Snark vs. Smarm

Everyone – and by everyone I mean only people involved in New York media who would actually take the time to read an article that isn’t important to 99% of the population because they have more important things to fill up their brains with – is talking about Tom Scocca’s article at Gawker, On Smarm.

Honestly, this is the only article I’ve ever read where I can actually understand someone saying tl;dr (four letters I usually hate when used in that order). It’s not only messy (a friend of mine called it that, but he and others have also called it “brilliant,” which means that someone changed the meaning of the word brilliant and didn’t tell us), it’s muddy. You can actually see the article spinning out of control the further down you read. It’s as if Scocca thought it needed to be long to have gravitas, to be taken seriously (I’m guessing he reads a lot of David Foster Wallace).

I think we can all agree what snark is, but I don’t think we have a perfect definition of smarm. I don’t think that even Scocca succeeds in explaining it clearly (which is a problem when the word is in the title of your article).

Is smarm being too nice? Is smarm a battle cry against snark? What am I supposed to do, not be nice and civil? Not be sincere? What if being nice/sincere/earnest is the honest emotion/reaction I have? Is that smarm? Am I supposed to not hate it when someone is snarky just because, well, that’s the attitude of the web? Am I supposed to do some snark/smarm calculation in my mind before my fingers hit the keyboard? Is snark more “real”, more honest somehow? Is that how we’re supposed to think? God.

Scocca mentions BuzzFeed’s new book section and its editor, who said they weren’t going to feature negative reviews. So this is smarm too? (It’s not, Tom, it’s just bad editorial policy.)

Over time, it has become clear that anti-negativity is a worldview of its own.

Yeah, that’s the problem, there’s too much “anti-negativity” in this world, especially online!

Smarm disapproves.

Unlike snark?

Smarm should be understood as a type of bullshit, then. It is a kind of moral and ethical misdirection.

Hey, that’s not a bad definition! But smarm has been around a while, right? I hate smarm – real smarm – too! But is everything Scocca describes as smarm really smarm?

Smarm, which is always on the lookout for bias and ulterior motives…


The examples Scocca uses – whether it’s Dave Eggers or politicians or Jonah Lehrer or David Sedaris or the film Julie & Julia – muddy things up even more. Can’t people or art just be wrong or false or bad or whatever other word you want to use without being “smarmy?” Can’t we like a person or a form of art because, well, we like it for reasons other than the reasons a Gawker writer says are “smarmy?” It’s bizarre how he assumes that “we” don’t know any better when we decide to like something (oh, if only we could all be as enlightened and insightful as Scocca!)

I’m not even sure if the opposite of snark is smarm. But it’s another pose that a Gawker writer has to take, to comment on. You’d think at some point they’d get tired of it all and grow up.

The problem isn’t snark itself. I’ve been snarky and I’ll be snarky again (and so will you). The problem is that at Gawker and many other sites populated mostly by people of a certain age and a certain attitude, snark is the default position. It’s where they start from. That’s the problem (that and many of these sites don’t seem to realize that things happened in pop culture before 1995, but that’s another rant).

I would also ask this: isn’t Scocca’s piece, well, kinda smarmy? In the end, isn’t that what it becomes, if we’re going by his own definition/reasoning? Why not? Discuss.

The worst part of this whole debate is now we have “snark” vs. “smarm” in our heads, as if we’re supposed to think about which pose we should have when writing (or even thinking) about something. Honestly, who cares? Here’s a tip: don’t even think about it (if only I could have taken my own advice…).

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