Is the Internet Mean?

Yes, but not always. I just finished reading David Denby’s polemic on Internet rudeness called “Snark: It’s Mean, It’s Personal, and It’s Ruining Our Conversation.”

Here’s how Denby describes Snark:

“This is an essay about a strain of nasty, knowing abuse spreading like pinkeye through the national conversation – a tone of snarking insult provoked and encouraged by the new hybrid world of print, television, radio, and the Internet…It’s the bad kind of invective – low, teasing, snide, condescending, knowing; in brief snark – that I hate.”

Denby calls out the guilty: Maureen Dowd of the New York Times, GawkerPerez Hilton, and Wonkette (no real surprises on the list – although talk radio ranters Rush Limbaugh, Michael Savage and Jay Severin glide through relatively unscathed).  He also praises the high satirical comedy of John Stewart and Stephen Colbert.

Keep up the Snark and youll have your mouth washed out with soap.

Keep up the Snark and you'll have your mouth washed out with soap.

The Internet can be a brutal place.  The ability to be anonymous gives creeps, slugs, trolls, and the generally vicious a platform to be cruel, racist, sexist and vile.  If you have a blog or use Twitter or FriendFeed, it is likely that you’ve been victimized by these snarks.  In the three years I’ve been an active blogger I’ve been called “brainless,” “a moron” and “diseased” (whatever that means).

It’s important to realize that thoughtful criticism and creative satire are not Snark.  Snark is personal attack – disguised at wit.  It’s low brow and cheap and sometimes its ease is difficult to resist – especially on the web.  Few web communicators can say they have never fired off a below the belt retort on some forum, blog or micro-blog.  But the occasional snark isn’t the problem – it’s when in becomes the preferred mode of communication – especially of debate.

Denby’s compact volume contains more misses than hits.  He spends more time exploring the concept and history of snarkiness rather than investing any real-time in exploring why the trend has such a stranglehold on web communications.  The problem is that this is a personal essay and not an investigative piece.  Wouldn’t it have been fascinating to talk with Perez Hilton or track down those anonymous snarks that erupted out of the waters of the web to personally attack people?  What goes on inside their heads?

Denby also doesn’t offer much in the way of suggestions on how to solve the problem.  I’ve been a fan of open identification (although that has its problems and challenges).  While there are problems with “Snark,” I’d recommend it simply because its a start to talking about how to battle rudeness and invective on the web.

Please feel free to offer up your own suggestions for cleaning up conversations or your own experiences with Snark.  I’d love to hear them.

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