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by Heidi Cullinan and Marie Sexton

We came up for the idea of this post in chat as we were both were feeling frustrated by different kinds of snark. Political snark, social snark, snark against other writers, against our spouses, against the world in general. Sometimes it seems like nine out of ten tweets are nothing but snark. And then there’s Facebook and blog posts and news articles and even entire websites like The Onion dedicated to nothing but snark. Both of us love The Onion, actually, but when combined with the general snarkiness (yes, that IS a word) of the world, even it becomes too much. It’s become impossible to spend any amount of time on a social media platform without being inundated by snark.

It’s exhausting.

So, what exactly is “snark”? Do we need to define it? What makes us feel compelled to indulge in it so often? Why exactly is it so pervasive, and so addictive? We asked each other, and neither one of us could come up with an answer. We just both knew we were sick to death of it.

The question is, what is the alternative? Have you ever tried to spend a day on Twitter without using snark? Sometimes it seems like even a benign post about puppies being cute can end up in Snarktown.

HappyTweeter: My daughter said the cutest thing!

SnarkyTweeter: I’m so sick of everybody talking about their kids. As if we care.

HappyTweeter: My husband brought me flowers!

SnarkyTweeter: Nice to constantly be reminded of my single state. Being married isn’t everything.

HappyTweeter: I have a new book out?

SnarkyTweeter: Why do authors think we want to see them constantly shoving their books down our throats.

HappyTweeter: I give up.
Possibly, we’re exaggerating, and yet, not really. Not by very damn much. Even writing this post, trying to explain how much we hate snark, ends up sounding like snark. At the very least, it will undoubtedly invite snark. Which is why we decided to do this post together, one, because it’s so tough, and two, because this way we can try to temper each other’s snark. And because it felt best to talk about it as a conversation, we decided to do it as another one of our back-and-forth chats.


Heidi: I feel compelled to begin with a confession that I’ve been snarky in the past.

Marie: As have I.

Heidi: I try really hard to refrain from national politics on Twitter, but on facebook and my blog I’ve been awful. At the time it seemed justified. Like I was owed. Like I was right, damn it, and the other side was wrong, and I was sick of seeing so much wrongness, and there came the snark.

Sometimes I think it’s the last refuge of the angry. Or at least it should be, but it’s become part of the standard response to everything. I’m having weird flashbacks to Sunday School, actually, where they told us even mean words were “killing” someone. (Not that any of the kids listened, obviously.) But I remember thinking, “Gosh. That’s true. I shouldn’t say mean things.”

When the hell did that become standard practice--for everything?

Marie: “There are many ways to be careless - stories that we tell. Even when they’re lies, we hold them like they’re fragile.”

Okay, just had to break out a random song lyric there.

Heidi: Dude, I was loving it. Was waiting for Ghandi to have said it. You’re going to tell me it’s a metal band, aren’t you.

Marie: No, actually. It’s Ellis.

Heidi: Damn, I was actually hoping for a metal band. Because that’s what I love about our relationship. We disagree on so much. We can’t even agree on the same stories that we like half the time. And yet we like each other’s work. Well, I think you like mine.

Marie: When I take the time to read. (#badfriend)

Heidi: You are not. I know that you have a very sensitive reading muse. Or whatever reading vibes are called. So you’re not a bad friend. Anyway. That’s not the point. The point is, we are very different. We have so much room for snark.

Marie: We do have a lot of room for snark, and MOST of the time, we keep it in check. I think when we don’t, we both sort of regret it later.

Heidi: Yeah. Sometimes it feels like fun teasing, but especially when it’s on the Internet, not in real time, it gets that edgy feeling. If we’re in the same car or sitting at IHOP, it’s one thing. If it’s in chat and I can’t tell if that pause is because I stepped in it or your kid just fell off the couch and is crying and you didn’t have time to write “brb,” that’s another.

Marie: Exactly. And somehow, on social media platforms, it always feels edgy. And I don’t just mean between us. I mean, in general.

Heidi: You know one of my favorite things about our differences? We were both raised in Christian backgrounds, but VERY different ones. You LDS (Latter-Day Saints), me Lutheran. In fact, I am ashamed to say I was taught to view your childhood religion as a cult. But I’ve found that as both of us have gone away from the religions given to us and made our own life philosophies, we have the same foundations. Kindness. Goodness. Family. Doing the right thing.

Marie: Open-mindedness.

Heidi: Yeah--and there are a lot of people who would eyebrow us both. Lutheran and LDS, open-minded?

I like the way our differences teach us. I like the way you can love music I find no redemption in. I don’t decide not to like you anymore. I take a second look at that song and try to see what I missed. I like you so much. Surely if you like it, there’s something I’m overlooking.

Marie: Of course, even when you look, you’re probably still stumped half the time, but that doesn’t mean you go running off to Twitter to shout that anybody who listens to metal is obviously an ignorant sociopath.

Heidi: What frustrates me is that I feel like even talking about “let’s be less snarky” paints me as a Pollyanna. And you know, I feel a bit like one writing this. But goddamn it, there has to be a middle ground.

Marie: Agreed. It’s not that there’s no room for being a smartass. Somehow, there’s a difference between just being a fun-loving smartass, and being snarky all the time.

Heidi: I suspect this is one of those things where there is no clear rule we can follow. That it will always be a grey area. That what will amuse one person will offend another. And sometimes that can’t be helped.

Marie: Totally off-topic here, but I can just say how happy I am that we both seem to use the spelling “grey” instead of “gray”?

Heidi: Gray just looks wrong.

Marie: Grey is cooler.


Wrenching us back on topic.... Well, actually, that really is the topic. There’s always a middle ground. And sometimes we can find it. Maybe it’s as simple as that. Sometimes we can tease for fun. Sometimes we can vent. But if all we’re doing is sniping and bitching and moaning, we’re being a black hole. Leaving aside how fun that must be to live in, it’s not good collectively. It isn’t even about it “not being nice.” All those black holes collect and converge and become the stuff that is tearing us apart: as a nation, as a planet, but also as a genre. As humans.

Marie: Agreed. I hate that social media has begun to feel like a minefield that I have to tiptoe through.

Heidi: I had to pause a minute and think because even as I believe in everything we’ve written here, I also love Jon Stewart. I had to do some self-examining, because isn’t he snark too?

Yes, but mostly he is a satirist, which is different than a drive-by snarker. He has a show. A fake news show, and he makes it clear it is a comedic show. When he gives interviews off his show, he’s very serious. He’s humble. He argues, and he takes no prisoners, but he doesn’t mock. When he mocks on his show, he’s almost always mocking hypocrisy. Except sometimes he makes me uncomfortable too. So I guess he’s guilty of being human.

Maybe the difference is that he’s a professional. That he knows this is a role, a mask. He is not a snarker in real life. In real life he’s a dad and a husband and all the other normal, boring things.

Marie: For myself, I think I would differentiate snark from bitching or venting or just general smart-assadness by the directness or indirectness of the target. Somehow, comments that are directed at a specific person feel less like snark to me than those that are directed at a huge, faceless crowd. For example:

“My boss’s music is driving me nuts. I have no idea how he can listen to that garbage.” = Venting. So it’s fine.

“I must admit, I simply do NOT understand rap music. At all.” = This is more like self-mockery, which is also fine.

“Is there any rap song that isn’t talking about tappin’ some bitch’s ass?” = Smartassedness. Fine or not? I’d call this in the grey (not gray) area.

“Anybody who listens to rap clearly has a sub-par IQ.” = SNARK!!!

Along the same lines, in my mind, if somebody says, “Marie sure does brag about her daughter a lot,” that’s not snark.

Heidi: Right. Unquestionable snark would be, “Oh, there they go again. Parents bragging about their kids. Because, you know, we all care.”

To me the key is the snideness. You can argue back to “I get sick of parents bragging.” You can be reasonable and say, “Well, I get what you mean, but probably they’re just being proud.” And that also to me sounds like, in your example, someone bitching to a friend. Not to a wide audience. But that performance snark, the stuff that gets eighty retweets because it’s so “clever”--

Marie: Soapbox tweeting?

Heidi: Yeah. That’s the stuff I don’t want to do anymore. Because I’ve done it. I know I have. Someone could dig through my Twitter profile and find it, I bet you twenty bucks.

Marie: I have too.

Heidi: You feel so smart at the time. Smart and smug. Like, “Ooh, I’ve won. Ha, ha.” Except what the fuck do you win, really? Ten seconds of Twitter fame? It’s just Mean Girls all over again. And goddamn, but the mean girls have made me cry. A lot.

Marie: I think really, I’d just love to see the world, and social media platforms in general, get back to some positive thinking. Maybe a bit of pay-it-forward. Maybe just giving people the benefit of the doubt instead of always assuming the worst.

Heidi: It makes me think, again, of that discussion of our childhood upbringing. Because I bet you dollars to donuts you were taught to respect others.

Marie: Absolutely.

Heidi: I read, I think from Joseph Campbell, about how when you visit a home in India you are treated as if you are a visiting god. A deity. Not worshipped but given respect. I don’t know how accurate that is, but I sure hope so. I absolutely love the idea of a culture teaching people to respect strangers. To not make them a they but make them a They. To think of the potential this person might have -- of their power and worth -- not of how they are in our way or look funny.

Okay, I’m sure I’ve utopia’d the hell out of that, but goddamn, I just love it. I wish I could live it more. That is a model I would love to aspire to.

Marie: It’s something we can all aspire to. I guess, to try to wrap up this long-winded diatribe, I’ll end by stating again that this is my challenge to myself: to cut the snark. At the very least, to reduce it.

Heidi: Like a Lent that never ends. Or maybe, starting as a Lent-like resolution, hoping it will turn into a life habit and eventually merge with...ourselves? I can’t finish that sentence like sounding I’m a new age guru.

Marie: There is a song lyric trying to come out, but I haven’t tuned it in yet.

Heidi: Okay, I know you mean that literally, but I like how that works on a metaphorical level too. Like you can feel the rightness of where you should be with non-snark, but don’t know how to actualize it yet. That’s like, COOL guru.

Marie: Well, I’m going to ruin the guru thing by actually giving you the lyric: “If we pretend long enough, never giving up, it just might be who we are.”

Heidi: You didn’t ruin anything.

All I’ve got is a line from Pratchett’s Hogfather: “Wouldn’t it be nice if everyone was nice?” Except that’s really satirical. It’s either a sign or a song posted at the Hogfather’s grotto at the maul. (Yes that spelling is correct.) The scene is all perfect and chipper lovely and nauseating. It’s crass commercialism--

(Heidi drones on about Pratchett and complex narrative. Marie blinks for awhile, trying to figure out how to artfully cut her off, and they descend into their usual chat banter which really doesn’t have a place here.)


To wrap things up, we want you to know that we’re challenging ourselves to give up snark for one week, and we’d like to invite everybody else to try it too. It doesn’t mean we can’t vent about our husbands leaving their dirty socks on the floor or our bosses being arrogant jerks. It just means stepping off our soapboxes and thinking of something positive to say instead of throwing out that one-line quip that could end up hurting somebody we never intended to hurt. Because wouldn’t it be nice if everybody paused to consider whether their social media outburst added to the world or just gave it another wound to patch over?

We think the answer to that is, “Good god, yes it would.”


( 3 comments — Leave a comment )
May. 2nd, 2011 07:54 pm (UTC)
I'd argue that the IQ comment is just plain insult in a broad sweeping generalization sort of way, not snark.

Other than that, y'all rock like a hurricane!
May. 3rd, 2011 03:18 am (UTC)
My old boss used to walk around declaring how much she LOVED snark...and it came as no surprise to me, because she was so bitter and hateful, it gave that evil in her some sort of direction to flow where she could imagine she was being witty.

I wonder sometimes if people are snarky because they feel defensive, and they're not in tune enough with themselves to write from somewhere genuine. Not that the nasty tenor of the internet really invites anyone to dig deep and expose their vulnerability.

Lovely discussion. Thank you for sharing it! (I'm also confused as to where Jon Stewart and The Onion fit in. Many of The Onion things I enjoy are just the dumb things, like Area Man Tolerates Cats.)

Edited at 2011-05-03 03:19 am (UTC)
May. 3rd, 2011 05:58 am (UTC)
I think the problem arises from people confusing snark with cleverness. It's actually very easy to be snarky. Genuinely clever satire, such as Terry Pratchett has a gift for, is much more difficult and always has at its core a love of humanity and a belief that we can be better.

Well, that's what I reckon, anyway...
( 3 comments — Leave a comment )