Essay:Too much snark considered harmful

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TL;DR summary: if we want to be taken serious as an educational resource and not just preach to the choir, we need to be careful not to add too much snark.

As most people here know, RationalWiki has a "Snarky Point of View", or SPOV for short. SPOV is a good thing as it adds some humour and fun to a page, making for a lighter and less dry read. Although this is not the only way to do that, it is one if the easier ways.

However, snark also some drawbacks. To see which, we must first ask ourselves the question "What is the goal of a RationalWiki page? Why do we write them?" The answer will probably be different for everyone, but there are three reasons that are probably the most common:

  1. Selfish: fun, practising writing skills and/or English.
  2. Sceptic community: documenting pseudo-science for easy reference.
  3. General public: educating and informing them.

For the first two reasons, the amount of the snark matters little; but for the third reason snark may be harmful—especially excessive snark.

I'm not arguing against snark in general, but rather more thoughtful use a snark which considers things such as:

  • likely demographic of the readers;
  • position and context in the rest of the page;
  • if it's actually a funny joke, or just a cheap unfunny potshot and/or an in-joke.

How much snark exactly is "excessive" is up for grabs; here are some examples:

Ray Comfort
Previous versions used two images (File:True atheist nightmare.jpg, File:Bananaman.png) to make fun of Ray. I'm not again making fun of Ray, as he's a wilfully ignorant hypocritical buffoon, but lets put ourselves in the position of a "moderate Christian" who's heard of Comfort somewhere, and would like to read more about him and/or his arguments.
It would of course be great if such a person would end up on our Ray Comfort page, read a significant part of it, and come to the same conclusion that we have: that he's an ignoramus and that pretty much all of his arguments are profoundly stupid. Now, would those two images help convey this message to our reader, or would it be off-putting to this reader? I strongly suspect it would be the latter.
Previous versions immediately displayed snark at the start: "Homeopathy is a type of water alternative medicine invented [..]". This is true of course, but again, if we put ourselves in the shoes of the homeopathic-curious reader, will this help convey or message, or will it be off-putting? Again, I strongly suspect it will be the latter.
Previous versions start with not just one, but two pieces of snark right at the start: "PETA (People Eating Tasty Animals for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) is a vegan fundamentalist death cult an American animal rights [..]". Like in the Homeopathy example above, this is right at the start, before anyone's even had the chance to read some of our real and founded criticism of PETA. There are probably a larger number of people (more than homeopathy, creationism) who have at least a "mild sympathy" for PETA, simply because they don't realize that PETA is rather full of shit. Many of them will probably stop reading after the first sentence, or be very distrusting of what the rest of the page has to say—and I can't really blame them here.

There are probably many more examples to be found, but these are just a few that I happened to remember.

As an afterword, I'd like to point out that I too have regularly added "too much snark" (and will likely do so again in the future). Adding snark is easy and fun, but educating people is hard.