On Snark

I remember the first time I ever heard the word “snarky”. Five or six years ago I was out at brunch having a boxty with some people who were saavier than me when one of them used a word I didn’t recognize. When I asked what “snarky” meant, the woman who used the word had some trouble explaining it to me. I don’t remember the explanation she eventually came up with and I certainly don’t have a better one even today. Snark shares a trait with its sisters Irony and Sarcasm, which is that they defy a discrete definition. I had to see a bunch of examples before it clicked.

Well, five or six years later, there’s certainly no shortage of examples. Virtually every popular website traffics heavily in snark. Shark is short. It fits into a tweet and can be typed over a cat’s face and still be large enough to read. Snark is popular. Everybody recognizes the tone, it has become a kind of textual handshake, something that says “you can trust me, I speak your language”. Most of all, snark is easy. Social media often demands participation even when you don’t have anything to say. For times such as those, just click the “share” button, type “Really?” and you’re done.

If I were pressed about that definition, I’d float this one: snark is a lazy re-packaging of prevailing opinion. Remember what happened when they announced that Ben Affleck would be playing Batman? The blogosphere was abuzz  with nuanced analysis of his checkered acting career. Some expressed measured apprehension, citing his palpable apathy in Gigli, Jersey Girl, and, most damning, Daredevil. Others remained cautiously optimistic that a complex character like the Dark Knight could provide the focus Affleck would need to turn in a performance on the level of Good Will Hunting or Argo. lol jk this happened

A whole lot of brevity masquerading as wit. That’s what is so insidious about snark, is that it can be made up to look like so much that it isn’t: wit, criticism, insight. I tried, but I couldn’t put it any better than Marc Maron and Jason Woliner did on the WTF Podcast (Episode 455, at the 1:11:38 mark):

Marc Maron: Snark is sort of like a virus and just by its nature implies an emotional distance which means it’s risk averse.
Jason Woliner: Snark is kind of like the end of the world because it’s the easiest reaction to anything, it’s just like saying “meh” to anything, it’s just like the tone of a lot of blogs. Like the result of twitter is saying everyone can make the same jokes, its the same reaction to everything, and anything that comes out – the easiest reaction is just to go, “meh”.
MM: Yeah there’s that, but there’s also the mild condescension of inane cleverness.
JW:  … it’s like “what’s my take on this”, but it’s the same joke, though.
MM: Right, it’s a disposition that’s entitled, it’s insulated, it completely avoids emotional interaction, it’s almost designed to assume a condescending wisdom of something where you don’t even have to know anything-
JW: You don’t have to know anything but you’re instantly able to make yourself above something by just-
MM: -but I think that’s the type of personality that massive content-driven pop culture creates, because people just use point of references. Like whatever early Dennis Miller unleashed as some sort of farce of intelligence has now become the cultural norm.
JW: Right, it’s kind of like the end of comedy, because yeah, it’s true, everyone is funny now in that way, it shows you that everyone can do that.

Believe it or not, I’m not advocating the abolition of snark, just a more thoughtful application of it. I think of it like profanity: use it sparingly and it can be a powerful tool to drive home a point. Use it to excess and it just makes you sound like a fucking dumbass. Now, every time I’m tempted towards snark, I just remember why there hasn’t been a Wikipedia article for “Snarky” since 2011 (click for full effect):


“This page has been deleted … (A3: Article that has no meaningful, substantive content)”

One thought on “On Snark

  1. And now, because I’m really an addict, four snarky responses to the tweets above, in order:

    “I could take 3 seconds to look up who the villain will be, but I can’t deny my followers the blistering wit that they crave, not for even a moment longer!”

    Thanks for interrupting your vacation to bring us what has become the thought that many say crystallizes our collective mood: “Yeah … OK”

    “I have this list of pop culture memes, any of which I could work into a timely joke about Ben Affleck as Batman. Or I could punctuate said list with random objects and be done with it.”

    “I can see no situation in which I regret using my children as a prop in a cheap joke about Ben Affleck.”


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