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.
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?