July 1, 2010 | Commentary on Internet And Technology

Is Online Snarky, or Just the Wary Millenials Who Use it?

About the last thing left to ponder in the whole affair surrounding the departure of blogger David Weigel from The Washington Post is whether the snark that proved his downfall is inherent to digital media, or just to his generation. I’m grabbing this last point.

Snark—a combination of snide and remark, according to the Urban Dictionary, which adds that it mixes “the use of sarcasm or malice in speech”—is without question the currency of Twitter, listservs, blogs and the Internet in general. It is these witticisms (and now I’m being snarky) that get people to follow you on Twitter or flock to your blog.

Weigel’s liberal use of sarcastic or malicious observations in a private listserv for leftists led the Post to accept his resignation when the emails became public. As much as the Post has tried to transition smoothly into this brave new world, the clash between cynicism and serious journalism, as practiced by a paper, proved to be too much.  There has been some role for sarcasm in newspapers from the beginning, but not at this level.

The problem for online media is that if sarcasm does prove to be its foundation, then its potential will be limited as a medium of communication. There are some subjects and issues that just do not mix well with snark. What its detractors say about new media, that it is not serious, will in the end prove to be right.

It’s not just political parties that will realize these shortcomings. Even a think tank like The Heritage Foundation, which has embraced this medium and its liberating power, will be limited with what it can do with it.

On the other hand, it’s more likely that new media is not inherently snarky, only the millennials who populate it are. If that’s the case, then new media is cynical only in this, the teenage phase of its growth.

As anyone who has sat in a marketing meeting on how to communicate with millennials knows, this generation is as hard to describe as it is hard to know what makes them tick. In fact, about the only two things that can be said they have in common is that

  1. they are at ease with the new ways of communication and that,
  2. they seem to have skipped that brief but important growth stage when most humans harbor ideals and illusions about life. Starry-eyed they’re not.

(I suppose I am saying that millennials are snarky as a defense mechanism—I see the e-mails coming).

Perhaps because they’ve lost any confidence in their elders to right a ship set dangerously off course, because they know Social Security will not be there for them, or because they were hit head on with a corrupt realization of Washington as soon as they hit the voting age rather than the slower realization of earlier generations. This wary lot seems to trust nothing and no one, least of all society’s institutions.

Of course, to think that online media will outgrow its current angst once millennials outgrow their outspoken cynicism and adults are firmly in charge presupposes that what we’re seeing now is what we will have for years. This is to think that Facebook et al will endure and a business model will come along sooner or later that will allow entrepreneurs to monetize these tools while producing a stable system that fosters content creation.

Perhaps that won’t be the case, and everything we’re looking at right now will pass. Just because the newspaper model lasted for centuries and the television and radio models have lasted now for decades, albeit with important modifications, doesn’t mean that the new media we see now will be cemented in place.

If the transitional phase theory is right, then we might have a stable new media platform that will pay for content creation and will have gravitas. But for a nation to consider the content and its distributors as news entities, or journalists, a certain portion of this snark will need to be pushed back behind the curtain. Just not on a listserv please.

Mr. Gonzalez is Vice President of Communications at The Heritage Foundation.

About the Author

Mike Gonzalez Senior Fellow
The Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for National Security and Foreign Policy

First appeared in The Daily Caller