In the old days men had the rack. Now they have the press.
- Oscar Wilde
It’s absolutely fascinating – and disturbing – just how vicious people can be online.
When I first read Ryan Holiday’s recent post, 25 Rules for Living From a (Semi-) Successful 26-Year-Old, I was taken aback by the total vitriol contained in the now 400+ comments. Reading the personal attacks dealt to this bestselling author was like witnessing a digital execution.
First, a reader starts by mildly objecting to one of Holiday’s rules:
Get a dog, not a cat. One will make you a better person, the other is just an animal that lives in your house.
Then another reader (without a profile picture or any personal information) throws in an accusation of ‘douche-baggery’. Thirty seconds later a different reader stabs out with a post about how Holiday is an ‘asshole’ and that ‘only other assholes’ will be attracted to this ‘list of ego maniacal shit.’
Pretty soon, an online lynch mob has assembled and begins spewing venom, other four-letter words, and erecting straw men left and right to then bleed out via increasingly snarky comments.
Most of these people took offense that he's a dog person. Well, the first 100 comments are more offensive than all of Ryan Holiday’s writing put together. This comment section is essentially an ever-worsening transcript of an online trial – by an anonymous, ever-expanding jury and roster of executioners.
Holiday writes about this online phenomenon in detail in his debut bestseller. The irony is almost Shakespearean.
Ryan Holiday, twenty six years young, is the Director of Marketing for American Apparel and a bestselling author, with his third book set for a May 2014 release. He’s “(semi-) successful” by any reasonable standard.
But no – he doesn't like cats, and he skipped the line at a buffet to get a fork, so therefore he’s a ‘self-serving obnoxious author’ whose thoughts are ‘some of the most selfish, ignorant shit’ out there.
This is digital blood sport. This is cannibalism – or what Holiday describes in his book as a “Degradation Ceremony” – a ritual of destruction.
After one victim is eaten alive and reduced to a
caricature – a pecked-to-death skeleton – people seek out their next meal, usually (semi) successful people who actually take a positive stance on something important.
So, why does this happen? What motivates people to snark?
1. Snark allows people to criticize without being criticized.
To be called a ‘douche’ is to be branded with all the characteristics of what society deigns to hate but can’t define. It’s a way to dismiss someone entirely without doing any of the work or providing any of the reasons.
2. Snark attracts people who have nothing to lose.
Who doesn't mind snark? Who likes it? The answer is obvious: People with nothing to lose. People who need to be talked about, like attention-hungry reality stars…So the people who thrive under snark are exactly those who we wish would go away and the people we value must as cultural contributors lurk in the back of the room, hoping not to get noticed and hurt.
3. Snark ‘protects’ people from seeing their own imperfections.
We grow tired of everything but turning others into ridicule, and congratulating ourselves on their defects.
After skimming more comment sections, it’s hard to stay optimistic that it’ll go away. I don’t really see a definitive solution except to not partake in it myself nor even respond to snarkers, which seems to just fan the flames.
After all, snarkers don’t really want to hear a person’s ideas, but to drown them out. Once they do, they move on before the silence makes them realize they’re unhappy and (semi-) unsuccessful.
That’s not snark. That’s the truth.