness; people snark at people and things that come across as being critical of something the snarker does or believes in. Snark is, in this sense, the ridicule of something that we find, in even the smallest degree, threatening. Snark discredits people and ideas by refusing to engage with them. Instead, we talk around our targets, mock until it’s safe again.

For a little while, when I was in college, a friend took to calling me Merry Sunshine. I’ve been compared to a Muppet on more than one occasion. I have, for a very long time, cultivated an attitude of earnestness -- I want to engage in good faith and I really do want to understand where other people are coming from.

Snark is many things but conducive to understanding other people, well -- it ain’t that.

It’s just so easy to engage in, especially online, right? Anything for a laugh?

Or is it anything to try to make people shut up about stuff we don't find entertaining?

Maybe it's all of the above.

I'm not very good at being snarky. I mean, I can be sarcastic, that's not the problem. I just feel guilty every time I deploy snark as a dismissive tactic. And I find myself thinking that it's more than cultural vandalism -- in some ways, it is conversational terrorism, meant to shut other folks down and remind them of the consequences of speaking out of turn.

I know there are people who are going to defend snark, who are going to go so far as to call it an art. And there are other people who will label me humorless (despite the way I really am very easily amused). I want to preemptively point out that I am not suggesting anyone is a bad person for snarking or saying anyone must change their snarking ways.

But what I am saying is that I think my personal efforts and energy are better spent in other ways. I don't have hate reads because there are so many awesome things that I have limited time to read -- any time I spend hate reading is actively taking away from the good stuff that I want to take in.

If I'm rolling around in how good it can feel to snark about stuff -- and I do acknowledge that it can be a powerful feeling -- then I'm not, I don't know, talking to a barista about seapunk.

(Which is a thing now. My verdict is still out but prelim results are positive.)

One of the things I like most about xoJane is that there is not a philosophy of snark motivating our topics and pitches. We aren't sitting around on the backend trading nasty comments about celebrities. I'm not real interested in celebrities anyway, but I certainly don't have any particular beef with most of them. (And, I admit, I think it's awesome that Rebecca gets so excited about them.) I don't have an opinion on Kim and Kanye's impending baby because, frankly, I have other shit to worry about.

And maybe that's what it ultimately comes down to for me. I can spend my time tearing something down for fun or I can make something (metaphorically or literally) for myself. Again, I'm not saying we shouldn't engage in meaningful criticism. But there comes a point where it's just recreational meanness. The trick is identifying the place where that happens. And it'll always be a work in progress.

But I've got a whole bunch of hobbies, so snarking? Well. It just doesn't need to be one of them.

What about you?

Marianne is living snark-free on Twitter: @TheRotund.