I think our excitement over the Web should probably subside in another ten years. And we can already see that it’s really more useful if it’s tightly refereed. Everyone can speak, but there should be standards of common sense and civility. That’s a widespread feeling now: people have had enough of this annihilating crap, which seems to screw up so many conversations. I mean, just recently, Annette Insdorf did a piece about Holocaust movies on the Newsweek Web site, and within just a few exchanges, the comments fell into Holocaust denial and anti-Semitism. That was the end of that conversation.
The other thing, as I said before, is that everyone wants to be funny, because comics are culture heroes. So there’s a tendency to turn to snark as a way to make a character out of yourself, to create a kind of Internet doppelgänger. It’s anonymous writing, and you can cut yourself loose if anybody gets too close to you. But anonymity is a double-edged thing. It’s absolutely necessary for dissidents and whistleblowers. If you’re just attacking your neighbors or friends on campus without taking responsibility, it’s cowardly. And the fact that kids don’t see any moral issue there is kind of shocking.
In the book, you dwell on anonymity as a generational litmus test. You also note that for kids, “privacy doesn’t much register as a spiritual value and a sanctified space anymore.” Is this a reversible trend, or is privacy truly on the verge of extinction?
They want attention just like the rest of us. But they don’t realize that privacy is one of the great triumphs of bourgeois civilization: your own bedroom, your own diary, your own love affair. You have a sacred space in which you can say whatever you want, do whatever you want, but only for yourself, or for somebody you’re very close to. If you’re a seventeen-year-old posting the details of your love affair on a social networking site, you’re more or less joining the snark culture. It doesn’t induce empathy, it induces sarcasm.
Reviewing your book in New York magazine, Adam Sternbergh defends snark as “the angry heckler at the back of the room.”
And what use is the heckler at the back of the room? He’s not saying something very important or interesting. Sternbergh doesn’t want his pieces interrupted by angry hecklers, and neither does anybody else at New York magazine. There was a point-by-point refutation of that piece by Edward Champion, by the way, which was incredibly thorough.
A book about snark is bound to beget more snark.
There’s a lot of stuff floating around already. It’s inevitable. When you stick your chin out, it’s going to get hit. That’s fine. It’s part of saying something, not just doing the old soft-shoe down to the bottom of the page. My idea was to get a conversation going. Pile on!
Finally: do you think your book will have any effect on the runaway train of snark?
I doubt it. Although we may be entering a different era. There’ve been a lot of lies over the past eight years, and maybe snark was one way of dealing with lies, by turning everything into a joke. But if we’re not going to be genuinely witty, which is hard, we might as well talk sense to each other. And perhaps an anti-snark tract will help in that respect. Maybe not. It’s the media juggernaut: you can comment as it goes by, but derail it? No.