A year ago, Natasha Vargas-Cooper, a California-based contributor to the Awl and Gawker, named 26-year-old Manhattanite Katie Baker among her favorite female bloggers in a blog post. Ms. Baker linked appreciatively to the post on her Tumblr, calling Ms. Vargas-Cooper, whom she’d never met, “a lady I luv.” After that, “the lovefest continued,” said Ms. Baker in a phone interview with The Observer. Ms. Vargas-Cooper commented on Ms. Baker’s Tumblr post, writing, “Big fucking fan = me.”
The two women began to go out of their way to link to and comment on each other’s writings and communicate via Twitter, and Ms. Vargas-Cooper helped Ms. Baker—who asked The Observer not to reveal her day job, where Tumbling is frowned upon—edit some of her writing. When Ms. Baker published an essay on the Duke lacrosse fiasco on the Awl in December, her new friend was one of several commenters who took the high road in defending her against a Negative Nelly in the comments section, asserting, “ELEGANT PIECE, MS. BAKER.” And the negative commenter was apparently killed by kindness: he/she staked out Ms. Baker on her personal blog to apologize: “I’m the person who wrote that dick-ish ‘Nope, sorry’ comment on your Awl article, and it is seriously HAUNTING me! I’ve never been that mean to someone on the internet, I’m super anti-confrontation and you’re a pro and took it pro-ishly, but uggggh I’m sorry I’m such a dick. Really.”
With all due respect to the Internet, it has not often been described as a “lovefest”; indeed, it has been better known as a forum for fire-breathing, semi-literate personal attacks. But suddenly, wide swaths of the Web have become bastions of support and earnest civility, where community-members “retweet” or “reblog” each other’s bon mots, promiscuously proffer thumbs-up, help sell perfect strangers’ books, drive traffic to each other’s blogs and real-world events and even defend one another.
“People sometimes will get bent about something and put it on Facebook or Twitter and realize that’s just not the tone anymore,” said literary PR consultant Lauren Cerand, who kindly posted a comment on this reporter’s Facebook wall about a previous article in this newspaper (we had never met in person). “That very cynical voice worked really well from 2003 to 2006.” But “really negative people, they don’t have a lot of friends.” (In other words, you’re more likely to think before you tweet when you can actually watch yourself losing your audience with each nasty missive!)
It’s not just Internet logrollers riding the wave of positivity. Conan O’Brien signed off from NBC saying, “Please don’t be cynical. I hate cynicism—it’s my least favorite quality and it doesn’t lead anywhere.” Quite unlike aloof Madonna or spoiled Britney, pop star of the moment Lady Gaga is constantly professing what seems to be sincere, mature gratitude to her fans and creative partners on Twitter. Tom Hanks’ wife, Rita Wilson, proclaimed nice “the new black” in the March Harper’s Bazaar (“How often have you yawned in boredom when someone has told you about a nice person they know? What did nice do to deserve this treatment?”). Vogue, meanwhile, put Tina Fey—not beautiful, but nice-looking—on its March cover, rather than Keira Knightly or Sienna Miller. Even Bill O’Reilly seems to be softening up. “There are two kinds of political attacks,” he said recently, defending President Obama from CPAC. “The personal, meant to diminish the human being, and criticism of policy, meant to persuade people the person in power is doing a bad job… The personal stuff is cheap.”
PERHAPS IT’S NOT surprising that we find ourselves softer and more empathetic when so many of us are unemployed and our city’s largest moneymaking industry has been publicly dressed down. The New Nice is nibbling gently at New York, a place where it was always O.K.—nay, a matter of survival—not to be nice, a.k.a. bland, submissive and/or irrelevant.
Then again, when examined more closely, there’s a reassuring venality to all this e-caring-and-sharing. “All of New York really runs from this idea of the favor economy,” pointed out Ms. Cerand, the PR consultant, who recently attracted funding for Girls Write Now, a charity she’s involved with, by responding to a tweet. “Can I do a favor now for this person so they’ll do one for me later? Some people feel that’s really stressful and that everyone’s operating, but I feel like that the ambition, for most people, is to be happy and successful, and from a Buddhist perspective that’s something to be supported.”