The Amateurs’ Hour

Reason magazine — January 2008

Andrew Keen’s website claims, without a hint of humility, that he’s “the leading contemporary critic of the Internet.” No kidding? The entire Internet? A curious reader might wonder whether such an all-inclusive battle is similar to taking on, say, “music” or “radio waves.” It is.

More specifically, Keen’s depressing book, The Cult of the Amateur: How Today’s Internet Is Killing Our Culture, laments techno-utopianism, free content, and the rise of citizen journalists, filmmakers, musicians, and critics as cultural arbiters. It is a book, in other words, of spectacular elitism.

Keen, a Silicon Valley entrepreneur turned full-time critic of user-generated Internet content, argues that our most “valued cultural institutions” are under attack from the hordes of lay hacks, undermining quality content with garbage. His central argument is—to pinch a word he loves to use—seductive. He’s right that the Internet is littered with inane, vulgar, dimwitted, unedited, and unreadable content, much of it fueling outrageous conspiracy theories, odious partisan debates, mindless celebrity worship, and worse. And then there’s the stuff that’s not even entertaining.

Keen refuses to confess that there’s even a smattering of intellectually and culturally worthy user-driven content online. If you do find something decent in the “digital forest of mediocrity,” he attributes it to the infinite monkey theorem: Even simians, if permitted to indiscriminately hit a keyboard for an infinite amount of time, will one day bang out Beowulf or Don Quixote. (Silly me, I was under the impression that monkeys had hatched the idea for VH1’s Scott Baio Is 45…and Single.) Apparently, these monkeys are discharging so much free content into the cyber-strata that they threaten to bury culturally significant work, dilute good craftsmanship, and cost me, a journalist and “cultural gatekeeper,” my job. So I guess I’d better take Keen’s thesis seriously.

Keen isn’t entirely wrong—of over the estimated 175,000 new blogs created each day, just a miniscule fraction are worthwhile—but in the midst of cobbling together statistics and disaster stories he ignores an otherwise promising tale of job creation, mass creativity, and the democratization of the media. He also fails to acknowledge that the rise of Web 2.0—Internet-based media, such as blogs, in which the content is largely generated by the users themselves—was prompted precisely by the lack of choices and quality programming from those gatekeepers he so adamantly defends.

Not long ago, I was presented a firsthand view of the gloomy fallout from Web 2.0. Another downsizing had fallen upon the newspaper industry, including my paper, The Denver Post. Colleagues and friends of mine were instructed to clear their desks and find a new line of work. Keen grieves over the fate of my well-trained coworkers. He pins the blame on a bunch of schmucks knocking out third-rate musings on politics and culture. How can The New York Times, with its multi-million-dollar operational budget, compete with a blogger, who typically operates for pennies in his or her spare time?

We can agree, to a point. There are plenty of schmucks out there. But the ability to receive only the content you want while ignoring the rest of the package, combined with the migration of ads to services like Craig’s List, has done far more damage to newspapers than any pajama-clad scribblers ever could. And since the citizen journalist relies heavily on more traditional journalistic sources, I doubt the industry is nearing its demise. (In fact, by acting as freelance fact-checkers, all those bloggers have arguably transformed the medium into a more reliable dispenser of the news.)

In the face of economic realities, newspapers have been co-opting the blogger model—transforming a once-rigid daily newsroom cycle into a constant, 24-hour process, constantly posting updates, using video and audio as well as text, and bringing on bloggers of their own. Meanwhile, many high-profile bloggers, looking for ways to make their sites financially viable, are moving toward an old-media model, emphasizing professionalism and co-opting some of the conventional elements of news services. From the megapopular left-leaning Huffington Post to the conservative-oriented Pajamas Media, bloggers have pooled their talents and transformed into news agencies.

Whatever Keen (or I) may believe the future holds, it’s not society’s job to ensure that journalism remains profitable. It’s journalism’s job to entice readers and viewers with a product that’s worth the price of admission. These struggles, as important as they may be to some of us, do not signal the cold-blooded murder of “our culture.”

That brings us to Keen’s most glaring weakness: his lack of faith in the culture he defends. Keen is concerned not just with journalism but with a wider range of creative expression, from film to music. Readers of The Cult of the Amateurmay be surprised to learn that the barbarians capable of obliterating thousands of years of Western culture in their spare time are a horde of porn-addicted, gambling-happy, ungrateful, musically challenged yokels. What worthwhile culture could be so easily knocked off its perch?

Like most snobs, Keen doesn’t have much confidence in markets either. To accept his argument, we must believe that the common consumer, able to make thousands of informed decisions in everyday life, can’t differentiate between crap and Cristal when the choice is made on a computer screen.

In other contexts, Keen is a romantic. Consider his rhetoric regarding the supposedly bygone local bookstore. (A quick search of BookSense.com, a site sponsored by independently owned bookstores, shows five such stores within a 10-mile radius of my home.) “Instead of 2,500 independent bookstores with their knowledgeable, book loving staffers, specialty sections, and relationships with local writers,” Keen writes, “we now have an oligarchy of online megastores employing soulless algorithms that use our previous purchases and the purchases of others to tell us what to buy.”

Shopping at the convivial local bookstore might be a heartwarming experience, but the notion that such places offer us better choices is a fantasy. On Amazon, you can perform super-exact searches or browse endlessly (so at some point even the commoner may stumble across something worthwhile). You are guided not only by rough algorithms but by book lists and reviews written and compiled by other human beings who share your hyper-specific interests. And aren’t Amazon’s reviewers, list compilers, and bloggers a lot like helpful, educated bookstore staffers, leading us, by hyperlinking, to stories and ideas we otherwise might never have known about?

But Keen’s most persistent grievance is that free content undermines the accuracy of information. “Can a social worker in Des Moines really be considered credible in arguing with a trained physicist over string theory?” he asks, referring to Wikipedia, the online, user created encyclopedia. “Can a car mechanic have as knowledgeable a ‘POV’ as that of a trained geneticist on the nature of hereditary diseases? Can we trust a religious fundamentalist to know more about the origins of mankind than a PhD in evolutionary biology?”

Well, yes and no. I, of course, have the prerogative to trust whomever I want. In the same way I once gathered my news from The National Inquirer and listened to Art Bell’s late-night radio broadcasts for clues to my place in the universe, today I can ferret out similarly useless information webwide.

The more significant point, one that Keen ignores, is that the Web 2.0 explosion has provided me with something I’ve never had before: access to ongoing discussions between and among trained physicists, trained geneticists, and religious fundamentalists. Laymen as well as experts are now invited to sit in on these conversations. On occasion, the amateurs get it right, triggering dramatic results. Matt Drudge can announce the Monica Lewinsky scandal whileNewsweek dithers about publishing it. Or a blog like Little Green Footballs can help catch Dan Rather peddling forged documents about the president’s service record. Rather than undermining information, this new access has expanded users’ understanding of the world.

Keen raises the stakes of his argument when he blames some of society’s serious ills on the Internet. He asserts, for instance, that the “tasteless nature” of social networking sites such as MySpace and Facebook have “infested” Web 2.0 with “anonymous sexual predators and pedophiles.” No doubt a small fraction of those who participate in social networks are sexual predators and pedophiles—roughly the same as the percentage of people in local bookstores, playgrounds, and libraries who are sexual predators and pedophiles. Yet I don’t think I’ve ever heard an advocate for children’s rights blame libraries and playgrounds for sexual abuse.

Despite a heavy load of scaremongering, Keen claims he’s not a “techno-moralist” but a “techno-scold”—as if there’s much of a difference. The problem, he maintains, is that those involved in Web 2.0 live in an echo chamber. “There isn’t a debate, and there isn’t a conversation,” he says. “They’re just listening to themselves.” If only mainstream media outlets had debated their future as often and as intensely as bloggers debate theirs, we might not have needed Keen’s book.

 

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The Amateurs’ Hour