And speaking of the “favor economy”: Even the Oscars are becoming an inclusive, populist extravaganza this year with 10 Best Picture nominees—including Sandra Bullock’s warm-fuzzy-fest The Blind Side—plus Alec Baldwin and Steve Martin sharing—sharing—host duties. Also consider the mellowing of Simon Cowell, who has recently taken to hugging deposed American Idol contestants and encouraging them to keep at it. The actress Gwyneth Paltrow neatly summed up the new outlook, responding to criticisms of her treacly weekly email newsletter, Goop, in USA Today. “I think part of the problem is people get a hit of energy when they are negative about something, and it is a very detrimental way for them to get that hit of energy,” said the mother of two. “They do not understand why they do not have a happy life. … I just feel sorry for them.”
While the quest for a happy life has become a bona fide intellectual project in America (see sidebar), the rare outburst of mean feels like a shock to the system. When novelist Alice Hoffman took to Twitter last June to furiously attack a reviewer in The Boston Globe as a “moron” and an “idiot,” it was almost refreshing to see the medium being used to its full, uncensored communicative potential. It felt authentic. (Ms. Hoffman has since erased her account.)
Ms. Hoffman, of course, is a Bostonian; and Dan Baum, who tartly tweeted about his experiences writing for David Remnick to a collective media gasp, lives in Boulder, Colo. New Yorkers, perhaps, understand better than most the value of personal branding, which, on an ever less anonymous and more community-based Internet, means we’re producing a steady stream of searchable utterances attached to our name (or avatar), that ultimately defines the size and nature of our circle of influence.
ONE MIGHT ARGUE that products like Tumblr, Twitter and Facebook are designed to manipulate us into niceness.
“There’s a lot of incentive and positive reinforcement when you use Tumblr,” said David Karp, proprietor of the platform. To “like” someone’s post is to click on a heart-shaped symbol—an easy, “friction-less” gesture, he said—but there is no way to express the opposite if you find the post vaguely illiterate. (Similarly, on Facebook, there is no thumbs-down symbol.) There is however plenty to gain in terms of followers for your own blog if you opt to re-post people’s posts and add your own witty, positive commentary. Unlike many vicious Web commenters, users of these social-media platforms can be de-friended, unfollowed, ignored and potentially silenced by the platform itself. (Internet users have taken to using these tactics on people behaving badly in real life, too: When Kanye West recently stole the microphone from Taylor Swift at the MTV Video Awards to say Beyoncé should have won, Facebook news feeds exploded with tsk-tsks from New Yorkers who surely agreed with him in theory.)
“Part of what’s going on is that the act of typing seems public no matter what it’s going into,” said David Carr, the New York Times media columnist, who tweets about the Olympics and regularly praises his colleagues’ work. “So even if it’s an email, you have to assume that through some circumstance, it somehow might be public.”
But it’s not just the fear of losing our megaphone or an electronic “paper trail” that keeps us nice: 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.
This doesn’t stop provocateurs like Michael Wolff from sending out purposely mean tweets like this one, in response to a missive publicizing David Brooks’ appearance on Charlie Rose: “Or, for more pleasure, kill yourself.” But Mr. Wolff, a relatively new tweeter, had 1,670 followers at press time; the Times’ Mr. Carr has almost 250,000.
Cultural critic Lee Siegel, a regular contributor to the Daily Beast and The New Republic, described the mutually congratulatory behavior as a “cultural style,” not an empathetic shift. “The pressure to please and be popular is what I don’t like about this stuff,” he said. “That is more lethal to journalism than a bunch of anonymous loons screaming insults.”
Later, in an email, he continued: “It’s as if the gene that detects insincerity had been removed from us. Or is it that we are all playing this new complicated game of insincerity? I thought we revolted against King George so that we could stop paying taxes to England and to liberate ourselves from obnoxious British insincerity.” He suggested Mr. Carr “stop following himself on Twitter and get back to work.” Meow!
It’s clear that Internice has its limits. “If Peggy Noonan writes something in The Wall Street Journal that’s absurd, ha-ha, it’s always fun to make fun of Peggy Noonan,” said Ms. Baker, the blogger. “But if I know that person is someone I follow, or they follow me, or I like them, I just think twice. I’m not going to write something just to be provocative or get a cheap laugh.” She did that once, she said, when she’d only been on Tumblr for two weeks and had yet to learn the customs, but her sarcastic blog post just ended up making her feel horrible. “It just made me think, O.K., I can do better than this,” she said.