Citizendium Blog

July 17, 2007

Review of Keen’s “Cult of the Amateur”

Filed under: Press & blogs, Web 2.0 — Larry Sanger @ 8:05 am

As I said, here’s the full review.

The Blogosphere is up in arms about Andrew Keen’s new book, The Cult of the Amateur. He deliberately sets out to tweak the mavens of Web 2.0 — and he succeeds. This is great fun, because said mavens often have all the self-righteousness of revolutionaries, at least when it comes to the virtues of Web 2.0, and are thus eminently tweakable.

Keen decries everything he imagines is wrong with the Internet. He especially abhors the mediocre work of amateurs. Free but substandard work is apparently destroying whole industries, particularly our culture industries. He hates the fact that so much work on the Internet today is collaborative and distributed. The so-called wisdom of crowds is itself an “extraordinary popular delusion,” he says; the best work comes from the individual, professional mind. Anonymity coupled with anarchy leads to myriad abuses, from corporate gaming of YouTube to “moral disorder.”

The book is provocative, but its argument is unfortunately weakened by the fact that Keen is so over-the-top and presents more of a caricature of a position than carefully-reasoned discourse. The book is often well written, and presents many thought-provoking arguments and entertaining factoids, but it is also full of non-sequiturs, simplistic narratives, and outright inaccuracies. Still, maybe a bit of deliberate provocation is needed. Something more staid might not generate as lively a reaction or get people talking about issues that badly need to be discussed. In short, the book is a much-needed Web 2.0 reality check.

How successful is Keen’s argument? A brief review can’t do more than give a taste, because Keen rails against many things. The eponymous “cult of the amateur” is perhaps his main target. This is, he says, an uncritical, militantly amateuristic band of content creators, the free and mediocre productions of which are putting the jobs of professionals at risk. Our splendid Western culture — Keen is perhaps at his least persuasive in singing its praises — is the creation of well-paid professionals. Unpaid amateurs are undoing this culture in the space of a generation. Blogs are threatening professional journalism; Wikipedia, reference publishing; and YouTube, movies and TV.

The problem with Web 2.0, however, isn’t the prevalence of amateurs. Indeed, I see little proof that amateur, user-generated content is threatening the jobs of professionals. The industry perhaps most visibly damaged by the Internet has been journalism. But this is largely because we can get most of our professionally-created news free of charge online — provided by the same industry that is suffering layoffs.

True enough, Craigslist and other free classified services also cut into a large part of the newspaper business, but in this case, I’d say contrary to Keen that we should celebrate the fact that such a useful, largely self-organizing service can be free. This technological advance is bound to cause some economic upheaval; that’s the price of progress. Craigslist can’t be sensibly criticized on grounds that it weakens the business model of newspapers, if it delivers a better product than tiny ads on newsprint. It’s on this and similar points that Keen sounds like a Luddite.

But Keen denies being a Luddite. The book’s final chapter is a curiosity. “Digital technology is a miraculous thing” — he says after having explained how many Internet phenomena are less than miraculous — “giving us the means to globally connect and share knowledge in unprecedented ways.” The first example of a “solution” he offers is the Citizendium, or the Citizens’ Compendium, which I like to describe briefly as Wikipedia with editors and real names. But how can Citizendium be a solution to the problems he raises, if it has experts working without pay, and the result is free? If it succeeds, won’t it contribute to the decline of reference publishing?

The biggest problem with this book is that it combines several different criticisms of Web 2.0, incoherently, under the rubric of “the cult of the amateur,” and Keen in the final chapter gives back much of what he earlier took away. Free content, volunteerism, collaboration, anonymity, and decentralization make Web 2.0 a “miraculous thing” — and we are quickly discovering that the miracle can be had without the “cult of the amateur.” Keen himself seems to admit this. But if so, maybe he’s not such a reactionary after all.

17 Comments »

  1. Mr Keen’s own qualifications to speak on the matter are less than clear. Sociologist? Primary source for sociologists, even? I suspect I could show more qualification.

    Comment by David Gerard — July 18, 2007 @ 5:39 am

  2. Spoken like a true defender of the Wikipedia way, David Gerard.

    Comment by Larry Sanger — July 18, 2007 @ 5:49 am

  3. Keen constantly banging on about “our values” being eroded was annoying for me, as was his defence of the music and film industry; despite his scaremongering over a cultural Armageddon, I don’t see Sony going under. Having said that, much of what he says about Wikipedia is basically justified; the latest embarrassment being Wikinews wasting police time over the circumstances surrounding wrestler Chris Benoit’s death.

    Comment by John — July 19, 2007 @ 1:08 am

  4. I am part way through the book, so look forward to seeing if your conclusions resemble my own.

    Keen’s is the first ‘mass media shaking of the 2.0 tree’ with traction that I can recall. Earlier ‘old media’ commentary seemed to uncritically sing the praise of 2.0 technology without question as to any wider potential negative social implications.

    In relation to anonymous user generated content, and the resulting potential for loss of societal trust in the accuracy of key information sources that can arise, the current Google-Wikipedia waltz concerns me a great deal, especially given the large potential for information flaws in that particular encyclopaedia.

    It seems ironic - given its alleged potential for negative impacts on the availability over time of other information sources - that Wikipedia does not require itself to be, or become, a “reliable source”. Yet at the same time it relies on there remaining available sufficient reliable sources to justify content inclusion, and thereby its own existence.

    Thanks for your review. - Ian Johnson

    Comment by Ian Johnson — July 19, 2007 @ 1:35 pm

  5. Thank you very much for this preview. I think this debate is not going over the right thing. Internet is only showing more clearly more structural aspects of our society. This Cult of amateurism is following me an effect of the myth of the equality (translation for French). Believing eveybody is ‘equal’ means that everybody has en equal access to knowledge, public spaces, politics, education… But we know, this is not true. It is even worse than we think because the society is becoming more dual than we think: the mass and the others having the decisional power, money… The main problem is this how we stratify and structure the society and with the rising of mass tools (internet, media, telivision…), the mainstreaming mass is more compact than ever, and real changes in the hands of very very fews.

    Comment by Viviane — August 22, 2007 @ 12:36 am

  6. I know that the internet is allowing people to pirate music and vidoes, robbing artists of money. However I must draw the line where the author states that youtube ‘’steals culture…..” As far as i am concerned, hundreds of people have gotten jobs in one field or another by posting and using youtube. I know a man who posted a video of himself doing a ”robot dance” and he got to star in a dancing movie after someone in hollywood saw it. Another man Liam Sullivan made it big when he wrote various sketches/songs such as ”Shoes” and Txt Msg Break Up”. He went on tour and now sells merchandise for what he has written. As far as i am concerned, the internet is a way of self expression so lang as the users are ‘’safe” and do not do anything illegal. I have to strongly disagree with the statement that the internet ‘’steals culture” It enhances American’s insights as far as how colorful the world really is. Knowlege is power and i do not believe that knowlege should be limited in a SOCIETY where information is something you cannot live without. The world has changed and we have to find a way to get over it and focus on illegal acts on computers instead of what ppeople actually benefit from.

    Comment by Britta — August 28, 2007 @ 10:15 pm

  7. Keen is as self-righteous as they come. Disreputable information does not come only from amateurs, but professionals with an ax to grind.

    Fortunately this guy will never have the power to keep the workers from owning means of production.

    Comment by KlangenFarben — October 15, 2007 @ 6:24 pm

  8. Great Review. I actually found out about citizendium from the book.

    Comment by Mark — November 10, 2007 @ 11:00 am

  9. [...] Larry Sanger [...]

    Pingback by Hubris, meet Nemesis « — December 2, 2007 @ 9:19 am

  10. [...] a blog post by Ethan Zuckerman, discussing a talk by Andrew Keen of Cult of the Amateur infamy: [Keen is] a fan of Citizendium, the Larry Sanger project to create a wikipedia by [...]

    Pingback by Citizendium Blog » Reactionary? — February 2, 2008 @ 4:48 pm

  11. Are we all missing the point? Check out: http://lessig.org/blog/2007/05/keens_the_cult_of_the_amateur.html
    We’ve all been had, especially the ‘professional media industry’.

    Comment by JB — February 24, 2008 @ 9:36 pm

  12. Not sure what you’re talking about, JB. What point are we missing, and how have we been “had”?

    Comment by Larry Sanger — February 25, 2008 @ 7:02 am

  13. There’s still much to be seen about the true Web 2.0 potential. There are many Web 2.0 companies but not many have the potential to be listed.

    Comment by SEO Singapore — May 25, 2008 @ 8:02 am

  14. Keen is cutting out the task which we, Web 2.0’s producers, need to face, if we want to be meaningful producers. This means undertaking the philosophical task of coming to terms with our own values and morals. What happens when persons are given the task of ‘producer’, without undertaking much meaningful self exploratoon? Thus the rampant polemic of Web 2.0 … try not to shoot the messenger ;) Keen is doing something positive here, but it seems like people’s ego’s are too inflated to realize.

    Comment by Jae — February 12, 2009 @ 4:20 am

  15. Great blog. Will visit again. :-)

    Comment by Henninger — January 1, 2011 @ 5:58 pm

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