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Enter the characters you see below Sorry, we just need to make sure you’re not a robot. A community, even one dedicated to positivity, needs an enemy to define itself against. The site is one of the leading voices of the moment, thriving in the online sharing economy, in which agreeability is popularity, and popularity is value. Upworthy, the next iteration, has gone ahead and made its name out of the premise. There is more at work here than mere good feelings. There is a consensus, or something that has assumed the tone of a consensus, that we are living, to our disadvantage, in an age of snark—that the problem of our times is a thing called “snark.
The word, as used now, is a fairly recent addition to the language, and it is not always entirely clear what “snark” may be. But it’s an attitude, and a negative attitude—a “hostile, knowing, bitter tone of contempt,” is how Heidi Julavits described it in 2003, while formally bestowing the name of “snark” on it, in the inaugural issue of The Believer. In her essay, Julavits was grappling with the question of negative book reviewing: Was it fair or necessary? Was the meanness displayed in book reviews a symptom of deeper failings in the culture? Snark is supposed to be self-evidently and self-explanatorily bad: “nasty,” “low,” and “snide,” to pick a few words from the first page of David Denby’s 2009 tract Snark: It’s Mean, It’s Personal, and It’s Ruining Our Conversation.
I bought the Denby book used for six bucks, to cut him out of the loop on any royalties. But why are nastiness and snideness taken to be features of our age? One general point of agreement, in denunciations of snark, is that snark is reactive. It is a kind of response. Yet to what is it responding?