They want to get your attention. They’ve published some good pieces and some awful things, which should have been much more tightly edited. It’s going for impact. But if you’re going to do a tough, nasty piece, you have to edit it very carefully, and you’ve got to have a great writer doing it.
Let’s return to something we touched on earlier. You’re at pains to separate yourself from such articulate Luddites as Lee Siegel, who insists that the Internet is destroying our humanity. But could you say a few words about the Web’s role as snark’s mightiest megaphone?
Lee’s book [Against the Machine: Being Human in the Age of the Electronic Mob] seemed to me excessively gloomy, an attempt to be eloquent about very small issues. Look, we’ve had a democratic revolution. Millions of people have gotten access to the presses, which were formerly controlled by the owners of the presses and their hirelings, like me. Suddenly, everybody can join. And that’s an incredible event in the history of democracy. But in the wake of any democratic revolution, you’re going to have an explosion of egotism and anger and pent-up rage. There’s an awful lot of that. You can ignore it, of course, unless you’re in a conversation about something that matters to you.
So where is this post-revolutionary hangover leading us?
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.