On the Internet, snark reigns supreme — or so it seems.
Just ask Ben Affleck. After the recent announcement that he would be the next Batman, Twitter erupted in a roar of criticism, one wisecrack piled on top of the other.
On social media, everyone wants to be the most clever. Twitter, in particular, with its 140-character limit, is tailor-made for the quick quip. Then there’s the app called Hater, which encourages users to publicly point out the things they most despise.
Yet there’s growing evidence that being kind and cheerful earns more attention than offering cutting complaints and cynicism. Not a day goes by without some warm and fuzzy critter’s antics gone viral. Inspirational quotes turned into graphics are a Pinterest staple.
Researchers have found that “likes” beget more “likes,” as hype feeds on itself. Another study revealed that being negative on Twitter had adverse effects on gaining more followers, while more positive, information-filled tweets made a Twitter user more popular.
“Happiness is contagious in the best possible way,” said Nataly Kogan, founder of Happier, a company aimed at making people feel good, starting with an iPhone app on which users share little cheerful moments of their day.
Since the app was launched in February, users have posted more than 1.3 million “happy moments,” brief reflections on things so simple as five minutes for a cup of coffee or a hug from a child. Teens in particular have told her Happier is a refuge for posting such thoughts without worrying about appearing uncool on Twitter or Facebook, where they feel pressure to be witty.
“We’re at this point in time where collectively it’s feeling too negative,” Kogan said. “We’re starting to realize there are more positive things in our lives.”
The Internet has been a place for pointed — sometimes hostile — exchanges since almost its beginning.
There’s established vocabulary for the nastiness, from flame wars to trolls, and much has been written about the emboldening effect of anonymity online. Even on a friendlier level, many people turn to social media to vent about everything from the weather to bad service at restaurants. Jokes often assume a cynical tone, a la “Sharknado.”
When Nina Davuluri, an Indian-American, won the Miss America crown Sept. 15, a string of racist posts littered social media.
“There’s a lot of negativity in bullying and snarkiness on social networks,” Kogan said.
But over time, if popularity is the goal, such a dour tone doesn’t work.
When researchers from the Georgia Institute of Technology and the University of Michigan tracked 500 Twitter users selected at random from regular users (no celebrities), they found that being negative had an “adverse effect” on gaining followers.
“This might be because Twitter is a medium dominated by very weak social ties, and negative sentiment from strangers may be unpleasant or uncomfortable for a potential new follower to see,” the researchers wrote.
“There becomes a level of distaste when people are really snarky after a while,” said Sara Kerr, an assistant professor at St. Catherine University who teaches social media in marketing. “People don’t retweet or reply.”
A separate study out of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology found that “liking” a news story online led others to do the same. Alternately, voting down a story to express disapproval had little long-term effect.
In other words, when someone offers a positive endorsement online, others are more likely to pile on.
Kerr, who has a personal Twitter account and manages other accounts for St. Kate’s MBA program and the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet, said she has seen humorous or uplifting tweets seeming to engage the widest number of people.
Sometimes the content is frivolous and fun, such as her daily reports on her back-yard chickens. (See also: cat videos.) But positive posts don’t have to be without substance.
Prayers of the day are the most often shared tweets on the Sisters of St. Joseph account, Kerr said. Perhaps the biggest viral hit out of Minnesota recently, the song “Clouds” written by Stillwater teen Zach Sobiech before he died of cancer, brought tears to viewers’ eyes. The YouTube video has more than 8 million views.
That doesn’t mean there’s no place for a jab or complaint sometimes, but Kerr said sharp comments are best if they bolster the online identity you’re trying to build.
“If your brand is snarky, you’d expect your Twitter feed to have a little bit of that,” she said. “The nuns’ Twitter feed is never snarky.”
In general, if the online chatter in general skews too negative, she said, the community is learning to correct itself as rules evolve.
After people poked fun at octogenarian Grand Forks (N.D.) Herald columnist Marilyn Hagerty’s viral 2012 review of an Olive Garden, an even louder swarm stepped up to defend and praise her.
“Being authentic is much more important than trying to be witty,” Kerr said.