Are you snarky or smarmy? Too much sunny side up will fry the brain

A Gawker essay has ignited a culture war on the value of niceness

Related Topics

Right, here comes a truth bomb, or maybe a truth barrage. I love writing for the Independent. I love reading it too. Looking through its pages every week, I find at least one or two stories of people whose bravery exfoliates the mind and replenishes the spirit. I adore my friends. I think there’s a huge amount of contemporary culture – writing, films – that’s stunningly beautiful and stunningly undervalued. I literally cannot stop talking about how Nike running shoes have transformed the way I walk. Life in 2013 is tough, but there’s plenty to be thankful for – and the internet, well, it’s fabulous!

I could go on, I can assure you. And even if it wasn’t the festive season, and it wasn’t in vogue to be counting one’s lucky stars, I’d stand by everything I just said. But how about if I kept hitting the same note every week? Kept the focus on hardships overcome and sugary good news? You might start to think me slightly lopsided. Too nice. In time someone would surely come up with a lacerating nickname for me – if they’d seen the Hobbit, something like The Desolation of Smug?

Positivity is the siren-song of 2013. This month it received a brilliant and terrible kicking, by Tom Scocca, a writer for the American news website Gawker. In a 9,000-word post, Scocca excoriates an online culture of ceaseless boosterism, where criticism is cast off as mere ‘snark’. He calls it, ‘smarm’. According to Scocca, smarm’s motto is that of Bambi’s Thumper – “if you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all”. He cites Buzzfeed’s policy of not accepting negative book reviews. He points to the extraordinary growth of UpWorthy, a site that publishes uplifting and socially-conscious clips with headlines like ‘Meet the 17-year-old who Blew the Lid off Racial Profiling with his iPod’.

That ignited something of a culture war, and Prince of Positivity Malcolm Gladwell stepped up to defend niceness. My view is this: once you start to censor bad news, or complexity, you point your ship in the direction of propaganda. The Scrooge within me believes that the UpWorthy style could survive in North Korea, or Stalinist Russia. ‘This Woman Didn’t Let a Food Shortage Get her Down, She Just Got Creative Instead’.

There’s something of aid industry PR to it, in its unwillingness to admit failure, and constant appeal to emotion. But niceness alone doesn’t lead to change. The story is usually more complicated. Consider this: $9bn+ was pledged to Haiti after its devastating 2010 earthquake. That looks wonderful. But look again, with a beadier eye – as AP correspondent Jonathan Katz did – and it seems little of that money reached the country in any useful form, if it ever existed. That begs a hell of a lot of questions.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Head of Marketing and Communications - London - up to £80,000

£70000 - £80000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Group Head of Marketing and Communic...

Nursery Nurse

Negotiable: Randstad Education Manchester: Level 3 Nursery Nurse required for ...

Nursery Nurse

Negotiable: Randstad Education Manchester: L3 Nursery Nurses urgently required...

SEN Teaching Assistant

Negotiable: Randstad Education Manchester: We have a number of schools based S...

Day In a Page


Ed Miliband's conference speech must show Labour has a head as well as a heart

Patrick Diamond
A roller-coaster tale from the 'voice of a generation'

Not That Kind of Girl:

A roller-coaster tale from 'voice of a generation' Lena Dunham
London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice. In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence

London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice

In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence
Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with Malcolm McLaren

Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with McLaren

Designer 'felt pressured' into going out with Sex Pistols manager
Jourdan Dunn: Model mother

Model mother

Jordan Dunn became one of the best-paid models in the world
Apple still coolest brand – despite U2 PR disaster

Apple still the coolest brand

Despite PR disaster of free U2 album
Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

Scrambled eggs and LSD

Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

New leading ladies of dance fight back

How female vocalists are now writing their own hits
Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

A shot in the dark

Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
His life, the universe and everything

His life, the universe and everything

New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
Save us from small screen superheroes

Save us from small screen superheroes

Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
Reach for the skies

Reach for the skies

From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

12 best hotel spas in the UK

Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments