Tom Scocca's very long post on Gawker today about the enemies of snark makes for very interesting reading. I don't think this post will stand as a transformative manifesto, the way Heidi Julavits's argument against snark in The Believer's debut issue has become a serious topic of discussion in recent years. It doesn't so much work as a manifesto as a very long list of examples. But it does put a name to a very alarming internet trend: The press-release friendly, only-positive news sites that refuse to apply critical thinking when critical thinking is absolutely necessary. The word is smarm.
And that's exactly right. When he talks about smarm, Scocca is talking about BuzzFeed and Upworthy and other sites that refuse to be negative on all but the most safely unpopular topics, but he might as well be referring to advertorial neighborhood blogs, or tech blogs that play nice because they rely on access from the companies they're supposed to be covering, or cheerleading industry blogs that don't take a stand against anyone. These are outlets that I've complained about for years, but tagging them as smarmy is perfect; that one word articulates everything that I dislike about them. They're self-congratulatory and not at all helpful.
Here are a couple of relevant passages from Scocca's essay, but I encourage you to read the whole thing:
Smarm is a kind of performance—an assumption of the forms of seriousness, of virtue, of constructiveness, without the substance. Smarm is concerned with appropriateness and with tone. Smarm disapproves.
Smarm would rather talk about anything other than smarm. Why, smarm asks, can't everyone just be nicer?
At some point, in a piece like this, convention calls for the admission that the complaints against snark are not entirely without merit. Fine. Some snark is harmful and rotten and stupid. Just as, to various degrees, some poems and Page-One newspaper stories and sermons and football gambling advice columns are harmful and rotten and stupid. Like every other mode, snark can sometimes be done badly or to bad purposes.
Smarm, on the other hand, is never a force for good. A civilization that speaks in smarm is a civilization that has lost its ability to talk about purposes at all. It is a civilization that says "Don't Be Evil," rather than making sure it does not do evil.
I'm forever in Scocca's debt for weaponizing the word "smarm" as a catchall for the tumorous nicey-nice that's pervaded internet culture. Smarm is everywhere, and now it finally has a name.