The New Nice

Civility gains traction on social networking sites

By Meredith Bryan

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. Baker linked appreciatively to the post on her Tumblr, calling Vargas-Cooper, whom she’d never met, “a lady I luv.” After that, “the lovefest continued,” said Baker in a phone interview with The Observer. Vargas-Cooper commented on 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 Vargas-Cooper helped Baker—who asked The Observer not to reveal her day job, where Tumbling is frowned upon—edit some of her writing.

When 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 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 Kiera 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 New Yorkers find themselves softer and more empathetic when so many of them are unemployed and their 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 OK—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,” said 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.”

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 taking 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 e-mail 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, 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. (Hoffman has since erased her account.)

One might argue that products such as 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, 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.)

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 those 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 e-mail, 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, 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 such as 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 Wolff, a relatively new tweeter, had 1,670 followers at press time; the Times’ 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 e-mail, 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 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 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, OK, I can do better than this,” she said.

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