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Thursday, December 5, 2013

On Finding Just the Right Word

Posted by on Thu, Dec 5, 2013 at 11:51 AM

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.


Comments (11) RSS

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Fnarf 1
Is Slog willing to go on record against Hitler? I am. Hitler was a VERY BAD MAN. And cancer too -- I hate cancer.
Posted by Fnarf on December 5, 2013 at 11:59 AM · Report this
dnt trust me 2
happening more, or maybe i'm just becoming hip to it. This blog slog will talk about another blog which is talking about another blog. reminds me of the name of a1980s music band - 'Pop Will Eat Itself.'
Posted by dnt trust me on December 5, 2013 at 12:09 PM · Report this
Will in Seattle 3
Hitler was a vegetarian - which meant he had a lower risk for cancer.

So ... That means cancer is good, since Hitler was Evil.
Posted by Will in Seattle on December 5, 2013 at 12:17 PM · Report this
I always thought that snark and smarm were key components of the Stranger style. It's interesting that Stranger writers apparently don't see it that way.
Posted by Jizzlobber on December 5, 2013 at 12:25 PM · Report this
Fnarf 5
Jesus fucking Christ, I'm locked in a room with the two stupidest people on earth. Can you just delete my comment or something? LET ME OUT OF HERE!
Posted by Fnarf on December 5, 2013 at 12:26 PM · Report this
@5, See what happens when you 'have' to be the first snark?
Posted by randoma on December 5, 2013 at 12:32 PM · Report this
NIcey-niceness has pervaded internet culture??? And I was only offline for 40 minutes or so!

Anyway, if it's "tumorous" it must be evil. OK then: THIS - whatever the heck it is - MUST NOT STAND!!!
Posted by RonK, Seattle on December 5, 2013 at 1:08 PM · Report this
raindrop 8
Smarm is all local television news content past the first commercial break.
Posted by raindrop on December 5, 2013 at 2:11 PM · Report this
Alicia 9
The nicey-niceness is everywhere in the book reviewing world, especially once you get away from the literary heights and into the genre trenches. Goodreads has been an absolute minefield of the war between snark and smarm for at least a solid two years now -- you remember all the accusations of "bullying reviews"? Yeah, those were the smarms calling out the snarks.

A lot of it overlaps with YA and romance readerships/authorships, where you get heavy pressure from the catchall Be-Niceness of modern American feminine gender roles. And the commandment to Be Nice gets in the way of calling out privilege, misogyny, racism, and bigotry of all stripes.
Posted by Alicia on December 5, 2013 at 4:18 PM · Report this
the smarms calling out the snarks

Quick, Internets, write this: "Blog Side Story."

Posted by LMcGuff on December 5, 2013 at 5:12 PM · Report this
dwightmoodyforgetsthings 11
I'm interested in Phoebe in Wallingford's take on smarm.

Posted by dwightmoodyforgetsthings on December 5, 2013 at 7:11 PM · Report this

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