if it were easy to get out of, nobody’d be in it

So probably my best instinct is just to point out that this long post by Tom Scocca on smarm was followed, just a few posts later, by a post titled “Monkey Teaches Man to Play His Favorite Game.” It’s a perfect argument in and of itself, and if I were smarter, I’d just leave it at that.

Neetzan Zimmerman wrote that post. He’s both Gawker’s biggest money generator, a very talented viral aggregator, and one of the most consistently smarmy writers on the internet. Post after post of his reaches for that empty, facile uplift that is the bread and butter of sites like Upworthy and Buzzfeed, the kind of sites that produce the content he hates so much. A very large portion of what Zimmerman does– and thus a large portion of the cash that comes into Gawker– is of the “when you see what this autistic mother did to save this dying seal pup, you won’t believe your eyes” variety. And that subsidizes Tom Scocca’s writing. Don’t take it from me! Take it away, Farhad Manjoo: “Mr. Zimmerman’s dominance is part of Gawker’s plan. By earning so much traffic on his own, he effectively subsidizes the rest of the staff, liberating them to pursue deeper, longer, more experimental pieces.”

Now this is a plan I have defended in the past. Not just in general, but for Gawker specifically. Because they publish a lot of good stuff, stuff you can’t get elsewherez. So I don’t mind having to wade through the soul-destroying bullshit that Zimmerman and a few other Gawker writers post to get to the good stuff. You gotta pay the bills. And this dynamic isn’t gonna change. I hate Buzzfeed and Upworthy and I wouldn’t hand Henry Blodget a glass of water in the desert, but this is reality: you want to read stuff online? Great. You’re gonna get the smarm that your cousin insists on posting on Facebook every quarter hour. So you’d like to see a little self-knowledge, a little acknowledgement of Scocca’s implication in all this, under the rippling waves of self-regard. But, nope. That’s the problem with “snark,” or whatever you want to call it: it destroys self-knowledge. If Scocca has ever written a self-critical word, I have yet to read it, and that makes him a far less useful intelligence than he otherwise could be.

Just look at some of the comments on that post. A commenter writes,

Finally! Someone has called out Eggers and Upworthy. Just, thank you.

And I want to note that the two best articles of the year on this site have appeared in the last 30 something hours, and they’ve both been by this man. Bravo!

Now, pardon me, but you have to have suffered some kind of massive brain injury to think that Dave Eggers and Upworthy have gone without criticism. I mean, really. Sometimes I think Nick Denton grew Dave Eggers in a lab just to give bloggers someone to make fun of. Upworthy is so hated that even that idiot cousin I mentioned is starting to get annoyed with it. This is the kind of cluelessness that blank, omnidirectional criticism produces: you end up arguing flatly untrue things, and pretending that people and publications that are actively reviled aren’t. You end up unironically arguing that there’s not enough negativity on the internet. And by the way– this comment is close to the Platonic ideal of smarm. Bravo!

Now I said some of these things in the comments to the piece, and as was to be expected, I got a lot of wagon-circling pushback. You see– this will blow your mind– people don’t agree about what’s snark and what’s smarm, and their designation of each has everything to do with what they like and which team they’re on. Crazy! It’s almost as if the world is a complicated place, and that attempts to get beyond the flat reality of human subjectivity and disagreement are useless. (Great for generating traffic, though. Just not “Monkey Teaches Man to Play His Favorite Game”-level traffic.)

The commenters really loved Scocca’s piece. They always do. One of the funny things about Scocca’s exquisitely polished stance as The Last Honest Man On the Internet is that most of what he writes is pure red meat for Gawker commenters. Look at his piece on how white people ruin everything. It was vintage Scocca: right on the facts and on the substance, analytically adroit, not quite as good as he clearly thought it was, and perfectly designed to flatter the sensibilities of the average reader of Gawker. Nothing could have played to their self-image more; each of the white people loudly celebrating it was sure that it was actually about those other white people, which of course destroyed its entire point. In any event, it was portrayed, by the hundreds and hundreds of connected people who praised it, as somehow a work of unpopular daring. That might be Scocca’s real genius: to write pieces that appear risky but which are actually money in the bank, perfect for the kind of people who read Gawker or the Awl.

Of course, no group is more susceptible to self-flattery and fake “risky” pieces than our chattering class, the savvy, connected set who define the agenda for what proles like you and I get to read on the Internet. If you’d like to understand the difference between fake negativity and real negativity, please take a moment and drop Scocca’s piece into the search bar of Twitter. Because I have never seen such a tsunami of empty plaudits in my life. There’s just dozens and dozens of toothless, banal compliments, precisely the kind of pious, lukewarm positivity that Scocca thinks he’s lampooning. And I genuinely wonder: do they not see the flatly self-defeating nature of this? Can they not understand that every empty piece of obligatory, transactional praise they deliver totally undercuts the point Scocca thinks he’s making?

The truth is that bloggers and journalists like Scocca, elites who write for other elites, like negativity only in the abstract. A paean to negativity that results in nothing but praise is by definition an empty shell, a useless work designed to be celebrated by a wagon-circling, self-interested class of influence peddlers who endorse the idea of independence but punish it whenever they actually find it. An actually risky essay is one that most people hate. An actual willingness to be actually negative means that most people will not like you. But they never, ever, ever allow themselves to even consider that, that the way in which they talk up criticism and being oh-so-tough is totally disarmed by the fact that they all treat writing like a cool party where they hang out and trade praise for each other.

My challenge to Tom Scocca would be to write a piece that doesn’t result in hundreds of people kissing his ass. If he did that, he might understand what it means to actually be negative, to actually be independent. But he’s a paid-up insider working for a powerful publication, living in the same fortress of Twitter followers and media friends they all do, and so the thought won’t ever occur to him.

Here’s the reality: writers are self-interested creatures, desperate for approval, whose self-esteem and financial security are dependent on being liked. They produce criticism. That criticism is sometimes too harsh and sometimes not harsh enough. Sometimes that criticism is productive and sometimes it’s not. Sometimes affected negativity is well done and sometimes it’s not. Sometimes you should be jokey and sometimes you should be serious. Sometimes you should play to the crowd and sometimes you’ve actually got to risk writing something that will make people dislike you. The reality is that there’s no blanket formula. There isn’t too much snark and there isn’t too much smarm. There isn’t too much positivity and there isn’t too much negativity. You’ve just got to pick your way through what’s out there and criticize what deserves to be criticized and praise what deserves to be praised. That’s all you can do. That’s adult life. Grow up.

This is me, doing what Scocca told me to do, and doing what almost no one else is doing, applying my critical faculties to his self-aggrandizing call to be more critical. So tell me, keepers of the sacred flame of negative criticism: how did I do?

This entry was posted in Prose Style and Substance. Bookmark the permalink.

21 Responses to if it were easy to get out of, nobody’d be in it

  1. David Weigel says:

    Yeah, most of the Gawker links I see shared on Facebook are Zimmerman links, and they typically make me double-take. “This is Gawker? Not Upworthy? Why is Gawker writing about an INSPIRING monkey taking care of a baby?” Slate also has a silo of this viral stuff, and it really irritates some of our readers, who email me (why?) to complain.

    There’s a certain shame and distance about this stuff as I discovered when I pilloried people who ran the Elan Gale hoax. Some journo friends argued that, well, it’s generally understood that the main page of Buzzfeed, like Viralnova et al, is just a viral aggregation engine. Is it? I don’t think I’ve dreamed those SXSW talks by Buzzfeed editors, or media profiles, about how the site is Changing Journalism. It definitely aspires to be a smart tabloid magazine, with the implication that it is reported by reporters. The dirty not-so-secret is that the journalism is a loss-leader, paid for by the drones ripping off Reddit threads.

  2. ethan gach says:

    You almost point it out explicitly, but the pieces that traffic in “look how more aware and righteous we are than these ignorant dicks over here” are as much about affirmation and uplift as the monkey stuff.

    They give the reader that *wink *wink that lets them know they are in the club, they’ve made it out of the cave, and can now yuck yuck about all those rubes still staring at shadows on the wall. “The world is a terrible place, but hey, at least WE get it, right?!”

  3. Rob says:

    Finally! Someone has called out Scocca. Just, thank you.

  4. Josh says:

    But he’s a paid-up insider working for a powerful publication, living in the same fortress of Twitter followers and media friends they all do, and so the thought won’t ever occur to him.

    This part is a bit much, though.

  5. Jason says:

    I’m okay with snark in the context of cultured (or even semi-cultured) criticism. The problem with snark is trickle-down snark that encourages people to express worthless, arbitrary opinions in snide and condescending ways.

    Low-rent smarm is tolerable, but cheap snark is deadly. The unintended consequences of a culture of negativity are difficult to tolerate.

  6. Ben says:

    It’s all about the clicks. And the cliques.

  7. Gloria Stilton says:

    I think some of your characterizations of Scocca and his writing are fair, but Gawker is consistently self-aware of the nature of its business in terms of traffic and advertising, and Tom has specifically addressed it. Is he not allowed to say anything new without repeating the running tally of Truths That Must Always Be Acknowledged? I think you just like to get mad about things. And that’s smarm.

    You complain that those who compliment him are guilty of it. I’m sure some are. They’re not reacting to the content of his words, but to the nature of originating school of thought of his idea, which feels like something that they should be a part of intellectually. They agree with it because it’s a cheap hack to trick your brain into registering some sort of false inclusivity.

    But now you are reacting to the idea of people reacting to the idea of his message. That’s like, meta-smarm.

    One of the funny things about Scocca’s exquisitely polished stance as The Last Honest Man On the Internet is that most of what he writes is pure red meat for Gawker commenters. Look at his piece on how white people ruin everything. It was vintage Scocca: right on the facts and on the substance, analytically adroit, not quite as good as he clearly thought it was, and perfectly designed to flatter the sensibilities of the average reader of Gawker

    ^ This was goodness until the very last part. And then you just devolve into wishing that Scocca would write something people could hate, and, ok. Lol.

    The real problem with snark, smarm, and whatever dish you’ve just served up is that they are distractions. They are reactions. Junk food engineered to make you feel good for a minute and then want a little more. Authenticity is nourishing. It’s about balance, and Tom’s articles come close to pulling it off. Yes, he’s snarky with an insecure-sounding braggadocio sometimes, but he also provides accurate critiques, thoughtful analyses, and interesting syntheses of ideas (I won’t say new ideas).

    Brushing that off as an elite trying to write for elites is.

    Smarmy.

    • Freddie says:

      So you understand my dilemma here, right? If liking to get mad about things is smarm… what can smarm possibly mean? I get people not liking this essay. I genuinely cannot process the idea that this essay is guilty of the same things that Dave Eggers is guilty of. But maybe that’s just my lack of imagination.

      • Gloria Stilton says:

        Well, this: You see– this will blow your mind– people don’t agree about what’s snark and what’s smarm, and their designation of each has everything to do with what they like and which team they’re on. was accurate.

        The terms are necessarily approximations, and Scocca did not define them as deftly as he and the people gushing about the piece seem to think. It probably was more about tapping into existing rivalries. Personally, I think he muddied the waters when he tried to carve these camps out of the umbrella label of “bullshit.” There are good things about what he dismisses as smarm and there are bad things about what he excuses as snark and the underlying issue is that people are disingenuous, sometimes unintentionally, and often via deflection.

        I think that fairly sums up your first paragraph (as I addressed in my earlier comment, not really a relevant critique, and you knew damn well is wasn’t “smarter” to stop your article there), and works as a string of similarity that ties together a potentially disparate list including Eggers, Denby, Lieberman, Gladwell, Sedaris, etc.

        It’s a boundary for an impossibly large circle that we all tiptoe in, out of, and around. I think the more interesting question is why it can work so well, at least in the short term. I wasn’t wild about the article, either, but you asked what we thought of your critique, and I think it’s weak.

        But it interested me enough to comment, so hey.

        • Freddie says:

          I have to tell you: I have no fucking idea what “smarm” now means in the way that it is being lovingly tossed around by the twitterati. None. I am not just reacting to the essay as it is, but to how it actually functions as a signalling device for the social cohort to whom Scocca is actually writing. (Because that’s all it is, a signal.) And every aspect of their response indicates that “smarm” means nothing. It functions merely as “something that I don’t like” in a way that affirms their place in that culture.

          In any event: if you can read a piece of mine which is relentlessly and explicitly negative, and which says plainly that I find a particular culture worthless and trivial, and somehow decide that it is the same thing as an Upworthy post about wolf cubs adopted by a Labrador, then there’s nothing to the concept to debate. It’s just an empty signifier. That’s all.

          • Gloria Stilton says:

            I already agreed with you about that. I said that I didn’t think Scocca did a good job defining it and that some of the people cheering on his take-down were inadvertently acting out precisely what they were trying to condemn.

            To my mind, there were two key components of Tom’s definition of smarm:
            - Veneer of positivity (that manifests dishonesty and cynicism)
            - That it is a misdirection tactic whose “genuine purposes lie beneath the greased-over surface.”

            That’s a thing. That’s worth talking about. It’s not just happy things = smarm and negative things = snark, and it’s not just a cultural reflex to a signal (and I’m not even really sure what you mean by signalling). To call it that is misdirection that glosses over the nuances to make it fit your narrative, and that registers on the smarmy scale, to me.

            But if you prefer, we can keep it Scocca-term neutral and call it bullshit.

          • Freddie says:

            For the record: Scocca’s biggest problem is precisely that he is fast and loose with his targets, not just his definition.

            http://blogs.indiewire.com/criticwire/the-great-snark-smarm-war-has-begun

  8. sheenyglass says:

    I think my problem with the stance of both Scocca and those he criticizes is the conflation of snark with negativity and the failure to dig into the appropriate uses of both. I think its similar to the “ironic hipsters are destroying our ability to feel” idea that has been floating around.

    I do think snark is something that should be used in criticism very sparingly. Snark is fundamentally a dismissal of something as being not worth engaging with. Very few human beings (or the products of human labor) are uniformly worthy of dismissal. Criticism, in particular, requires engaging with what you are criticizing at least a little bit. But some things are worthy of dismissal, particularly where what is being dismissed has significant influence (Lanny Davis springs to mind). Snark is a kind of aggression, and when we use it against those less powerful than us it can easily shade into bullying unless we are careful.

    I think this role of the power difference between criticizer and criticized is something we just intuitively know when dealing with people in a less anonymous context than the internet. A withering takedown of a high-school play by sensitive teenagers is generally viewed as a terrible idea no matter how “bad” it is. A withering takedown of a huge blockbuster cynically engineered to squeeze every last drop of dopamine from the pleasure centers of multiple lucrative demographics is appropriate no matter how slickly executed it is.

  9. Appraisal of Scocca’s argument via the writer’s triangulation of himself among other critical reaction to the argument. No, I don’t much get this. I don’t mean that as a diss; I mean, what does this post propose in contrast to what Scocca articulated in re whether smarm is insidious, or whether the argument is lame. (Lame unto itself, not just lame because people liked it.)

    “My challenge to Tom Scocca would be to write a piece that doesn’t result in hundreds of people kissing his ass. If he did that, he might understand what it means to actually be negative, to actually be independent. But he’s a paid-up insider working for a powerful publication, living in the same fortress of Twitter followers and media friends they all do, and so the thought won’t ever occur to him.”

    I get why this would be valuable as some sort of brooding social pose, or something. I don’t get what value it yields as an intellectual exercise or moral demonstration. “[H]e might understand what it means to actually be negative, to actually be independent.” You realize that even the journo-incest crowd pens the occasional universal rage-inducer, right? There was a point at which Weigel was tossing these babies approx. once a month. It’s not like “write a piece that doesn’t result in hundreds of people kissing his ass” is a realm entirely beyond Gawker’s history. So what’s the point here, exactly?

    “The truth is that bloggers and journalists like Scocca, elites who write for other elites, like negativity only in the abstract. A paean to negativity that results in nothing but praise is by definition an empty shell, a useless work designed to be celebrated by a wagon-circling, self-interested class of influence peddlers who endorse the idea of independence but punish it whenever they actually find it. An actually risky essay is one that most people hate. An actual willingness to be actually negative means that most people will not like you. ”

    1. “by definition”?

    2a. Once and again, you write of risk here, but I’m not really sure what that’s got to do with Scocca’s thesis; and it’s never mentioned in the piece.

    2b. To you, then, is risk good or bad or neutral? e.g., Odd Future told Tegan and Sara to “eat a bag of dicks” some time ago. People seemed to hate that. You seemed to hate that. Was “eat a bag of dicks” admirable because you hate it? or not admirable because you hate, even though you hating it is the upshot of social risk as you’ve glorified? or not admirable despite your hating it? or . . . ?

    3. You’re not Tom Scocca, agreed. You’re not paid/cozied up. You’re not MSNBC guestline-up elite. But who do you write for?

    BONUS: “An actual willingness to be actually negative means that most people will not like you.”

    No, that’s the definition of “disagreeable,” not “negative.” e.g., “This weather is shit” is (hypothetically) being agreeably negative. A la Gawker.

    • Freddie says:

      But who do you write for?

      Me.

      • I don’t this Q is too interesting to either of us but it’s the one you answered, so:

        Of all the writing implements devised by civilization, you draft via a public blog for “me,” i.e., not as engagement of elites, but for your own lonesome sake? “Me.” That’s the real answer, not just the identity answer?

        But fair enough, fair enough.

  10. dwayne stephenson says:

    I guess I’m surprised at your resistance to Scocca’s argument. Maybe the snark/smarm dichotomy is too general to be that useful (it is true as you say, at the end of the day, that even granting the terms we still have to figure out what values they actually range over, and that’s a debate in itself). But contextless emphasizing of positivity has always been an apologizers creed, and it is out of just such that we get calls for people to “change their attitude” rather than the conditions they find themselves in, and a moral picture of the universe that assumes all is well, diagnosing individuals who complain rather than entertaining the possibility that something about the world we’re in actually needs changing. In the smarmiverse, the world is always already just, and I just can’t think of any belief more pernicious than that.

  11. Joel says:

    One thing I can’t understand: why is Scocca’s seemingly up-to-the-minute critique of our culture based on two well-criticized examples from the turn of the century? I have not seen anyone get this worked up about Jedediah Purdy since 2000, not to mention that Eggers’ essay, some tossed-off rant he gave to Harvard students fifteen years ago. Even this word, “snark,” is embarrassingly dated at this point. His article would have worked by actually examining the world around him now, not the world around him twelve years ago, when he apparently first thought up this piece.

  12. “when you see what this autistic mother did to save this dying seal pup, you won’t believe your eyes”

    Now that’s funny. I was just telling someone on Facebook the other day to stop posting these vague, hyperbolic links, and that just captures the essence of them all.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>