In Defense of Snark

Love it or hate it, we’ve all heard terms like “darkwad” and “sparklepony.” Whether used as a friendly jab or as an act of social aggression, casual snark is commonplace in Black Rock City.

In a place that values Radical Inclusion, one has to wonder how sarcasm has so much oxygen to burn. My virgin year, I thought it was jaded folks who wished Burning Man would could just go back to being a former version of itself. My third year, I thought it was a coarse but potent way to socialize. Over the years, I’ve come to appreciate snark more as a self-regulating characteristic in Black Rock City culture, like the weather in the ecosystem of ideas.

Candy-coating a critical suggestion in thick delicious jest is probably one of the best ways to have it heard. In fact, snark is a great way to share ideas and hold each other accountable, but when we use playa names and megaphones, it’s also kinda how we make friends. With the stage always set for exchanges that are both sophisticated and sophomoric, the conditions for careful contemplation and democratic discussion are set.

While snark often serves as a potent conveyor of constructive criticism, it also is a double-edged sword. Snark-laden truth can raise hackles in the same way that criticism from a family member can sometimes be too much to bear. It can also cause drama and harm when wielded carelessly or solely as an act of social aggression.

But when implemented with care, snark brings about the potential for better conversations that unlock the power for two people to disagree, grow and change.

“Call me ‘Captain Stubing’” (Photo by Ron Lussier)

Impolite, But Necessary

One study from Herbert Colston (2009) found that even though someone wielding snark generally will come off as impolite, often “salt in the wound is more effective than sugar in a pill.”

Snark might help in a disagreement over a yellow bike or minimize the friction of addressing a campmate’s MOOP. Next time your campmate forgets to bag up the excess zip-ties strewn about on the ground after a build, perhaps a few words like, “Hey buddy, you really know how to leave no trace,” will be more effective than, “Dude, you suck at leaving no trace.”

A Creativity Stimulator

Beyond being instrumental in the constant pursuit to do better, snark is also a way to encourage creativity. Indeed, the road to any vision of utopia is paved by constant efforts to go a little further.

The great beauty of snark is that it wraps truth in humor so that it can encourage and challenge at the same time. As a midpoint somewhere between distaste and detest, snark drives thinking back to the drawing board where decisions are refined and improved. In 2005 a study from the University of Illinois explained the essential nature of snark:

“To either create or understand sarcasm, tone must overcome the contradiction between the literal and actual meanings of the sarcastic expressions. This is a process that activates, and is facilitated by, abstraction, which in turn promotes creative thinking.”

A Defense Against Charlatans

Like the fabled traveling snake oil salesman, there are those who care more about the show than the medicine being offered. Those who would peddle pseudoscience over actionable knowledge may find an ear to influence, but in snark there is hope that the community can course-correct itself.

Whether it’s an outdated concept like flat earth theory or antiquated techniques like bloodletting, snark holds the power to strike down a moot conversation. This is important in cultures because the progress of human history has always depended on vigilant efforts by many. It’s more than an alarm masked in subtlety. Like a battle cry in the war for hearts and minds, snark is the first line of defense against charlatans and a natural resistant to any social negligence inflicted by the (Simpsons-esque) Dr. Nicks of our time.

Dr Megavolt (Photo by Steven Fritz)

A Cautionary Tale

But packaging an opinion in sarcasm requires a little tact, too. When we’re dehydrated and breathing dust — in an environment that places us in a state of war with the elements — social kindness is one of the first casualties. Our environment affects our capacity to withstand the harshness of others, just as friction with those around us can weigh on our ability to endure stressful situations like whiteouts, dust tornados and being lost in the dark. This headspace stokes creativity in some while it easily evokes tempers in others.

Here you’ll find the often fine line between snark as creativity stimulator and destructive force: when it’s used to just blow off steam or to bully, or when it rubs someone the wrong way and elicits a knee-jerk response where the recipient instinctively puts up their guard and no longer listens to anything, be it truths or otherwise.

That response may seem counterintuitive, but the aforementioned study says too much sarcasm can also erode trust in relationships, so one has to wonder whether cultural collaboration will suffer if snark is too frequently employed.

Course Correction

Ultimately, snark is not the only tool in the social toolbox, but when cultures need a little course correction, snark may be the most appropriate way to call attention to it. Perhaps that’s why Oscar Wilde said, “Sarcasm is the lowest form of wit but the highest form of intelligence.”

Disagreeing is also healthy. Where snark brings friction to the surface, it doesn’t necessarily instigate violence. Instead, laughs are chosen over fists and (hopefully) discussion is selected in lieu of alienation. Safe to say, further research is probably needed to learn how snark can be wielded as a shield against the ideological distractions of our community’s Dr Nicks or as call to arms for those in search of something to believe in.

If Burning Man is a looking glass into a possible future or an experiment in potential community, then perhaps a potent brand of ethos-aligned sarcasm, like that of Black Rock City, is the key to triggering a wide, hard heckle beyond the playa in the places where it’s needed most.


Top photo: Rouge poses with a megaphone (Photo by Jamen Percy)

About the author: Graham Berry

Graham Berry

Where vibes are high, you can bet Graham Berry won’t be far. When he’s not volunteering to build big art or eating fire, he’s usually chronicling the experiences created at events that were inspired by the community and ethos in Black Rock City. With his trusty Masters of Communications from the University of Southern California and his Instagram moniker @FestivalWriter, Graham tirelessly works to share the stories of the creative heroes of the day. Through sheer dedication and an iron will, he fills his daytime hours generating editorial content as the voice of Do LaB. Outside the office, he moonlights as a freelancer for various culture and events focused publishers like Fest300, LA Weekly and Burn After Reading Magazine. He has also written extensively on the powerful culture that Burning Man catalyzed in festivals peppered throughout the default world, including Lucidity, Enchanted Forest, Envision and Lightning in a Bottle.

22 Comments on “In Defense of Snark

  • bitchcraft says:

    It’s the classic BRC art of pissing people off while sweetly smiling. Although, I’ve noticed a lot of people on the playa do have fucking dirty mouths. It’s possible we might be to the point where we need a stronger word than fuck. Sometimes I think it’s not enough anymore just to walk into camp and say ‘who left the fucking bag of idiots open again, this bar is a mess?’ If being snarky could burn calories I’d weigh like 8 pounds. I mean come on it’s not rocket surgery.

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  • Snark Bunny says:

    Snark is a very weak form of humor, reserved for people who lack a sense of humor and want desperately to impress others.

    I’m triggered.

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  • That Human says:

    Fuck yer buuuurn :)

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  • August "augmnt" Smarra says:

    Burner Community pages and accountability. Shouldn’t members be held up to the same standards as they practice at Burns. Why do I keep hearing as an excuse, they are better onsite and in person?”

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  • Sparkle Peen says:

    Pardon me whilst I throw water balloons at passersby without asking first! I mean, I selflessly want to cool people off, and maybe freshen up the stanky ones. I’m just trying to course correct here…

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  • MicrocosnSun says:

    Snark is wonderful… Still not as Euphoric as straight-up, bonafide look you in the eye and say what you mean..
    Snark is overused and is at its very core passive aggressive. Which when acted out consistently becomes a(n undesirable) character trait.
    Just saying some of y’all need to stop hiding behind all that “snark”.
    What you think makes you clever is actually stealing your gumption.

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  • Oasis says:

    Snark in the form of sarcasm can be wonderful if intelligence is used it it’s creation. However, when slurs are used to tear down people you know nothing about, the only thing that I see is someone radically expressing that they are an a$$.

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  • Scrotor says:

    Ultimately I think snark has to come from the heart, or else you just come off as a dick. Even if you’re being extremely snarky, if your heart’s in the right place, it has the potential to make a difference.

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  • Marshmellow says:

    …And that’s why I volunteer to Ringmaster in Center Camp Cafe. Donating one of my bestest skills to the community. Balance humor, honesty and love, and therein lies the perfect snark.

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  • Some Seeing Eye says:

    Here is another viewpoint.

    I remember distinctly when I was 19 delivering a clever snarky comment to a friend at a meal. I knew the comment was too cutting as soon as I said it. I decided after to say nothing if I could not find something constructive to say. I’ve kept that promise to myself.

    Snark is easy humor. It gives us pleasure to be clever. But it is more destructive than its advantage in immediate pleasure. It poisons the well for everyone who comes into contact with it. It’s a virus turning the mind’s resources into making more virus. People to think it’s normal and the cycle expands.

    Snark is the coin of the anonymous online realm. It has no consequence for the anonymous speaker. It is ubiquitous, trivial to learn, it is very weak creativity; that it is “creative” does not redeem it.

    Burning Man proposes it is a community in the virtual world and in the in-person world. BRC is a temporary city where real people meet in person and quickly form varieties of personal relationships. To form an in-person community, often long lasting friendships, and even partnerships, people are on their best behavior. Snark is not best behavior.

    The great anthropologists take a different approach to interacting with strangers.

    It begins in cultures around the world with a smile and eye contact within the context of the social norms of that culture. In an instant that interest will be returned or rejected, in an instant both will know if they can proceed.

    From there it is open ended questions, noticing, active listening and discovering mental models.

    To the original post, a better way to shape a culture is to understand why a person is engaging in a particular behavior. It will become clear if they have a strong reason or a weak reason. If there is a strong reason, once you have established trust you may be able to provide them some ideas in the context of their mental model which could move them by their own will toward community values. If it is a weak reason, like a lack of knowledge, the engagement is the same. If you can include a gift after that interaction to help resolve the situation, all the better.

    Burning Man had some of its cultural roots in the Suicide Club and the Cacophony Society. Both were characterized by inclusion rituals, a strong group identity, exploration, experiential experimentation, and, especially with the Cacophony Society, absurdist performance. Absurdist performance has been a tactic over many art movements, such as Dada and Fluxus. But they were never snarky – a cutting statement directed at another; because the universe of discourse is much more expansive than the dark corner of throwing snark.

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    • Jessica says:

      I love your reply, and thank you for writing this. Snark can shut doors so fast, “poisoning the well” as you say. I try to never use it, wary of the misunderstanding and hurt that can result. I don’t see a positive place for it particularly on the Playa where we’re all trying to be & find the best of our authentic selves.

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  • Buena Chica says:

    I TRY i really really do………
    but have not managed to earn my SNARK BADGE of honor…. I STILL PPOLOGIZE after I say a very snarky comment!! DAMNiT!!! DAMNiT!!!!

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  • Roberto Dobbisano says:

    this whole comment section has jumped the snark.

    don’t hate me because im punny.

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  • Sam says:

    Ach yer just being American eh.

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  • Special says:

    Snark another word for smart ass.

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  • Terminal patient of life says:

    Its that moment of confusion, pain or pleasure, laughter or awkwardness. Snark is fruitless without an understanding of the audience and undoubtedly more harmful when it sets out to ostracise some unfortunate sensitive soul. That said BRC is no different that the real. If someone is being an ass you don’t have to tolerate it. Just go ahead and walk 10 feet away or simply tell them to go fuck thenselves.

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