Snark loses its groove

SnarkWhile Hollywood indulges its notoriously ephemeral attention on the trivia of the Oscar awards later this month, Silicon Valley has been focused in the last couple of weeks on a contest of much more meaningful cultural significance: the identity of the most loathed person on the Internet. In a piece that aroused much hatred of its own, CNET technology columnist Rafe Needleman identified the five most hated online personalities. Disappointingly, I wasn’t included. The five lucky candidates (all guys, of course) shortlisted for this great digital honour were Techcrunch editor-in-chief and founder Michael Arrington; the inventor of blogging technology Dave Winer; 1938Media satirist Loren Feldman; entrepreneur and impresario Jason Calacanis; and Valleywag gossip columnist Owen Thomas.

How does one get to be really really hated on the Internet? What all these five finalists share is a mastery of what New Yorker magazine film reviewer David Denby describes, in his new eponymous book, as “snark”. As the subtitle of Denby’s jeremiad explains: “It’s mean, it’s personal and it’s ruining our conversation.” Snark is a nasty, clever type of communication, what Denby calls “a bad kind of invective” which has, for better or worse, become the most successful mode of discourse on the internet.

Arrington, Winer, Calacanis, Feldman and Thomas are all naturally snarky personalities whose huge online followings are due to their abilities to what Denby calls “jeer and josh” their enemies. They are masters in the not-so-subtle art of the personal put-down, professionals in the viral vendetta, experts at ruining somebody else’s day.  These guys have all become iconic new media personalities because they are so perfectly hateful. Snark pays.  Or, at least, it paid. Arrington, for example, has used his snarky attitude toward Web 2.0 start-ups to transform Techcrunch into the most highly trafficked blog on the internet. While Feldman’s hilariously hateful video vendetta against b-list snarkster Shel Israel has made him the most snarkiest online videographer.

But all is not well in digital snarkville. Arrington, for example, having been spat in the face by an irate entrepreneur at last month’s DLD conference in Munich, has taken a much publicized leave of absence from Techcrunch. Calacanis shut down his daily blog last year and has transformed himself into an evangelist for online politeness – a model anti-snark. Even the socially dysfunctional Winer, whose ungraciousness is unrivalled either in the on or offline world, is now on a public mission to love his (many) enemies.

Snarkiness is losing its online groove. Part of this may to do with the shock of the economic meltdown and Barack Obama’s call for a new culture of responsibility.  But it also has to do with the fact that the internet is maturing as a medium. Blogs – once the natural home of great white snarks like Winer and Arrington – are now being eclipsed by micro-blogging services like Twitter and it’s really hard for even a weasel like Owen Thomas to be snarky in 140 characters. So being deeply hated is no longer a shortcut to online fame and fortune. Love might be the new new thing. Which, I suspect, brings us to the title of a forthcoming column by Rafe Needleman: Who is the most beloved person on the Internet?