David Denby, the resident film critic at the New Yorker, has been, for several months now, making the rounds on National Public Radio and other media outlets to schill his book, “Snark: It’s Mean, It’s Personal and It’s Ruining Our Conversation.” The subject of Denby’s book, in case it isn’t clear enough, is snark.
According to urban dictionary.com, snark is a combination of snide and remark. Denby writes that snark is “the bad kind of invective—low, teasing, snide, condescending, knowing … Snark is a teasing, rug-pulling form of insult that attempts to steal someone’s mojo, erase her cool, annihilate her effectiveness and it appeals to a knowing audience that shares the contempt … It’s all jeer and josh, a form of bullying that, except at its highest levels, beggars the soul of humor.”
At 65 and as entrenched as Denby is at the New Yorker, the grandest old lady of magazines, Denby risks, as Adam Sternberg wrote in New York Magazine, coming off as the Andy Rooney of the Internet age.
Snark is a part of modern life. It can be seen on Perez Hilton’s popular celebrity Web site, where over 30 million users per day flock to see Mr. Hilton accuse some celebrities of being gay.
It can be found in the comments of various blogs, which seem to be a particularly apt outlet for the passive-aggressive spewings of people who would otherwise have to confine their snark to the company cafeteria. Denby goes even further to accuse the writers of blogs themselves of snarkiness. He singles out Gawker Media, a company that owned blogs, including Gawker and Wonkette, a Washington D.C. gossip site. He blames the influx of new voices on the Web for the rise of snark. These newcomers are, according to Denby, especially prone to snark.
What Denby fails to comprehend is that no matter how many books he sells, no matter how crisp and well-formed his argument is, snark is unlikely to disappear entirely. Most blogs with any pretension to sophistication have some sort of policy to discourage derogatory and off-topic comments. However, even the most restrictive of comment policies have loopholes that allow snark to slip through. For example, Jezebel, a Gawker network blog with one of the strictest user agreements online, cannot control every snarky observation about a starlet’s veiney hands. That is because the line between free speech and appropriate speech is blurry. It is hard to define in traditional media, let alone in the still young blogosphere. Unless Denby could come up with some miraculous way to censor the thoughts of individual people, snark will continue to exist.
However, the most powerful defense of snark is not that it is here to stay, so deal with it. It is instead the fact that snark is often as close to hearing a person’s true feelings as we are likely to get. In a culture of political correctness, in a world where every public figure is packaged to be, to paraphrase Winston Churchill, a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma, snark is refreshingly honest.
When a commentator on the Orange County Register’s Web site leaves a derogatory comment about immigrants, it is a reminder for everyone who sees that comment that xenophobia is not dead. When someone leaves a snarky comment about an actress’s weight, it is a reminder of the superficial standards that we hold her to.
Can snark be mean? Yes. Can it be petty? Of course. Can it be downright hurtful? Absolutely. But does that mean that it heralds the end of the civilized world? I would have to say no. If anything, snark refuses to let us gloss over the things in our world that aren’t so pretty and shows us that we aren’t so civilized. And that, I would have to say, is a good thing.
Mengfei Chen is third-year international studies major. She can be reached at email@example.com.