Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Snark: It’s Mean, it’s Personal, and it’s Ruining Our Conversation

This is the title of a new book by David Denby, New York Times film critic. I became aware of it when an interview with Denby was aired on Morning Edition on NPR this week. Although the book doesn’t get stellar reader reviews on Amazon, his point got my attention – that there is a lot of mean-spirited, anonymous prose on the internet these days, posing as meaningful journalism. His thesis is well summarised in a [more favorable] review in the Los Angeles Times.

The interview got my attention because I was recently the target of a somewhat oblique snark attack myself. I received an email from an anonymous person asking if I had done any voice-over work for a certain radio station. I wrote back that I hadn’t yet, and I asked the identity of the emailer. He/she wrote back with only a link to a blog post he or she had written (anonymously). I read the post, which was about the person who reads the sponsors’ ads on this public radio station, and how robotic she sounds and how much the blogger hates this voice and wishes he/she knew who it was. A lot of commenters piled on to agree. Then one of them piped up, “I watched Forgotten Ellis Island this week and there was a voice in it that sounded just like that woman. Mary McKitrick’s name was in the credits – maybe it’s her voice on that radio station.” The blogger agreed that it might be, and then came back later with “No, I spoke to Mary McKitrick, it’s not her”.

By “spoke to”, this blogger meant that he or she had emailed me under cover of anonymity and then went back to his/her audience to report.

Of course, it isn’t worth a minute of my time to lament having my work on Forgotten Ellis Island compared to the voice of an announcerbot, but I admit it took my breath away. I mentioned the incident to some of my voice-over colleagues and was gratified that a number of them raced to the schoolyard and confronted the bullies – rather relentlessly actually – to the point that the blogger finally pulled the plug and ceased accepting comments. I thought it was amusing that they allowed so many mean comments but couldn’t handle the ones that sang my praises (admittedly, my colleagues were kind of rough on the anonymous blogger :).

In an earlier life, I was a biologist, and writing reviews of other people’s work was a constant part of my life. Book reviews, reviews of articles that had been submitted for publication, reviews of grant proposals. In the case of grant proposals and some of the reviews for journals, anonymity was required. In those cases, I always wrote as if I were going to sign my name, and in cases where a signature was allowed, I always added mine. I have never allowed the cloak of anonymity to affect my writing, never wrote anything in those reviews that I wouldn’t have said to the person’s face, and I don’t understand people who hide behind that cloak. I think David Denby is right – it ruins conversations and it’s spoiling the internet.

At the risk of sounding curmudgeonly – what in the world has happened to people’s manners?

Note: if you'd like to hear one of the passages I read for the documentary, Forgotten Ellis Island, go to the shockwave Flash part of the FEI website, click on Patient Stories, and click on the right arrow twice to get to the story about Ormond McDermott.

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