Jumping the Snark

Or, how to recognise trolls, snark, and bat crazy sociopaths on the Internet.


Ian Hyslop – arch master of snark – more right-wing sneer than satire

The motivation for this subject, trolls, snark and internet abuse, issues from an unsolicited insult on Twitter from someone calling herself ‘History Woman’, aka, Jill Stephenson. She claims to be an academic, yet the language she uses is gutter-male. “These fuckers from south of the border …” an example. Referring to the Referendum vote she said, “We have saved Scotland”. ‘We’ is a classic hallmark of the self-aggrandising spokesperson, an allusion to an in-house, all-knowing, clique. Her language is filled with street colloquialisms, “nutters”, “yeah”, “you don’t get it”, and the fashionable symbol of irony “erm.” Confronting her, I half-expected a sarcastic ‘he-llo?’, followed by ‘get real!’ Instead she accused me of hiding behind a pseudonym and that was that. (I choose to whom I offer my name.) Apparently she has form, attracting scorn for describing a female SNP MP as ‘a slut’. She refused to apologise. She has stated she’d like Holyrood Parliament shut down.

Trolling for beginners

Instant opinion can be a killer, especially when designed to defame. No academic I know with any integrity and common sense resorts to Twitter for learned discourse. Despite knowing academics whose tongue can scarify tar from a road, they would not endanger their reputation with the language of Stephenson, not in a public forum. Happily for Edinburgh University, she left their employment some time ago.

Twitter is useless for developing intellectual ideas. It’s good for relaying brief, instant messages. Twitter is full of banter, what we used to call ribaldry. Now and then you’ll see a good epigram, or advice on this or that, but mostly bad grammar.

Twitter is a magnet for trolls. A lot of trolls are narcissists. They are easy to spot. They never answer a direct question nor defer to erudition. When accused of making banal assertion they attack the other person’s intelligence, and if a good point is made, run it down with sarcasm and jeering. If a debater refuses to lower their standards and leaves the fray, the troll will accuse him or her of running away from the argument. A troll is always right even when wrong. A troll is aggressive, the equivalent of the car driver who turns homicidal if overtaken.

Sociopaths galore

The opposite end of Billy Goat Troll is the sociopath. The internet has unlocked a fire door allowing in every sociopath with a jerrycan and a box of matches. Some are women. They’re ready to tell the world their personal situation is the result of everybody’s stupidity, not their inadequacy- and we must all pay! Sociologists tell us we’d be surprised at how many sociopaths are walking the streets.

They are identified by an inability to learn from experience, show no moral principle, a lack of remorse, a remoteness, pathologically egocentric, an inability to show empathy or praise, overall, poor social behaviour, simply put – a total bastard or bitch.

Trolls suffer from excruciating envy, battered pride, delusions of grandeur, holding ambition way beyond ability. Their self-perception is skewed and dented. They’re outsiders who want to displace insiders. The worst will do their best to dox your identity. (Doxing/Dox: a corruption of documents.) The verb means to search for, and publish on the Internet, facts about a particular individual, and to do it with malicious intent.

Snark and its meaning

Though trolls infest every social site, familiarity has lessened their impact. We have learned how to handle their abuse. You can block them from your site. But trolling has been overtaken by snark. Everybody loves being sarcastic and cynical.

Snark comes from Lewis Carroll’s poem, ‘The Hunting of the Snark‘, subtitled, ‘An Agony In Eight Fits.’ (Fits: Victorian for the Italian ‘canto’: in divisions.) In it, the Snark is removed from existence, vanquished. The snarker hopes to achieve the same end for their intended victim. But the hunt never ends. It is an obsession.

Serious snark differs from trolls in that the person using it aims to assassinate another person’s character or reputation, holding on like grim death to make innuendo and fabrication stick. The intention is to have the public think there is no smoke without fire. The reputation of the unblemished, whiter-than-white, terribly perfect Mary Poppins wouldn’t stand a chance against today’s snark designed to defame.

Mediocrity and conformity

Snark functions as an enforcer of mediocrity. It imposes conformity. The unwary, the inexperienced can be unnerved by the ferocity of attacks and knuckle-down. Indeed, there are recorded instances where a young person targeted has taken their life rather than be thought of as worthless and a laughing stock.

This isn’t tough cynicism we are talking about, or incisiveness. It’s fatuous sarcasm and flat out cruelty. It is sadism by internet. The malice behind snark is always palpable.

In the USA it’s an internet crime to denigrate by snark if the victim can prove their reputation is harmed. Constructive harassment is a felony.

Snark and satire

Satire is derived from the Latin satura lanx – a dish of fruits, a medley. Satire is critical of manners, vices, social conventions, and social types. Satire is the craft of practicing irony. When describing Donald Trump as a prophylactic in a toupee (my phrase) I suggest his opinions and demeanour are no way a businessman should behave.

The late comedian Lenny Bruce is regarded as the originator of snark, but snark as satire that eviscerates. Our own Frankie Boyle has taken it to lengths Bruce would never have dreamed of, razor sharp one-liners. Bruce’s style was more description and narration. It got him harassed by his targets and arrested by the police. Charlie Brooker, a social commentator and script writer, has made a career in snark. When the Greeks and Trojans met on the battlefield they got stuck into each other with verbal insults and abuse. It could last for days until they got bored or goaded to the point of fury and battle.

I like political satire, the kind hell bent on knocking lumps out of vainglorious politicians of little brain and massive ego. Stephen Colbert is one of the best, an American satirist, now with his own late night television show. He was invited to make a speech at a Whitehouse dinner when Bush Junior was president.

Reality is a well known liberal bias … I stand by this man. I stand by this man because he stands on things. Things like aircraft carriers, and rubble, and recently flooded city squares. And that sends a strong message, that no matter what happens to America, she will always rebound – with the most powerful staged photo opportunities in the world.”

Snark as epigram

Savage insult designed to expose contradictions is a good thing, hence there is a degree of snark that is justified. It crosses a fine line into wit.

Mid-twentieth century acerbic novelists such as Evelyn Waugh made their name with a kind of Oxbridge snark, and always following fashion when safe to do so. Private Eye magazine follows that tradition.


The cover of Private Eye  is often cleverer than the content

The BBC’s version of snark

When the BBC caved into the political pressure and scrapped its pioneering political punch show That Was The Week That Was, (TWTWTW – TW3), a cornucopia of satirical sketches on political issues of the day, we lost a chunk of the democratic spirit. A late night Saturday show, it attracted millions of viewers, and a lot of outrage from Colonel Blimps. It made the reputation of its cast, namely front man David Frost.

Television’s version of Private Eye, the guest show Have I Got News For You, (HIGNFY) is a weak substitute. It has less satire than meets the ear. Magazine and show share the same public school editor, Ian Hyslop, hence the whiff of a ruling class mentality. If you don’t listen carefully you will miss the right-wing disdain on which the show thrives.

The show is after laughs more than insight. It exploits ethnic stereotypes, reinterprets press photographs, roast guests, and indulges in surreal animal humour mainly coined by the affable Paul Merton. However, it has said some truly ignorant and stupid things about Scotland’s political ambitions and history by relying on ethnic jokes about Scots.

Snark as cattle prod

Snark is used to prick radical chic. The people it’s aiming at are the elite. JK Rowling is one, playwright Harold Pinter another. Born in Hackney, his plays and film scripts made him a well-heeled socialist, rising from humble origins to a distinguished literary career and a Nobel Prize. Private Eye called him a ‘champagne socialist’. That’s snark.

Snark is endemic. Most of it on Twitter is low grade stuff. The game played is ‘throw some mud, see what sticks’. By its very nature, snark is philistine. It will not defer to the artistically or intellectually ambitious for it is always on the lookout for pomposity. It loathes money and success.

“It is an extreme rudeness to tax any man in public with an untruth”, said Queen Elizabeth’s squeeze and tobacco merchant, Sir Walter Raleigh. “But all that’s rude should not be met with death.” He had a point. Nobody should die over slander, then again, they should not have their career or good name blighted.

On the literary side, our newspapers indulge in snark every day, rumour, gossip, slyly constructed articles implying one thing when there is no such evidence to justify it.

Kings of snark

On a loftier plain, Gore Vidal was a master of high snark. He could be savagely honest. “When a friend succeeds, something in me dies”, he once said, ruefully. Having gotten into a verbal and then physical fight with Norman Mailer, a far less able essayist, Mailer, a writer known for his excessive drinking habits and misogyny, slugged Vidal one on the jaw. As Vidal arose off the floor he said, “Words fail you, again, Norman.”

This Vidal anecdote reminds me… conjecture is not a fact, opinion is not a fact, but the worst snarker thinks they are. Snark can range from a false knowingness expressed by a nonentity, to memorable wit penned by a great writer. George Orwell’s essay on English mores and patriotism, ‘My Country Right or Left’  is pure elevated snark.

And finally, anonymity

Personally speaking, I’d rather we use our real names on the Internet; stand by our opinion and be prepared to defend it. On the other hand, if I lived under an authoritarian regime, one that suppressed dissent, I’d be relieved not to use my real name lest the knock in the night came to my door. (In my case it did.) Scotland is a colony. If you use your own name to challenge authority – be prepared to get smeared.

Opponents of truth are using the internet to spread doubt and fear, and assassinate. Snark without limit presented as personal opinion is corrosive. It narrows the debate and diverts us from the important core issues.

Summary: what of ‘History Woman’?

As for the motivation for this hypothesis, ‘History Woman’, she’s definitely a hellishly dogged conformist. She’s bitter and that’s unhealthy. Worse, she debases the democratic process, intent on stopping it in its tracks.

If she continues along that route she knows she’s cutting a path to her own extinction.

Then again, by expressing my opinion of her you might determine I’m guilty of snark.



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28 Responses to Jumping the Snark

  1. Dan Huil says:

    “So, what of ‘History Woman’? Is she the over-wrought academic she’s accused of being, embarrassing her university, a troll, a snarker, or a fully rounded sociopath?”

    Can I tick all of the above? Or will I be condemned as a nasty-nat trolling ticker? Anyway, as you know, it’s only Scot Nats who are nasty; britnats are innocent wee angels.

  2. Grouse Beater says:


  3. jimnarlene says:

    I don’t do twitter, or to be snarky twatter, for the very reasons in your essay.
    I had Facebook for about an hour, which was an hour too long.

  4. Grouse Beater says:

    Stayed clear of Facebook. The idea of filing everybody’s likes and dislikes, and habits, millions of us, is anathema. I hear businesses benefit from exposure on it, but life is too short to fill in an internet site for hours- hold on a minute! Is that the time already?

  5. Scott Borthwick says:

    Not to be confused with Gaby Mahlberg, who tweets as @thehistorywoman. She seems quite nice.

    I look on the forceful exchange of views on Twitter with some regret. Although you mention roots in ancient Greece, I find myself thinking of the wonderful literary tradition of the flyting and wondering just how much we have regressed as a civilisation.

  6. Grouse Beater says:

    I didn’t know there was another with the same moniker. I would not want to offend her.

    I like the point you make, Scott. Sensibilities have greatly coarsened this last decade. Stand up comics and all their profanity doesn’t help. I would have discussed that area more but realised I had gone well beyond my maximum of 2,000 words. I hope this long-read essay holds attention.

  7. Scott Borthwick says:

    It was a long read, but well worth it.

    As for profanities, there are a fair few choice ones in the Flyting of Dunbar and Kennedy. A rich sourcework for those who have grown tired of the samey insults thrown around mindlessly these days.

  8. Grouse Beater says:


  9. I came across the History Woman before the Indyref on a forum for woman.
    She was so aggressive and rude I left.

  10. Grouse Beater says:

    As my American friends say, the lights are on but there’s nobody there.

  11. Wee Jonny says:

    Excellent as per G.B.

    I always read your stories/blogs/posts/articles like there’s a composer waving his wand (Ooh Matron) from word to word as they glide from one to the next in a very calming laid back way.
    Very soothing. You’re to the point but not pointed. (Diz that even mak sense?)

  12. Grouse Beater says:

    It makes sense insomuch as you’re saying, keep smiling and carry a big stick. 🙂
    Feel free to pass the essay to open minds.

  13. Papko says:

    I don’t do Twitter.

    I think the whole point is to say something witty in 140 words, make people laugh, garner popularity, and accrue followers, thereby increasing your “status ” or what passes for it online.

    I find it interesting that so much “news” written by journalists is based on Twitter posts. Prior to the Internet, if someone like Trump or Murdoch said something a journalist would copy it down, publish it, and it may later be denied. At least with Twitter it’s a hard copy so to speak.

    One of the shortcomings of the Internet IMO, is that there is simply too much information, and not enough people who can decipher it, and then explain it.

    The referendum was a mighty slanging match, with both sides vying with each other for “likes “. I wonder if it was held the “older ” way by listening to speeches and reading pamphlets the result would have been different.

    Perhaps in 100 years time it wont be votes that are counted it will be mouse clicks.

  14. Grouse Beater says:

    Thank you for your ideas, Papko.
    Only thing I’d disagree with is the description of the Referendum debate as a ‘slanging match.’ It might have appeared to be so by those unused to combative politics, but it awakened a nation’s awareness of itself, its strengths, and its lop-sided democracy. It continues to this day, a kind of new Enlightenment.

  15. Papko says:

    Well, from that point of view, I am someone who is not used to “combative politics ” and tend not to argue in daily life.

    I would agree that “it awakened a nations awareness “, it did pose questions, I had never given much thought to, it provoked much thought about “identity “, but it did this for both sides.

    What I did not like and have never had much time for, is that it reduced at times to the “what team do you support “, it still does.

    Whether “Green beat Blue, 10 times, or vice versa, neither side will give an inch, whether the score was 5.0 or not, they will still argue and oppose, the losing side, ignoring the score, will refer to past victories, the winners preferring the “facts of the game “.

    Yours is a well written blog, though. Your reference to “reading good literature to improve concentration “, reminds me I have to read more books, another casualty of the Internet.

  16. Grouse Beater says:

    I’m pleased you enjoy reading my essays.

    Long-form sites like this one are a beneficial way to exchange ideas and experiences. I suppose the skill is in seeking out common ground, but too often they become a place of control and conformity.

    My understanding of the plebiscite is straight forward. For the first time the people of Scotland were given a chance to decide their fate, about 300 years too late. We were handed a wonderful opportunity to see if we were equipped in institutions and we were mature enough to regain our nationhood, and to govern ourselves. The enemies of democracy kept reducing the discussion to money. I don’t like being told I’m useless, too poor to make a difference.

    If you thought yes to that you knew what you were voting for, and it wasn’t one political party or another. It was for real democratic powers. But we were told by the British political parties they would make us poor as Church of England mice if we dared stand on our own two feet again – a paradoxically aggressive attitude to take when trying to tell a nation you’re their best friend.

    I think books the only way of gaining knowledge about human nature, whether exposing corruption, political chicanery, or solving a crime in a damn good detective novel. And when I read a book it’s me that chooses what I want to learn. It isn’t newspapers or television pundits telling me what to think.

    I keep them for reference, a pocket of knowledge on my bookshelf. If I used Kindle, or some such electronic method, I’d be scared someone else owned that knowledge, and one day I couldn’t pass it to others.

    One of the best books I have is the Royal Horticultural Society’s Garden Encyclopaedia, a book beautifully illustrating trees, plants and flowers. I visit a lot of second-hand book shops these days because hard backs are so expensive. All this makes me sound a bookish nerd, but I regard myself as a practical person, able to put a shelf up, or change a tyre on a car.

  17. Helena Brown says:

    As so many other have said I do not do twitter but I do lurk on Wings Twitter page so as you can imagine I have come across said woman, I nearly said lady but that is one thing she isn’t.

    What worries me is that she and Adam Tomkins both seem to be “academics” they give their chosen profession a bad name. Not for them the humour of the YES side, the bitter incriminations that spew from their computers leaves me wondering who acually won the referendum.

    I gave up on HIGNFY when the Referendum got going in earnest. I found their comments insulting and juvenile. Then of course I love Frankie Boyle who is our only comedian to give as good as he gets. His comment about England sinking whilst Scotland rises in geological terms and us sitting on the top of the mountains clapping, well I enjoyed that.

    Good thing I am not on Twitter, imagine what they, those odd onionists would say about me. I too have that Encyclopdia, had to have it as the other one from Readers Digest is hard going if you do not know the family a plant belongs too.

    Unfortunately we have had to resort to the Kindle as our Bookcase, we only have the one, is full and we downsized so my books are on the cloud, only 200+ but growing and I like tomes as my bookcase will testify.

  18. Grouse Beater says:

    Hello Helena

    Tomkins and History Woman are a bizarre couple of fanatics, taking on the might of electorate as if the population has gone crazy from eating too many Teacakes, and only they can save us.

    They’re out to pump our stomachs clean of democracy and feed us neo-liberal corporate doctrine.

    What they’re desperate to save us for is an extreme right-wing agenda, their idea of civilisation, and that’s the fearsome aspect of the panic-stricken pair.

    Anyhow, I appreciate your remarks. I hope you’ll visit here again soon.

  19. hettyforindy says:

    Interesting article.

    The internet is amazing, and annoying. I home educated my son (no choice) and the internet was a huge bonus, I use it for political news, for research for my artworks, a huge number of uses.

    Facebook, yes it’s annoying but useful for seeing what is going on, I get loads of info and petitions, a lot on animal cruelty, environmental concerns, downside being it can get too overwhelming. Twitter, occassionally go there, but after about ten minutes get frustrated, can’t keep up, lots of rubbish. I prefer blogs, like this one. :-))

    I do use the internet a lot for seeing what is going on environmentally. The yestolifenotomining site, for eg, is amazing. The world, well humans, get more crazy and inhuman by the day, but I can’t put my head in the sand.

    We have tons of fabulous books, and keep buying them. Just need more hours in the day, oops, it’s late!

  20. Grouse Beater says:

    That’s the sort of reply I like, Hetty, thoughtful, another’s perceptions and experiences. Thank you.

  21. Thepnr says:

    Very good GB, Bit late to comment but just caught your link on Wings. I do like snark it can be very effective used properly.

    In fact, I believe that Independence supporters used both snark and satire to good effect during the Indy campaign. This is far preferable in my view to anger and bile. Strange though don’t you think that our UK media implied the opposite in that it was Indy supporters full of anger, hate and bile while those in favour of the Union were quietly getting on with their business.

    Pure fantasy and that truly is where the roadblock to Independence lies.

  22. Grouse Beater says:

    There’s a long established car site, bought by Heseltine’s Haymarket group, that has a politics thread, one topic devoted to Scottish civic rights and independence. For the most part its hysterical BNP-loyalist vomit is repulsive hate speech, but its on page 227 already and without a moderator in sight.

    Much of the ignorant crapology posted is libellous, fabrications and falsehoods posted and repeated. You could say, it’s the epitome of brutal trolling, and a haven for sociopaths. It’s so bad civilised voices – initially there for the car chat – are ‘driven’ off it. I won’t name the site because its trash is violence personified. But some of the posts are a police matter.

    I don’t see the British establishment’s tactics as being any different, only they use an Eton-Oxbridge accent, and wear a club tie.

  23. Missed this first-time round. Great stuff, and lovely to see some familiar names in the comments above.
    More power to ye mister, and thanks for reposting. Very apt!

  24. Grouse Beater says:

    Now it’s on JK’s timeline I’m expecting thousands of tweets saying “You rotter”, “You cad!”, and “I cast a very, very bad spell on you.”

  25. 🙂
    Well, it’s one way of getting some extra ‘followers’…good luck!

  26. Grouse Beater says:

    You’re not kidding. A 100 hits in 20 minutes. I hope her devotees learn something of twitter, and who indulges in it and who doesn’t.

  27. Flyting is alive and well in Scotlandshire, and it lives on the internet. Our own ramblings range from satire to snark, calling at all points between, and typically reach a readership in the tens of thousands.

    Humour, particularly where it exposes an underlying truth, is one of the most powerful weapons available to the Yes campaign. It also has the advantage of being largely unavailable to the other side.

  28. Grouse Beater says:

    “It also has the advantage of being largely unavailable to the other side.”

    There’s nothing truer.
    Jeremy Paxman once admitted he enjoyed bating the Scots because ‘they have no sense of humour.’ Believe me, over three hundred years of getting belittled shows an heroic sense of humour.

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