Tumbling For Ya: Does A New Breed Of Social Media Make For A Nicer Internet?

Meredith Bryan takes a look at a disturbing new trend in social media and online writing for The New York Observer – “niceness.”

As one example of this burgeoning phenomenon, Bryan points to the online friendship formed by kindred bloggers Natasha Vargas-Cooper, a frequent contributor to The Awl and Gawker, and Tumblr-er Katie Baker. The two women routinely link to and comment on one another’s work, both on their respective blogs and through social networking sites like Twitter. The mutual admiration is worlds away from the “snark” (a word that seems to leave such a distasteful impression that, like “hipster” or “journalist,” it’s become almost embarrassing to utter aloud) that categorized so much online content.

So why has Gawkwardness given way to sweet, vulnerable, non-intimidating, awkwardness when it comes to online interactions?

Much of it, as Bryan mentions in her article, has to do with just how public our online personas have become. It’s less appealing to be harshly blunt or needlessly cruel if one has a face (albeit in avatar form) or a name attached to one’s words. (We’re not even going to touch — literally or figuratively — the ways in which something like ChatRoulette alters the way we interact with one another online. Next!) In this way, perhaps the new wave of navel-gazing, and the outpouring of personal information and opinions that come with it, allows Twitter and Tumblr — by far the “kindest” of all social networks — users to inoculate themselves from trolling and criticism.

And then, of course, there’s the matter of the deliberate policing of niceness. Tumblr has drawn criticism in the past for, among other offenses, scrapping critical “reblogs,” without warning or explanation until probed about the matter. The message then is “if you can’t say something nice… go to WordPress.”

There is, increasingly, another type, and quite trendy, form of online annoyance – the rise of “earnest smugness.” Bryan used a quote from none other than GOOP founder and sometime-actress Gwyneth Paltrow as a means of perfectly encapsulating this new, “nice” type of online user who values the polite and civil sharing of ideas and information as long as these are their own. Says Paltrow of online meanies: “They do not understand why they do not have a happy life. I just feel sorry for them.”

Of course, “nice” describes but one facet of online users. Something Awful and 4chan still very much do exist as do those who form what is perhaps one of the lowest tiers of the online commenting caste system — YouTube commenters. Bryan interviewed Tumblr founder David Karp, who guessed that much of the animosity that colors discourse on YouTube is a result of the site’s interface.

Writes the very sweet and super-smart Ms. Bryan:

Unlike on YouTube, whose commenters are made to feel like “third-class citizens” by their position on the page, the size of their font, their alienation from the main content and the incoherence of the hundreds of their fellow commenters, Mr. Karp pointed out that Twitter and Tumblr give everyone the same chance to be heard, and to interact directly with people who, offline, have more power.

What we take away from this trend, then, is that it’s just that – a trend. Perhaps we’re all feeling a little more vulnerable and in need of a friendly stranger or a strange friend (It is important to note how social networks have altered existing definitions. To “friend” someone on, say, Facebook, requires none of the interactions or shared history that make up what most would define as “real friendship.”) because of the recession. Maybe stories of young men and women committing self-harm, or worse, because of online bullying has seeped into our collective subconscious. Perhaps online snark and trolling reached a saturation point that left us all collectively “so over it.”

Which is to say: Eventually this niceness will, too, grow tiresome. We will venture to predict that the “hearting” and “liking” and “friending” will end up leaving this current generation of online users so cold to this forced and, frankly, self-serving brand of sweetness that we will eventually either swing back to snark or, possibly, reach a happy medium where genuine interest and admiration for one another can be expressed through words and not through the use of cutesy emoticons or a relatively meaningless “thumbs-up.”

That said, we are (genuinely!) interested in your take on this online phenomenon. Has nice overtaken snark for good? Is this cyclical? Do share your thoughts in the comments section.