Fighting the Cult Of the Amateur

February 3, 2013 — Leave a comment

A Web 2.0 critic takes on the confederacy of e-dunces.

In his new book, The Cult of the Amateur (Currency, 2007), blogger and Internet entrepreneur Andrew Keen explores today’s new participatory Internet, often referred to as Web 2.0. He argues that too much amateur, user-generated, free content is threatening not only mainstream media-newspapers, magazines, and record and movie companies-but our very culture. We asked Keen what today’s Internet trends mean for the future of our increasingly Web-driven society.

THE FUTURIST: Summarize the basic premise of your book for us; what do you see as the great danger in the way the Internet is allowing millions of content creators to undermine established media?

Andrew Keen: Most of the technologists behind Web 2.0 want to do well and they’re decent people. The relationship between the rise of new media and the crisis of old media is causally complex. It would be a dramatic oversimplification to argue that the only reason mainstream media is in crisis is because of the Internet. They are intimately bound up with one another and are cause and effect, in some respects. But people stopped trusting and reading newspapers before the invention of the Internet. People, particularly in the United States, have problems with all sorts of authority, with or without the Internet. It’s a reaction against cultural authority.

It’s no coincidence that most of the intellectual leaders of the Web 2.0 movement are children of the Sixties. There’s a book by Fred Turner of Stanford called Counterculture to Cyber Culture that traces the birth of Silicon Valley and today’s Internet to people opposed to traditional forms of authority. When we look at Web 2.0, we’re staring into a mirror. We’re a society that’s intent on exposing the unreliability and corruption of authority, whether that authority is an editor at a publishing house or newspaper, or an executive at a record label, or a producer in Hollywood, or a politician. The representatives of mainstream media have become a convenient punching bag, much like politicians.

The alternative to mainstream media, which is the Internet, is by definition untrustworthy because it doesn’t have gatekeepers. It lends itself not to imagined corruption, but to real corruption. Ironically, the continual distrust of our supposedly unreliable mainstream media has given us a new media that is, by its very definition, unreliable.

FUTURIST: Was there a specific incident-perhaps something that you witnessed during your Silicon Valley days with Audiocafe-that convinced you that today’s Internet is killing our culture?

Keen: I describe it in my book. I had an epiphany at an event called Foo Camp, which is Friends Of O’Reilly Camp. It’s the classic Silicon Valley unconference conference, with lots of people espousing jargon about democracy and interactivity and cultural flattening and openness. It was at that event in September 2004 that I had my transformation. I went from a digital believer to an unbeliever.

FUTURIST: What happened?

Keen: I just had enough of these wealthy Silicon Valley guys talking about democratization. It was the height of absurdity that these affluent people thought they knew what anybody else wanted culturally, politically, and mentally. It occurred to me that what was going on was intellectual fraud.

I think it’s worth stressing that the book begins with this epiphany. The book itself, as a narrative, is premised on it.

[Editor’s note: To read an excerpt from Keen’s book where he discusses Foo Camp, go to http://www.andrewkeen .typepad.com.]

FUTURIST: How do you see this trend evolving in the future? For instance, just as our technology habits got us into this mess, is it possible that a different, future technology might get us out?

Keen: I don’t think this is a technology story. Hopefully, what’s going on now will force people to realize that expertise does have value. Third parties-gatekeepers-add value to all media. They help produce much more truthful content. People will rediscover the value of expertise and authority figures who know what they’re talking about, so I hope that Web 3.0, when it arrives, will reflect something new. Rather than the empowerment of the amateur, Web 3.0 will show the resurgence of the professional. Having talked to a number of people who are building their next-generation Internet businesses around proven expertise, I’m more optimistic now than when I first wrote the book. Many of the new Internet media startups pay the people who contribute content to their sites and don’t allow them to hide behind anonymity.

FUTURIST: When do you think this change to Web 3.0 will be noticeable?

Keen: I think it’s already happening. When you look at the Web sites like Mahalo.com (which is paying its contributors), HowThingsWork .com, and a number of other businesses I’ve written about, you see the change that’s taking place. Smart people in Silicon Valley are now invested in those kinds of businesses.

But I have a feeling that the tipping point will come with something involving Google or one of the Google companies, like YouTube. YouTube is the driver of the Web 2.0 economy, and they epitomize the hypocrisy of Web 2.0, as well. They’re making a fortune from the advertising sold around free amateur content, but they articulate this ideology of personal empowerment. I’ve seen some incredibly disturbing videos posted on You-Tube. I think we’re going to see a profoundly immoral example of how media-without a gatekeeper-lends itself to nastiness. That will be the low point.

The high point, so to speak, for Web 2.0 was when Time magazine voted “you” as the person of the year. I think we’re going to look back at that as the PetFood.com moment.

FUTURIST: Is there anything else we might do now to reverse these trends?

Keen: One area I think we need to concentrate on is anonymity. I think it’s one of the most corrosive things in the Web 2.0 world, and it lends itself to corruption, rudeness, vulgarity. I spent some time at Berkeley with a few research guys from Yahoo. All of their research shows that, whenever a site is dominated by anonymous posters, the quality of the content is dramatically lower than when the site encourages people to reveal their identities. I think that more and more business will come to understand that relying on anonymously produced content is actually a way of losing money.

For the rest of us, we need to ask ourselves, “Is Web anonymity really necessary in a democracy?” I just don’t think it’s justified unless you might be put in jail for your opinion.

The other great concern for me is media literacy. Young people need to understand the difference between Wikipedia and the New York Times online. There’s a difference between a blog and book. I’m thrilled that education professionals out there are now teaching media literacy in schools. I think it needs to be taught not only in schools but also in universities.

FUTURIST: You’ve written a book, you blog online; what else do you do to get this message out there?

Keen: I’m doing a lot of speaking, I’m presenting to people in Vancouver. Over the next couple of weeks, I’ll be in Amsterdam, then London, then Greece, then Frankfurt. This is a message that’s caught on. I’ve got translated versions of the book coming out in China, Taiwan, and Poland. The book is an opening salvo, a polemic to get people to think about these issues. I hope that after my book, people will write more thoughtful, scholarly works on this subject. My book is not a scholarly book. It’s not a balanced book. It’s an attempt to begin a conversation.

Interview by Patrick Tucker

Originally published in THE FUTURIST, January-February 2008.

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