Everything is Awful: Snark as Ritualized Social Practice in Online Discourse

This thesis explores a mode of collective meaning making at the intersection of humor, insult, and jest that increasingly occupies social media conversations, online comment sections, and Internet writing far and wide: for lack of a better word, snark. Though akin to the similarly maligned practices of irony and sarcasm, snark is more unwieldy and less refined. To accuse others of snark is to question their intentions, their sincerity, even the validity of their claims. Snark is often seen as destructive. Per the subtitle of critic David Denby’s book on the matter, “it’s mean, it’s personal, and it’s ruining our conversations.”‘ In the following pages, I investigate the role of snark in online discourse and attempt to salvage it from its bad reputation. I define and historicize snark as a humor- and insult-based social practice rooted in oral rather than written traditions. I argue that snark can adopt a pro-social role in online environments whose architecture tends to reward vapid or deceptive content (which, per former Gawker writer Tom Scocca, I call smarm and situate within Harry Frankfurt’s concept of bullshit). After a discussion of the differences between politeness and civility, I define pro-social snark as impolite yet civil. Lastly, I analyze snark’s affective qualities, and specifically its close relationship with paranoia. Utilizing Eve Sedgwick’s notions of paranoid and reparative reading, I advocate for a reparative practice of snark that gives back to the culture it ridicules.


George Tsiveriotis

About George Tsiveriotis

George moved to the San Francisco Bay Area in 2009 after attending high school in Athens, Greece. He earned his B.S. from Stanford University in Symbolic Systems, an interdisciplinary program that consists of coursework in computer science, psychology, philosophy, and linguistics. George spent the year before grad school working in Facebook's communications and policy department, where he collaborated with tech reporters from outlets such as WIRED and the Washington Post on stories about a wide range of topics including tech accessibility, the Silicon Valley gender gap, and the role of analog art in online communities. George's research interests include social media, online identity, techno-utopianism, and algorithmic bias. Thesis: Everything is Awful: Snark as Ritualized Practice in Online Discourse


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