Wikipedia:Wikipedia Signpost/2007-07-16/Keen review

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Book review: The Cult of the Amateur

By Thespian, 16 July, 2007

The Cult of the Amateur: How Today's Internet is Killing Our Culture, 2007
Andrew Keen

  • Publisher: Currency (June 5, 2007)
  • ISBN-13: 978-0385520805

One of the hardest parts of reading The Cult of the Amateur is the temptation to agree with the author, Andrew Keen. It's tempting, when involved in an edit war, to pick up the book, read it, and say, "My god, he's right! People who don't have a clue are RUINING the Internet!", before stepping back and realizing, he's also talking about you.

Keen opens his anti-Web 2.0 polemic (and he admits in the afterword that is exactly what he was aiming for) by stating that Web 2.0 technology and attitudes are "blurring the lines between traditional audience and author, creator and consumer, expert and amateur".

Obviously, I approach this subject differently than Keen, and have for a while. One section of my personal website gets about 200 hits a month because someone else cited it on Wikipedia; that same content, which I researched and assembled about 12 years ago, was covered at the time by the Wall Street Journal in an article about how the Web could provide information that wasn't available in regular resources. The information that I created was never put online by the company in question; eventually, they just started referring people to my page (how the WSJ found the information).

Keen's short book focuses almost entirely on blogging, MySpace, YouTube, and of course Wikipedia. Like many people who are arguing against the current state of the Internet, he disregards the main "amateur" things that preceded them, such as BBSes, regular web pages, and shareware, in order to make his points. Indeed, the World Wide Web started out collaboratively, initially developed as a system at CERN to keep track of internal information.[1] If you had the most recent information, you updated it. Andrew Keen was an entrepreneur whose reputation came in the late-90s dot-com bubble, and when reading the book the reader perceives that he'd like to go back to the time when only the highly-technical people (and the people who could afford to hire them) could post to the web. He wants to install gates on a system that, when you return to the very basic DARPA-plans for an Internet, was designed to be amorphous and decentralized.

Keen points out that in the past, "our collective intellectual history has been driven by the careful aggregation of truth - through professionally edited books and reference materials, newspapers, and radio and television". Much in the same way that he doesn't seem to see through to the original intent of both Internet and World Wide Web, Keen has an idealized, end-of the-20th-century view of that aggregation. Until a few centuries ago, most information was aggregated by religious bodies, which was followed by a period of free-wheeling publication (much of the writing of the founding fathers of the United States would be considered self-published today; indeed, the first American newspapers were quite comparable to political zines, published mostly to advance personal ideas). This was followed by a century-and-a-half of corporate-controlled presses, and researchers are still working to find out truths about events that were sanitized or covered up in the early parts of this century. Despite the sheer flood of information, it is not a bad thing that researchers in 100 years will be able to find out just what a person who "just wants to talk" had to say.

The modern press, with highly professional editors, attempts at neutrality, fair-handed coverage and more, is a very recent development, not the megalith of information that Keen envisions it as being, and tells his readers it was. One of Keen's main arguments is that "few of us have any training, knowledge, or hands-on experience to generate any kind of real perspective". The feeling that I, as a web developer, occasional journalist, and active user in the technology lumped into "Web 2.0", come away with is that Keen does not possess the knowledge and experience to give the readers of his book the very perspective and authority he wishes information online to have.

In many science fiction apocalyptic futures, people are shown not caring at all about their environment, becoming passive consumers of... well, one can't even call it information (think of things like Max Headroom and Idiocracy). Unlike Keen, I don't think that it's a bad thing when I see a woman wearing a shirt that cheekily announces, "I'm Blogging This"; it means that she's paying attention to what's going on, even if that attention turns out to become a narrow slice of what happened. Certainly, there are hundreds of sites out there that discuss the inane, and sites where people who barely seem able to put a coherent sentence together want to discuss George W. Bush's foreign policies. But being involved enough to want to post a video blog, whether it decries Livejournal's Strikethrough or the tragedies in Darfur means that you're engaged, reacting, and speaking out. Keen may not realize it, but his work reads far more like a disillusioned Usenet post than a book.

External links

(Note from Thespian; My issues with Keen's history were based on my own professional history in technology and journalism; Robinson's review covers Keen's discussion of economics, a subject I know nothing of, with, "and when he starts to talk about economics, the wary reader will wish he had taken his own advice and left it to up the experts".)
Also this week: From the editor

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