New Sincerity is the answer to snarky post-modern web culture

A version of this essay was published as part of my twice-monthly newsletter several weeks ago. Find other archives and join here to get updates like this first.

I’ve been struggling a lot over the last couple years, and of course particularly in the last six months, with how mean the social web can be. How mean we are to each other. And how naive I sound to others when I think we can be something else.

This has gotten me into reading about the New Sincerity movement of the 1980s that then got a major boost of attention in the 1990s by beloved and troubled writer David Foster Wallace. It’s what I’ve been searching for.

Before the social web’s explosion, DFW predicted our descent into snark as a prevailing tone by writing about the saturation of irony that came with post-modernism (In short, modernism is defined by big grand single narratives where all is solved, think sitcoms like the Brady Bunch. By contrast post-modernism features individualized and nuanced views informed by existentialism and leveraging irony, think sitcoms like Seinfeld, Always Sunny and 30 Rock).

The post-modernism that DFW feared has as a bedrock understanding that no one is redeemable, the world is vapid and only the brightest of us get the joke. Post-modernism sneers at modernism. And gosh, is there any better way to understand the state of the social web today than that? Cruelty and snark keeps you from vulnerability.

But over the last generation there’s been this response — sometimes clunkily called post-postmodernism though I much prefer New Sincerity — that says we can merge the two: find authentic, shared experiences.

So much of what I’ve been reading just clicked into place for me when I watched this great 10-minute video from Youtuber Will Shoder that helpfully synthesized David Foster Wallace’s New Sincerity push.

And then it all made sense to me. I’m struggling with a post-modern world: my heart is with the New Sincerity movement.

I want to be earnest.

Irony and snark are tools, and I love being as sarcastic as anyone. But I am above all a pragmatist. I want solutions. I want to be a part of making the world I live in better and closer to what I care about and irony just can’t do much on its own.

I care. And I get hurt. And I get fat. And I struggle beyond belief with trying to be the best version of myself. But sharing is a dirty, dangerous business today. …Which is — you get it — ironic.

In the age of sharing, we do not actually share. Because so much of the human experience is pain. We need that too. And, man, David Foster Wallace (and lots of others) got that. We need the chance to be, as he wrote, “generally pathetic” together.

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