It may not sound all that catchy, but millions upon millions have taken up the battle cry of the Web 2.0 revolution: “All things user-generated and participatory!” According to the search engine company Technorati, as of April 2007, the blogosphere boasted nearly 70 million blogs, with 120,000 added daily, while MySpace held over 182 million profiles. And those figures don’t include the ever-increasing numbers of Wikipedia entries, Facebook profiles, message board postings, file sharing sites, or YouTube videos. For Web 2.0 visionaries, the rapid proliferation of user-generated/participatory sites pushes the world toward the dream of democratized media. For Andrew Keen, it harbingers a dystopia.
In his self-described “polemic,” The Cult of the Amateur: How Today’s Internet Is Killing Our Culture (Doubleday, 205 pages) Keen, a Silicon entrepreneur turned cultural critic, asserts that “democratization, despite its lofty idealization, is undermining truth, souring civil discourse, and belittling expertise, experience, and talent.” Although Keen’s general concerns possess merit—the difficulty of determining the validity of internet content, the saturation of the net with drivel, the need to protect the work of musicians and writers—his propensity for one-sided analysis, exaggeration and disparaging caviling undermine his arguments.
Keen makes his most cogent point when addressing the reliability of user-generated information. Wikipedia, the popular user-edited encyclopedia, draws repeated criticism from Keen. “By empowering the amateur,” he writes, “we are undermining the experts who contribute to a traditional resource like the Encyclopedia Britannica.” (He is in error to an extent—there are some experts among the site’s contributors). Keen is troubled not only by the site’s “democratic” editing system but also by the anonymity of the contributors, which allowed for a writer known as “Essjay” to pose as a college professor when he was, in fact, a twenty-four-year-old man from
Keen further suggests that the participatory nature of Web 2.0 taints users’ understanding of “authorship” and leads to plagiarism. He cites an Education Weekly survey in which 54% of the students admitted to plagiarizing from the internet and a 2005 study conducted by the Center for Academic Integrity in which 77% of the 50,000 undergrads polled didn’t think internet plagiarism was a “serious” issue. Of course, Keen is right to abhor plagiarism, but he doesn’t delve deeply enough in his analysis. The “blurring, obfuscation, and even disappearance of truth” stems from a relativistic world view that began pervading our culture long before the inception of the internet.
Keen then turns his attention to the amateurs he already blasted in the introduction, where he likened them to the monkeys in T.H. Huxley’s infinite monkeys/infinite typewriters scenario: “And instead of creating masterpieces, these millions and millions of exuberant monkeys—many with no more talent in the creative arts than our primate cousins—are creating endless digital forests of mediocrity. For today’s amateur monkeys can use their networked computers to publish everything from uninformed political commentary, to unseemly home videos, to embarrassingly amateurish music, to unreadable poems, reviews, essays, and novels.”
Keen is certainly not alone in bemoaning the woeful, and sometimes deplorable, content that permeates many user-based cites. But while glorying in his pompous denouncement of amateur work, he disregards the fact that the “experts” and “cultural gatekeepers” he extols throughout the book began as amateurs and that Web 2.0 houses the work of plenty of gifted and intelligent amateurs.
But his belittling of the amateur seems to stem as much from nostalgia as it does from his detesting of atrocious work. He devotes nine pages to an elegiac account of Tower Records, lamenting that “Tower’s remarkably diverse selection cannot be replicated.” For anyone whose immediate response would be “Amazon,” he later writes, “But what these online stores don’t have is the deeply knowledgeable Tower clerk to act as cultural tastemaker. Instead, our buying choices depend upon the anonymous Amazon.com reviewer—a very poor substitute for the bodily encounters that Tower once offered.” While there’s something to be said for personal interaction, how does he know that an Amazon reviewer cannot be as musically knowledgeable as his beloved Tower clerk? Not to mention, metacritic.com, a website that culls reviews from dozens of respected print and online publications, would prove more informative than one person.
As he notes, illegal downloading and piracy have impacted the music industry. But Keen is loose with his statistics in several places. For example, regarding the music industry he says, “Thanks to the rampant digital piracy spawned by file-sharing technology, sales of recorded music dropped over 20 percent between 2000 and 2006.” The source he cites, “No Suit Required” by Jeff Howe, merely notes the decline in sales; Keen attributes it all to piracy.
Piracy has impacted the movie industry as well, with the Motion Picture Association of America estimating the American movie industry lost $6.1 billion in worldwide revenue to all types of digital piracy, with 32% of the lost revenue coming from illegal internet downloads. Keen laments legal enterprises, though, such as ClickStar, Netflix, and Amazon that have cut into box office sales. He even discusses the disappointing returns for Snakes on a Plane despite an extensive internet marketing campaign and seems oblivious to how his relying on such a throwaway film to make his point raises questions about just how qualified he is to be a tastemaker.
According to Keen, Web 2.0 is to be blamed for the troubles across all traditional media, saying, “Every defunct record label, or laid-off newspaper reporter, or bankrupt independent bookstore is a consequence of “free” user-generated Internet content—from Craiglist’s free advertising, to YouTube’s free music videos, to Wikipedia’s free information.” Ridiculous exaggeration aside, Keen later expounds on the declining revenue and lost jobs for traditional media, particularly metropolitan newspapers, decrying Craigslist for taking away advertising dollars from them. The simple fact is that if a service is free (Craigslist) or cheaper (iTunes, discount retailers), then consumers will opt for low/no-cost efficiency.
Keen veers away from his thesis in the last third of the book, discussing the moral and cultural decay demonstrated by sexual predators, internet pornography, online gambling addictions, and identify theft. Few readers would quibble with Keen that these are serious problems, but the internet is but the latest way to feed such vices and evils, and those conniving enough to use them to harm others are hardly amateurs.
In the last chapter Keen examines some ways in which illegal uses of Web 2.0 are being curtailed and how traditional media industries are beginning to successfully adjust their business models to expand to the internet while retaining their traditional forms as well— all of which makes Keen’s fear that professional media is facing impending doom seem, yes, exaggerated.
Ultimately, Keen’s jeremiad is too broad. Upholding truth and decency is indeed imperative to preserving our culture, but superciliously stifling the “noble amateur” isn’t. Talent isn’t limited to the tastemakers; and though the din of Web 2.0 grows with each new jejune blog, navel-gazing song, or asinine video, true talent, be it professional or amateur, rings distinctly.