Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Snark Vs. Wonk Vs. the World

From Lewis Carroll's Hunting of the Snark

In 2007 I was a newly-minted English major, trying vainly to make my mark on the world of journalism.  As I experimented with different attitudes, I found two tailor-made positions for me to try on for size: snark and wonk.

Snark looked at the deceit and the phoniness of America with a knowing sneer.  It was wry, witty and cynical.  Snarky writers gave prominent politicians cutting nicknames.  They skewered.  They exposed.  They had literary panache.

Wonk took another track entirely.  Where snark was knowing, wonk knew.  Where snark was wry, wonk was dry.  Snark made jokes.  Wonk made graphs.  Wonky writers would get inside a single topic, become experts in it, and wield their facts and figures like blunt instruments, cracking the heads of anyone caddish enough to oppose them.

My friends would chide me for being too snarky.  In conversation we'd apologize--I'm just going to wonk out over this.  Our role models--those bloggers only a year or two older than us--who people actually listened to--who people actually paid--were divided into snarks and wonks.  So when it came time for us to write, before anything else we settled on an attitude:  snarky or wonky.

It came to me this morning that the proud era of snark and wonk was over.  The wonks had moved on to other things.  The snarks had become one dimensional caricatures.  Young journalism interns in D.C. no longer sat down and leveled snark at their enemies.  They no longer proudly dubbed themselves policy wonks.  The attitudes were different now.  Newer.  Stranger.  Probably.

It took only a minute for my realization to crumble to pieces like off-brand Play-Dough.  Because when was the last time that I hung around journalism interns in D.C.?  What did I know about the prominent attitudes of literary journalism?  Maybe between 2007 and 2014, I had simply become a person who doesn't go to the kind of parties where snarks and wonks roosted.

I was left at an impasse.  Was the decline of wonk and snark a real thing, or was it just that my way of looking at the world had changed?

To figure this out, I used Google Trends to see whether there had been any change in the frequency with which people searched for wonk and snark from 2007 to 2014.

This graph shows how many people were searching for the terms wonk and snark in America from January 2007 to January 2014.  The story here is clearly not one of decline.  There are few spikes here and there--but for the most part, more people search for snark, fewer for wonk.  Looking at this graph, it's easy to believe that the grand attitudes of wonk and snark have endured the past seven years unscathed.

Of course, the graph above doesn't show the full picture.  Google Trends doesn't magically invoke the relative frequency of wonk and snark as grand journalistic postures; instead it shows the number of people who have searched for the words on Google.  And who sits down at their computer over their morning coffee and says to themselves:  Boy, I sure want some snark this morning?  Probably not many people.  So while the words themselves may have remained, the attitudes they represent may have disappeared.

From GoogleBooks
Another story is told by graph above, showing the relative frequency of the words wonk and snark in the Google Books corpus from 1950 to 2008.  Snark has remained pretty steady over the last fifty-odd years.  Wonk, however, eclipsed snark in 1990, and rose steadily for about a decade.

We could spin a nice just-so story summarily explaining both graphs.  The 1990s ushered in a new world of wonk among bookish-writers.  Blogs--these little ephemeral nuggets--remained balanced between wonk and snark, because people don't have a long enough attention span on blogs to fully wonk out.

But I'm unsatisfied with this whole exercise.  It's really hard to capture a broad view a culture because we always see everything from the perspective of our own lives.  Have wonk and snark died?  Or has Brendan Mackie moved on?  Have young people really changed because of Facebook and smart phones?  Or are we just no longer young?

The strong promise of the digital humanities is that it can work to give us a broader view, from which we can understand slow cultural changes with all the certainty of a mathematical figure.  Through n-grams of suitably rich text corpuses, we can finally grasp long-term cultural change in a solid, non-wishy-washy way.  Like scientists, not like English majors.

But these methods cannot hope to answer everything.  They are imperfect, messy, and sometimes plain misleading.  Is wonk ascendant?  Are snarky bloggers outcompeting their wonky counterparts?  The two stabs I've taken above are no answers, though they look like answers.

Maybe wonk and snark are just grinding away at survival, while some more important cultural phenomenon blooms all around us?


1 comment:

ilan said...

Nice framework for our generation of opinion journalists.

In fact some people -- John Chait comes to mind -- manage to neatly synthesize wonk and snark.

Both categories are probably conceptually distinct from the VSP (Very Serious People) -- another popular style--, but VSPism seems a less common posture for people our age who made their names in the modern media environment.