To Snark, Or Not To Snark

I used to be the kind of guy who would yell at customer service representatives on the phone. I would call up my bank, or my airline, and scream at the person on the other end as if it were his fault that I had accidentally paid my electric bill too early, thus insuring the account had insufficient funds for the next 4 visits to Starbucks. I don't think I ever ended one of those conversations without threatening to never, ever do business with that company again. I'm sure Delta was quaking in their boots thinking about losing the $389 in ticket sales I generate for them once a year. But somehow, they survived.

[Image credit: Scubaben]

I also used to be a smoker. I smoked the most pretentious smokes of all: clove cigarettes. I can tell you the exact day I stopped. I was hanging out with some friends in lower Manhattan, near Wall street. We were on a smoke break. Well, they were on a smoke break. I had already been laid off from that company, but it's hard to find friends for a smoke break when you are unemployed, so I would still go and visit them from time to time for a 15 minute puff outside my old office.

[aquote]I've seen a few disturbing instances of snarky sites beating up on kids recently[/aquote]

All the office buildings in that part of town are clad in mirrored glass. One day I caught a reflection of myself smoking. It was awful. I looked like an idiot. I looked like a pathetic loser trying to kill himself once drag at a time. I'm a big guy, and the proportion of the giant, hulking frame bent around the tiny, thin cigarette seemed so obviously wrong. I finally saw myself the way I should have seen myself all along, and I stopped there and then. I tossed the rest of the pack on my way home. That was 11 years ago.

I don't remember the moment I decided to start being nice to customer service reps, but I can tell you that it worked like a charm. Not every time. Often, the rep simply does not have the power to help you. Sometimes, the company is running a blatant scam, and the customer service reps don't even realize they are caught in the middle, giving contradictory answers. But I can tell you that I have seen and heard reps do magical things when you are nice to them. I have seen store managers at expensive computer shops give a 50% discount to a kind, but downtrodden customer. I have seen 7 consecutive insufficient fund charges reversed at a bank. I have seen airlines . . . okay, airlines don't budge. But everyone else is cool.

I've seen a few disturbing instances of snarky Web sites beating up on kids recently. A Gizmodo editor made a kid cry. Actually, that's just the headline. There is no evidence in the story that the kid did actually cry. He said "I feel like crying," but it would not be factually accurate to say he definitely cried. But it is ironic, and very snarky, to write a supposedly apologetic story about how an editor wished he did not make a kid cry, and then exaggerate in the headline to make it seem like the kid's reaction was more inconsolable than it actually may have been.

[aquote]It's only gadgets, after all[/aquote]

TechCrunch, on the other hand, now uses social networks for comments. I like this system, because it removes much of the anonymity that can cause commenters to become toxic. Unfortunately, the link between social networks and public Web sites can be vague, which is probably why this kid's mother used the TechCrunch comments board to ask him to call home. If poor Jeremy thought his mom was blowin' up his spot, he had no idea what he was in for when it became headline news on the popular tech blog.

Now, let me say that I like both of these Web sites. Tech journalism is competitive at a business level, but on a personal level most tech editors get along very well. We like each other and help each other out all the time. I've seen competitors lend each other equipment to help them cover the exact same event. Heck, I lent Vincent Nguyen, who is a SlashGear partner, my laptop power cord at an event when I was working for a competitor. I could have refrained and hoped that his site lost its chance for coverage, but that's not what we're all about. It's only gadgets, after all. If we're not having a good time, we're definitely missing the point.

I even like the snarky tone, from time to time. Tone is a way that Web sites covering the exact same information from the same sources can differentiate themselves. If you want snark, you know where to go (and it probably isn't here).

But here's the thing. Snark by itself isn't funny. It's just mean. Snark is a combination of the words "snide" and "remark." Snide means derogatory or mocking, in an indirect way. So, like I said, it's mean. If your writing is only snarky, you won't be successful with your audience, in the same way that screaming on the phone at a customer service representative won't get your flight changed (seriously, American Airlines, did you think I meant to book a 1 AM flight with a 2-year old?). But snark can be used to great comic effect.

I have a dark, sardonic sense of humor, but it works. It works because deep down, I'm really a nice, open-minded, peaceful guy. I love everybody. I don't want to see anyone hurt. So, when I make a joke about killing my parents, it's funny because it is so out of character. It's me doing an impression of someone who is completely awful. It's me voicing the darkest thoughts in my head, which is funny because even the nicest amongst us has the same dark thoughts. I'm sure the Dalai Lama thinks about killing my parents, too (he would if he knew them {zing!}). It's funny because comedy, and irony, are about springing upon your audience the unexpected.

But, every once in a while, I have to take a step back and realize that humor isn't always the best way to handle a situation, especially when my humor is snarky or sarcastic. Believe me, I learned the hard way. I've learned that when you are talking to friends about cancer, or attending a funeral, even though it is impossible to mute the twisted thoughts that pop into your head, it is easy to keep those thoughts from spilling out. The same is true when dealing with kids.

[aquote]You know what would have been a better story? A success[/aquote]

Kids are like microcosmic adults, amplified. A kid lives ten years for every year of adult life. A kid feels emotional joy and anguish over and over again, instead of recalibrating to the same old blase that we all, um, enjoy. Kids are still developing, inside and out. They are still learning the rules. They do this by testing boundaries, and then pulling back when they have gone too far.

The Gizmodo story about making a kid cry was interesting, maybe even a little funny, especially to those of us on one or the other side of the PR / Journalist game (and I've been on both). But you know what would have been a better story? A success. A story about teaching that kid how the game is played, and then a follow-up on how well his app is doing, or what he learned from its eventual flop.

The TechCrunch story started with a tweet, and that was probably enough. Put the incident in front of a few thousand people, instead of a few million. Some kids can laugh off the foibles of their parents, but for some, those problems fester in their minds and hurt not only their relationship, but also their psyche as they become adults. It's funny to see a parent make a mistake with technology. Follow @oldmansearch on Twitter and thank me later. But embarassing the kid for it? That might be going too far.

I hope these sites continue with the snark that gives them their voice. But occasionally, I hope they also take a step back and see themselves reflected in the windows of the giant buildings all around them. It's only technology, after all. If we're not having a good time, we're definitely missing the point.