Web pioneer laments loss of the gatekeepers
LONG, long ago, in a galaxy far, far away -- which is to say, during the loony apex of the 1990s Internet boom -- Andrew Keen was an entrepreneur. An Englishman by birth, he relocated to Silicon Valley and in 1996 founded Audiocafe.com, one of the earliest websites devoted to digital music. Like most such ventures, his crashed and burned before it could earn a dime.
At this point, many a man might have retreated from the Web in a permanent sulk. Not Keen. As late as 2000, he was producing MB5: The Festival for New Media Visionaries (the title alone makes me weak with nostalgia). Four years later, however, the scales finally fell from Keen’s eyes.
The occasion was the annual pajama party thrown by multimillionaire Tim O’Reilly, who made a fortune publishing tech-related books and magazines. In earlier years, the 200 celebrators on hand would have been buzzing over the latest wrinkle in e-commerce or broadband penetration. In 2004, the flavor of the month was Web 2.0 -- a “shiny new version of the Internet,” as the author puts it, which stressed the participation of a mass audience. Keen was having none of it. Where his companions saw democratization, he saw a vast throng of blabbering narcissists. Get thee behind me, Facebook!
Keen was, from that moment, a man with a mission. And now he has produced his manifesto in “The Cult of the Amateur.”
What Web 2.0 has really delivered is “superficial observations of the world around us rather than deep analysis, shrill opinion rather than considered judgment,” he writes. “Moreover, the free, user-generated content spawned and extolled by the Web 2.0 revolution is decimating ... our cultural gatekeepers, as professional critics, journalists, editors, musicians, moviemakers, and other purveyors of expert information are being replaced ... by amateur bloggers, hack reviewers, home-spun moviemakers, and attic recording artists.”
Nobody can deny that the Internet has produced an ocean of drivel. In April, the Technorati search engine company estimated that there were 70 million blogs in existence, with another 120,000 being created each day. And there are more than 182 million profiles on MySpace. Most of this stuff will never be seen by another human being. Much of it has been created specifically to fleece any visitor bold or bored enough to stop by. Keen is right to deplore it.
Alas, he keeps undermining his argument by ignoring the genuine benefits of Web 2.0, and hanging every societal ill around its neck. You would never know from “The Cult of the Amateur” that the Internet has fostered real communities as well as sociopathic claques, or that there are smart, thoughtful, ferociously informed bloggers. Keen soft-pedals the fact that many of those “gatekeepers” have already expanded their reach onto the Internet. Keen himself has a blog -- whoops, a podcast -- called “AfterTV,” which presumably is not on trial in his rather selective kangaroo court.
Internet porn is a problem. Child predation is a problem. So is identity theft and the pilfering of copyright-protected music. Keen laments them all, dishing up an abundance of blood-curdling details. But few of these rackets can be attributed to an evil cult of amateurs: When it comes to crime, in fact, it’s the experts we have to fear.
In the course of fingering democratization for the collapse of our culture, the author also champions some unlikely victims. “Our ability to trust conventional advertising is being further compromised by the spoof of advertisements proliferating on the Internet in large numbers,” he thunders at one point. (A reminder: Advertisers are not purveyors of expert information -- they’re salespeople.) Keen also springs to the defense of former Sen. Conrad R. Burns (R-Mont.), whose serial bloopers were caught on camera by his opponent, then posted on YouTube. “Given that Burns really did commit these gaffes, the videos weren’t technically lies,” concedes the author. Well, no, they weren’t lies at all, and a legislator who was videotaped dozing off during a congressional hearing deserves all the ridicule he can get.
Still, there’s a deeper flaw here. Keen, who plainly loves the culture he sees on its last legs, keeps confusing different types of authority. He hunkers down in the trenches with political hacks, advertisers, news anchors and the panicky proprietors of your average Hollywood studio. These are the people he deputizes to keep the barbarians at bay. But talent -- the great wild card in the human endowment -- is not the monopoly of upper management. And the blogger in her proverbial pajamas, or the twitchy nerd with his battered acoustic guitar, may well end up carrying the cultural torch. Who’s to say?
In any case, amateur is hardly the dirty word Keen makes it out to be, and his reflexive obeisance to people in charge cripples his polemic. After all, a James Madison (whom Keen cites approvingly for having a similarly jaundiced view of human nature) wrote: “The truth is that all men having power ought to be mistrusted.” I believe it was the professionals he had in mind.
James Marcus is the author of “Amazonia: Five Years at the Epicenter of the Dot.Com Juggernaut” and the proprietor of a blog, House of Mirth.