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"Say good-bye to today's experts and cultural gatekeepers — our reporters, news anchors, editors, music companies, and Hollywood movie studios. In today's cult of the amateur, the monkeys are running the show. With their infinite typewriters, they are authoring the future. And we may not like how it reads."

— Andrew Keen

The Cult of the Amateur: How Today's Internet is Killing Our Culture is a non-fiction book by Andrew Keen. It was published June 2007 by Doubleday Business. It is ranked in the top 20 books about internet business culture on Amazon.com, where its average customer rating is approximately 2.5 stars.

Keen's thesis is, essentially, that web 2.0 — the "version" of the internet that allows users to create virtually any kind of content — is damaging modern culture by diluting the talent pool. Because anyone can publish and produce just about any type of content, he argues, it becomes increasingly difficult to separate the digital wheat from the chaff. Throughout the 240 pages, he cites examples appearing on sites from web 2.0 juggernauts YouTube and Wikipedia to somewhat lesser-known user-driven sites such as www.dontdatehimgirl.com and the blogosphere as a whole. More authors, he says, obviously means more content. But more content, he goes on, means more crap.

The book is divided into chapters dealing with a variety of different impacts web 2.0 has had on different aspects of modern culture. These include various sectors of the entertainment industry, including the music industry, the advertising industry and the television industry. He also takes on the effects of web 2.0 on academia, reserving some of his most pointed criticisms for Wikipedia. The major scandals affecting web 2.0's major sites are all here, from the amount of money the music industry loses annually from illegal downloads to random nobodies posing as university professors and being treated as experts by Wikipedia's user base.

Keen raises some interesting points about the problems surrounding web 2.0 and the inherent anonymity provided by the internet. His points surrounding the issues of libel and slander are particularly well taken, as he has numerous examples of libelous postings existing on blogs and other websites that don't seem to be treated the same way as, say, books, newspapers and other publications. He cites several cases in which individuals' reputations have been ruined because someone — often anonymously — posted incorrect and damaging information about them on blogs, messages boards and other sites.

He contrasts the lack of accountability with the rigid measures in place at journalistic institutions; one of his examples is the controversy that erupted when it became evident that a Reuters photographer had digitally manipulated a photograph of the military conflict between Israel and Hezbollah in 2006. Reuters, he argues, not only fired the photographer in question but also removed every one of his photographs from their wire service. A misrepresentation made on a blog, he goes on, would not face the same rigorous punishment.

More than anything else, Keen is concerned with the role of the "amateur," which he defines with both the "person who does something for the love of it" and the "person who is not a professional" connotations. Web 2.0 allows amateurs to try their hands at "journalism," video publishing, writing and pretty much anything else; this, he argues, only increases the amount of mediocre and subpar content available on the internet. He also points out that the anonymity afforded to users by the internet means that corporations can use the user revolution to their own advantage; examples exist of Wal-Mart management creating blogs intended to appear grassroots in nature complaining about the possibility of unionization, political operatives editing and manipulating their opponents' Wikipedia entries to cast them in an unfavourable light and film companies using YouTube videos designed to look like user-created content to advertise for their products.

All of these are, of course, valid points. But a number of the more negative reviews of Keen's book draw attention to his tendency to take valid points, such as the issue of Wikipedia being staffed by volunteers who may or may not be experts in any given subject (something he contrasts with the almost superhuman names who have contributed to and vetted the Encyclopedia Britannica throughout history) and taking them to the extreme. On the issue of Wikipedia alone, Keen makes multiple references to it usurping Britannica in the academic world and the ease of access to free reference information on the internet as perhaps being behind a spate of cutbacks in the traditional world of reference and research.

He references — quite fairly — the fact that a growing number of academic institutions are prohibiting the use of Wikipedia as a reference on written assignments. Conveniently missing is the fact that many schools were warning students about the pitfalls of the internet's user-driven content even before the era of web 2.0 is believed to have begun (2000 or so). I was warned of this in high school in 1999, and throughout university, a handful of professors were equally as opposed to the use of Wikipedia as a reference tool but advocated using it — particularly the reference and "further reading" lists available at the end of a number of articles — as decent starting points for serious research.

His digs at Craigslist also contain what I'd call hyperbole. While I personally rarely browse the popular classified website and would certainly never use it as a resource for finding an apartment (though I'm told the sketchiness of this varies from one city to another), Keen's argument that the site is behind the shrinking size of newspapers because people are no longer paying for paid classified adverts in large numbers seems somewhat exaggerated. I know people who have successfully found apartments and jobs on the site and while it seems to be an interesting place to find furniture or other stuff without resorting to eBay, the possibility of scams and just generally being ripped off seem to be enough of a turnoff for most people I know to keep them doing these things the old-fashioned way.

The online music revolution, Keen claims, is also ruining music. Not only is the industry's old guard losing serious money due to illegal music downloads, legendary record stores are being forced to close because people just aren't buying CDs anymore. He also takes on the growing trend of artists making their music available on the internet in various forms, particularly those who provide source files and allow fans to mash up and remix their work. He likens this to a chef simply providing restaurant patrons with the ingredients and expecting them to cook their own dinner. Is this an apt analogy? I'd say no. While he bases his criticism on Beck's comment about eventually wanting to make his source files available via iTunes and let listeners create their own music, the mash-up trend has generally used by artists who also make their own, original versions available, such as Nine Inch Nails.

The most pointed criticism of Keen's work seem to come from Publisher's Weekly, which points out that the final third of the book devolves from researched and informative criticism of the user revolution to a mess of conspiracy theories "blaming web 2.0 for online poker, child pornography, identity theft and betraying 'Judeo-Christian ethics.'" User reviews on Amazon seem to be passionate one way or the other, with many users giving the book a perfect rating and praising Keen's willingness to raise questions about the much-hailed web 2.0. Others, meanwhile, assign it the lowest ratings possible and call its author a "killjoy."

My (cough) amateur opinion is that The Cult of the Amateur: How Today's Internet is Killing Our Culture is worth reading, but like the user-generated content its author skewers, it should be taken with a grain of salt. Keen is quite correct to point out the downsides to a culture in which the user can be a potentially unvetted author, editor, publisher and critic. His unwavering faith in the old-fashioned way of doing things — that is to say, books, newspapers and other so-called "old media" — is somewhat misplaced, as he conveniently rarely mentions the problems with those.

The internet, of course, is full of uninteresting blogs, crappy YouTube videos of somebody or other's cat and MySpace profiles for bands who probably shouldn't even own instruments. But there is also a lot of worthwhile information and content, and it is not particularly inspiring to know that Keen doesn't think the average web user can distinguish between worthwhile content and garbage, or that it's impossible to offer something to the world via the web without years of intensive training and expertise.


References:

Keen, Andrew. The Cult of the Amateur: How Today's Internet is Killing Our Culture. June 2007.
The Amazon.com page. It breaks the layout when I pipe link it. Just type the book title into the Amazon.com search engine. There you go.

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