I have just recently finished reading, Snark as well as some of the higher profile critics of Denby. The book was an intriguing read and seemed honest in its efforts to delineate the boundaries of snark. Leaving the personal politics aside, this little book hit a nerve with me.
Required Disclaimer: I just like Denby am not arguing "for" or "against" snark. Snark is endemic to the human condition and I consider its existence a fact of life. This like other things generated by humans is, in certain situations, given to excess; and yet, as always what constitutes "excessive" is always a fierce matter of debate. With that said, I am endeavoring to describe what snark actually is in terms of its use within society (I think everyone might agree that Denby failed in this respect). So, moving on ...
The critics are right to point out that Denby doesn't fully define snark; however, I also see these same critics as culpable on another level. In many ways these critics, just as Denby himself, are reliant on a sort of symbiotic relationship with those whom they snark. This opens up a fascinating new angle of inquiry. What is snark? How is this rhetorical tool used inside of groups settings and society?
In this post I will examine the use of snark in relation to status groupings. This in turn will be applied to the functional attributes and challenges of the internet and I will show that there are three broad categories of snark and that these categories are delineated in how the snark is broadcast. So I will not rehash any material already covered by Denby.
Now some of you at this point are probably itching to slam me with the 'I' word. Yes, you are ready to pull the trigger on your low orbit irony cannon. This is a fair point and the short answer to this is to say, snark is irony's evil twin.
Irony is without malice, and more likely to be based on actual fact or events. The late night irony shows always poke fun at discongruity between what someone has said and what they have done. We call this use of irony sarcasm. It is important to keep in mind that this style of mocking serves a different purpose then the use of snark. Irony, unlike snark, invites the one being mocked into the joke (via self-deprecation), this is of course why we have such fun using it against politicians, as these politicians are, by profession, forced to ignore the irony of their actions, and at the same time they understand the lowness of the stakes.
Snark, on the other hand, is a form of Posture Talk designed to shame a would-be member, and to reinforce the snarker's perceived idea of an his/her inferred understanding of a groups position on a subject. Snark, unlike irony, is used as a form of social shame. With snark the social stakes are raised. Now who is who and how those people relate to the group in question matters.
Snark is by nature a function of cluelessness. The snark is a snark because the snarker has either by design or by accident failed to draw an irony.
Based on this rough sketch we can visualize three(3) possible descriptions for snark:
Classic Snark: I chose the term "classic" for lack of a better term. Anyone who has ever passed dirt around behind someone's back in private (which probably includes all of us) has used this form of snark. The only real requirement is that the person being snarked is not present or within earshot, and that the snark not be posted in public. Just think back to high school and you've got the idea.
Social Snark: This is the sort of snark that we see expressed in public and that Denby talked around so adroitly.This is the type of snark that Denby's critics hold up as liberating for the have-nots, this may in fact be true, but it is ironic too that these critics are not actually practicing "proper" social snark (they are in fact being symbiotic snarkers, but we will get to that in just a minute). Social snark relies on the shame factor, and in fact that is the main idea behind social snark. This is the type of hearsay is found in abundance on the internet. The snarker makes the snark to reinforce his own conception of principle or theory.
Here's a good example of intellectual tribalism expressed as social snark:
Here we see someone attacking another intellectual's line of thought, with no reference to factual data. The snark is based purely on personally held beliefs. This snarker seeks to exclude the target from his/her subject matter (in this case a controversial article). The one leveling the attack, as a function of social snark, holds their views superior to those of the target. In this case we see the snarker receiving public validation of his behavior.
It is in this way that snark is used to draw distinction. It is possible that the distinction might have greater meaning for a group or society but it is important to understand that such an understanding requires validating the pathos behind the snark. I'm not going to get into morality, yet it seems that snarkers feel justified when they see themselves welding snark as a weapon of social justice.
I think we can also safely place most online comment snark into this category. Just like in our example, the snark is used to push someone away from the perceived group-position on the webpage. This of course generally has little or no relation to the subject matter under discussion, pettiness and petulance reign. Surprisingly most of this is often tolerated by a moderator. I've talked before as to how moderators function much like the old Roman Censor. And in this capacity, at least in terms of snarky personal attacks they are more likely to overlook snark directed at a perceived outsider and they would be more likely to ban a perceived outsider who snarks.
The intent and malice of use is the primary distinction between sarcasm and snark. Sarcasm seeks to inclusion while snark seeks exclusion. This doesn't necessarily imply black vs white or an either-this or-that distinctions. There is a sort of fluctuating scale and groups are by nature illegible. This in turn makes snark somewhat subjective. A comment might be mostly ironic but have an edge of snark or be snarky with a touch of irony. Again all this depends on who the snarker is and his status and the target and their status and how those two relate to each other and to the groups in question. (it is no wonder Denby had such trouble finding a working definition.)
Symbiotic Snark: This is perhaps a sub-category of social snark, but there is one important factor that makes this a category unto itself, money. Money makes the world go round (or so the cliche goes) and there is a ripe market for morality/social justice (and its attendant snark). This is the market in which any paid critic will find himself. After all, without a target to snark these people would have no business. In this way we can classify the interaction between a critic and a performer as symbiotic. The critic provides added visibility, even if at the cost of those being congratulatory. This of course also opens the critic up to criticism by the performer.
This also informs our understanding of "failing" or "low-orbit" celebrities. I'm thinking of those whom you see on the tabloids front page. Inevitably you ask why such and such celebrity and their snark on a fellow performer or critic is even relevant. Yet someone is making money off of that snark.
This is also the category in which "in-group" snarking is placed. The Comedy Central Roasts are an excellent example. The one being snarked has a stake in the group, and though that stake is being mocked, the end goal isn't to actually force the one being "snarked" out of the group.
Shout out to Venkatesh Rao @ Ribbonfarm, for providing the intellectual framework for this post. .