Extolling the Virtues of the Professional, Vilifying the Amateur
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Extolling the Virtues of the Professional, Vilifying the Amateur

In his new book, The Cult of the Amateur, Silicon Valley pioneer Andrew Keen establishes himself as the undisputed King of the Trolls. The book amounts to a 200-page blog entry that is a rancid mix of unsupported contentions, mean-spirited criticism, defective reasoning and entirely unwarranted intellectual snobbery.

Paul Holmes

In online chat rooms and the comments section of blogs, there is a species of inhabitant commonly known as a troll. A troll—as defined by wikipedia—is “someone who intentionally posts derogatory or otherwise inflammatory messages about sensitive topics in an established online community… to bait users into responding.” The messages left by most trolls contain little in the way of coherent argument or supporting evidence; they are designed exclusively for the purpose of attracting attention to the author.

In his new book, The Cult of the Amateur, Silicon Valley pioneer Andrew Keen establishes himself as the undisputed King of the Trolls. The book amounts to a 200-page blog entry that is a rancid mix of unsupported contentions, mean-spirited criticism, defective reasoning and entirely unwarranted intellectual snobbery.

I am aware that in reviewing The Cult of the Amateur I am in danger of breaking one of the great unwritten rules of the Internet—do not feed the trolls, which means, essentially, that if you ignore them they will go away. But in recent weeks I have seen numerous responses to Keen’s book in the blogosphere and interviews with the author on reputation mainstream news shows (always anxious to hear from someone willing to lambaste new media) and so some sort of response is needed, in case there are people out there who take his argument seriously.

Keen’s central point appears to be that the Internet has empowered people who don’t get paid to opine for a living to share their opinions widely—as that some of those opinions are not worth very much.

“In the pre-Internet age,” Keen says, “T.H. Huxley’s scenario of infinite monkeys empowered with infinite technology seemed more like a mathematical jest than a dystopian vision. But what had once appeared as a joke now seems to foretell the consequences of a flattening of culture that is blurring the lines between traditional audience and author, creator and consumer, expert and amateur.”

In the Web 2.0 world, of course, Huxley’s monkeys have been replaced by Internet users. “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 an endless digital forest 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.”

For much of the book, Keen appears to be making an aesthetic argument. He thinks most of those who contribute to social and online entertainment sites talent, and that their lack of talent ought to disqualify them from sharing their work. But from the perspective of a professional communicator, his criticisms of new media are more pertinent.

“The Web 2.0 revolution has peddled the promise of bringing more truth to more people—more depth of information, more global perspective, more unbiased opinion from dispassionate observers,” says Keen. “But this is all a smokescreen. What the Web 2.0 revolution is really delivering is superficial observations of the world around us rather than deep analysis, shrill opinion rather than considered judgment. The information business is being transformed by the Internet into the sheer noise of a hundred million bloggers all simultaneously talking about themselves.”

There’s something superficially appealing about this argument, because you don’t have to dig too deep into the blogosphere before finding the shrill opinion to which Keen refers. But the fact is that mainstream media includes its share of shrill opinion—the syndicated rantings of Ann Coulter, the nightly shout-fest hosted by Bill O’Reilly, the agitprop movies of Michael Moore. And the fact is that the blogosphere contains its share of deep analysis. Indeed, many bloggers—like Middle East expert Juan Cole, for example—are individuals to whom the mainstream media turn for expert commentary.

What the blogosphere does is present people with more channels of information. Some of those channels provide high quality information and analysis, and some of them don’t. The same is true of the mainstream media. Keen appears to object to the existence of those choices; he believes that anyone who has anything of any value to add to the national conversation is already writing for—or has access to—a traditional media outlet.

The reason for his concern is that “the free, user-generated content spawned and extolled by the Web 2.0 revolution is decimating the ranks of our cultural gatekeepers, as professional critics, journalists, editors, musicians, moviemakers, and other purveyors of expert information are being replaced… by amateur bloggers, hack reviewers, homespun moviemakers, and attic recording artists. Meanwhile, the radically new business models based on user-generated material suck the economic value out of traditional media and cultural content.”

My first response to all that is that if so-called professionals can be so easily displaced by amateurs, they can’t be adding nearly as much value as Keen believes. In a free market, even cultural gatekeepers have to prove their worth, and if someone else can deliver an equal or better service for less money, they are indeed likely to be “disintermediated.”

But the reality, of course, is that Keen has little or no supporting evidence for this contention. He can’t—or at least doesn’t—point to a single example of a critic, editor or moviemaker who has lost his or her job as a direct result of the Web 2.0 revolution.

Yes, mainstream media have to be more creative, and better managed, to make money in a more competitive landscape. But the rise of the Internet is no more a death knell for quality media than radio was the death knell for print media or television the death knell for movies.

Almost all of the flaws in Keen’s polemical style are on display during a short three-page section in which he compares to vices of amateur media to the virtues of its traditional, mainstream, professional counterpart.

He begins by quoting Al Saracevic, deputy business editor of the San Francisco Chronicle, who explains that what distinguishes bloggers from professional journalists is that “In America, bloggers don’t go to jail for their work… That’s the difference between professionals and amateurs.” Keen helpfully explains that Saracevic was referring to two Chronicle reporters sentenced to 18 months in prison for refusing to testify about the identity of the person who leaked them grand jury testimony.

“Bloggers are rarely sued or prosecuted because the government and corporations don’t really seem to care about what they write,” Keen then explains. “As a result, they aren’t held accountable for their work in the way that real reporters are.”

The fact that big institutions care about mainstream media gives them an advantage, Keen argues. “It is still only mainstream journalists and newspapers who have the organization, financial muscle and credibility to gain access to sources and report the truth.”

He then reports a conversation with Dan Gillmor, who he describes as “a champion of citizen journalism.” He says he asked Gillmor for an example of the value citizen journalism can bring to the marketplace of the ideas, and that Gillmor cited news blogs about the Toyota Prius. “Leave wars to the real reporters, he implied,” Keen writes. “The responsibility of amateurs was to report the latest feedback about the Prius.”

Keen’s conclusion: “In other words, professional journalists can go to jail for telling the truth; amateurs talk to each other about their cars.”

What’s wrong with Keen’s argument?

Let’s start with Saracevic’s contention that “bloggers don’t go to jail for their work.” It is, I suppose, forgivable that Saracevic has never heard of Josh Wolf (although Wolf is from his native San Francisco) but it’s hard to believe that Keen, in his research for this book, never came across Wolf’s name. Wolf spent eight months in jail (longer than the time actually served by Saracevic’s colleagues) for refusing to turn over his film of a protest to the authorities.

He then goes on to make the entirely unsupported assertion that “bloggers are rarely sued.” If he has statistics to support that contention, they appear nowhere in the book. I don’t have any either, but I would be willing to bet that bloggers (like PowerPage.org and others taken to court by Apple last year) are sued with greater regularity than the media, if only because most of them lack the resources to fight back and a lawsuit, no matter how lacking in merit, is an effective way of silencing them.

In arguing that their access to sources gives mainstream media an advantage over blogs, meanwhile, Keen demonstrates another of his faults: a reluctance to even acknowledge the other side of a major debate. Bloggers argue that the close relationship between mainstream media and their sources is part of the problem. It makes mainstream reporters—the Washington press corps in particular—over-dependent on official administration sources, and thus overly respectful of those sources.

The most obvious recent example is the mainstream media’s almost unanimous defense of convicted perjurer Lewis “Scooter” Libby, whose lies sustained the cover up over who betrayed the identity of an undercover CIA operation. Even the supposedly liberal Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen argued for Libby’s release, arguing that in the case of criminal behavior by members of the Washington establishment: “As with sex or real estate, it is often best to keep the lights off.”

That such an argument can be made by someone who is not only a member of the fourth estate but a columnist for one of its most respected institutions is seen by many bloggers as evidence that mainstream media have completely abrogated their traditional watchdog role. Keen is either unaware of this argument or declines to share it with his readers. It’s hard to say which is worse.

Then there’s his description of Gillmor, identified simply as “a champion of citizen journalism,” which contrasts dramatically with his earlier identification of Saracevic. Gillmor’s experience as a professional journalist—he was technology columnist at the San Jose Mercury News for more than a decade—is obscured.

Keen then proceeds to put works in his mouth. It’s hardly likely that Gillmor either said or believes that bloggers should “leave wars to the real reporters,” because as an expert on the blogosphere he is undoubtedly aware of the impressive war reporting generated by citizen media, including Iraqi blogs (Baghdad Burning, for example) that report from areas where few mainstream reporters have the courage to tread and other blogs written by American soldiers on active duty (most of which were terminated by recent Pentagon censorship).

Finally, there’s that concluding paragraph—“In other words, professional journalists can go to jail for telling the truth; amateurs talk to each other about their cars”—a “summary” of the argument so twisted and dishonest that it crosses the line from mere rhetoric into demagoguery.

Unfortunately, there’s nothing particularly unusual about this passage, as far as the quality of research, analysis and intellectual honesty is concerned.

The book presents a parade of assertions presented as fact. “Blogs have become so dizzyingly infinite that they’ve undermined out sense of what is true and what is imaginary,” Keen claims. “These days, kids can’t tell the difference between credible news by objective professional journalists and what they’ve read on joeshmoe.blogspot.com.”

How does he know this? He doesn’t say.

He also makes the case, lifted straight from the music industry’s talking points, that “thanks to rampant digital piracy spawned by file-sharing technology, sales of recorded music dropped over 29 percent between 2000 and 2006.” Again, there’s no evidence cited. Keen appears to be oblivious to the fact that correlation and causality are entirely different things.

There are numerous other problems with Keen’s arguments.

For example, he excoriates new amateur media but remains entirely oblivious to the faults of the mainstream professional media. YouTube, he writes, is “an infinite gallery of amateur movies showing poor fools dancing, singing, eating, washing, shopping, driving, cleaning, sleeping, or just staring into their computers. In August 2006, one hugely popular video called ‘The Easter Bunny Hates You’ showed a man in a bunny suit harassing and attacking people on the streets; according to Forbes magazine, this vide was viewed more than three million times in two weeks.”

I might be more appalled if not for the fact that 8.5 million people watched the season premier of Big Brother—a show broadcast by one of the premier television networks in the U.S.—last year.

My favorite example of this tendency, however, is when he describes the future of politics in a Web 2.0 world. “The supposed democratization medium of user-generated content is creating a tabloid-style gotcha culture.”

Think about that for a moment, and decide for yourself whether a “tabloid-style” culture is the fault of new media, or a segment of the traditional print media, also known as tabloids.

Elsewhere, Keen adopts a superior tone that combines ignorance with patronization in equal measures. According to Keen, “we are hopelessly lost as to how to focus our attention and spend our limited time.” Later, he laments that “we are easily seduced, corrupted and led astray.”

He uses “we” a lot, when he really means “you.” The tone of the book suggests that while he is far too smart to be confused by all these bewildering choices, the rest of us must be “hopelessly lost.” He just wants to save us from ourselves.

But the reality is that Keen is far less savvy about the new social media than the vast majority of sophisticated young people who make up the bulk of its audience.

He cites, for example, the YouTube video Al Gore’s Army of Penguins, a satire of Gore’s climate change documentary An Inconvenient Truth. “Many of the 120,000 people who viewed this video undoubtedly assumed it was the work of some SUV-driving amateur with an aversion to recycling; in reality, the Wall Street Journal traced the real authorship of this neocon satire to DCI Group… a lobbying firm whose clients include ExxonMobil.”

He presents this as an example of how easy it is to manipulate the blogosphere. The reality is, it’s an extraordinary illustration of why it is almost impossible to do so—and why any attempt at manipulation will almost certainly be counter-productive. The true authorship of the video was exposed almost immediately, and the backlash was swift and vicious. It’s possible that some of the 120,000 people who viewed the video—those who lived in caves and never visited another Internet site—remained oblivious, but most probably new the truth before they downloaded the file.

Another example is even more difficult to justify. He discusses the hoax perpetrated on Wendy’s by a woman who claimed to have found a finger in her chili and says: “Every anti-Wendy’s blogger jumped on [the incident] as evidence of fast-food malfeasance. The bogus story cost Wendy’s $2.5 million in lost sales.”

Keen either has a selective memory or is being deliberately obtuse. The story was carried in a wide range of mainstream media, most of which repeated the woman’s claims without comment. Coverage of the incident on the blogosphere—which does not need to sensationalize stories to attract more eyeballs or sell more papers—was much more circumspect, with numerous expert bloggers (including several PR blogs) pointing out the inconsistencies in the woman’s story.

He also fails to understand the impact of transparency on the new media.

Says Keen: “In an editor-free world where independent videographers, podcasters, and bloggers can post their amateurish creations at will, and no one is being paid to check their credentials or evaluate their material, media is vulnerable to untrustworthy content of every stripe—whether from duplicitous PR companies, multinational corporations… anonymous bloggers or sexual predators with sophisticated invented identities.”

But just because no one is being paid to check credentials doesn’t mean that credentials are not being checked.

“Who is to point out lies on the blogosphere that attempt to rewrite our history and spread rumor as fact,” he asks. It’s presumably intended as a rhetorical question, but the answer—as anyone who has spent more than a few minutes in the blogosphere already knows—is other bloggers. And they will do so in real time.

Would that the same were true of the mainstream media. On June 22, for example, the mainstream media reported “Air Strike Kills 17 Iraq Al Qaeda Figbhters” (CBS) and “17 Insurgents Killed Near Baghdad” (Washington Post). A week later, the BBC reported that in reality the victims of the attack were guards protecting the village from Al Qaeda attacks. Good luck finding a retraction or correction in any of the mainstream U.S. media.

What’s his solution?

“We need rules and regulations to help control our behavior online, just as we need traffic laws to regulate how we drive in order to protect everyone from accidents. Sometimes it takes government regulations to protect us from our worst instincts and most self-destructive behavior.” (Presumably, the repeal of that pesky First Amendment will be an unfortunate but necessary first step in protecting us from amateur opinion.)

Ultimately, however, whether you agree with Keen’s thesis will depend on whether you believe authority and credibility are earned or bestowed.

One of Keen’s criticisms of Wikipedia, for example, is that in the ideal world of founder Jimmy Wales, “everyone should be given equal voice, irrespective of their title, knowledge, or intellectual or scholarly achievements.” That’s not quite true. Knowledge is as important to Wales as it is to Keen. The difference between them is that Wales doesn’t share Keen’s awe for titles or scholarly achievements. Wikipedia judges contributions on their merit, not on the qualifications of the submitting individuals.

In Keen’s world, credibility if bestowed—by big budgets, established brand names, and adherence to mainstream values. In the Web 2.0 world, it’s earned—through accuracy, relevancy, transparency.

I leave you with a nonsense paragraph that captures Keen’s attitude and argument perfectly: “The ideal of the noble amateur is no laughing matter. I believe it lies at the heart of Web 2.0’s cultural revolution and threatens to turn our intellectual traditions and institutions upside down. In one sense, it is a digitalized version of Rousseau’s noble savage, representing the triumph of innocence over experience, of romanticism over the commonsense wisdom of the Enlightenment.”

If that makes sense to you, perhaps The Cult of the Amateur will too.

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