We have a new champion of the conventional wisdom about social media and the technological elite: Andrew Keen. A self-styled contrarian, his bio at the Britannica Blog reads like a slap in the face:
The San Francisco Chronicle recently wrote that “every good movement needs a contrarian. Web 2.0 has Andrew Keen.” Andrew is indeed the leading contemporary critic of citizen media. His controversial The Cult of the Amateur: How Today’s Internet is Killing Our Culture (to be published in June) is the first book that exposes the economic, ethical and social dangers of the Web 2.0 revolution. Born and bred in North London’s Golders Green neighborhood, Andrew was educated at London University, where he graduated with a First Class Honors degree in Modern History. Today, he is the host of the Internet chat show afterTV.com and regularly appears on television and radio. His writing can be found on his CultoftheAmateur blog, his ZDNet column as well as in traditional publications like the Weekly Standard, Fast Company, and the San Francisco Chronicle.
Keen tries to be an iconoclast, and so he attacks the notions advanced in The Cluetrain Manifesto, which have become the backdrop to much of what is going on in social media. (I suppose next he will go after the patron siant of the Internet, Marshall McLuhan, and explain to us in petulant tones that the world isn’t a global village and that modern media have not led to a speed-up of society.]
Meanwhile, back at his screed (my comments are embedded in red):
[from The Dark Side Of The “Citizen Media” Revolution by Andrew Keen]
Blogs - the primary engine of Web 2.0’s so-called “citizen media” revolution — are ten years old this week. It’s been quite a decade. There are now 70 million bloggers churning out 1.5 million posts each day. To celebrate this milestone, Silicon Valley utopian Dan Gillmor, the author of the radical We the Media, told the English newspaper, The Guardian:
“Blogging and other kinds of conversational media are the early tools of a truly read-write web. They’ve helped turn media consumers into creators, and creators into collaborators — a shift whose impact we’re just beginning to feel, much less understand.”
So what happens to our traditional notions of audience and author in this democratized, participatory media world? For the digital utopians of Silicon Valley, mainstream media are the historic bad guys, the equivalent of the “bourgeoisie” in Marxist eschatology. Utopians like Gillmor view mainstream media as an elitist racket monopolized by out-of-touch experts. Rather than fostering culture, they believe, mainstream media fail to reward real talent. Society, as a consequence, is full of cultural victims — unpublished writers, unrecorded musicians, undistributed movie directors.
stowe: Keen uses ‘utopians’ — those who dream of an unrealizable, better future world — as a pejorative. Personally, I think that the first step in making a better world is to dream about it. More importantly, he is characterizing us a fringe dreamers, while at the same time admitting that 70 million blogs have been created (actually, I think that number is just those blogs being tracked by Technorati, but never mind). It’s not some utopian future if tens of millions of people are doing it, and tens times more are involved as active readers.
For these Silicon Valley utopians, this is where the digital technology revolution changes everything. The latest technology of the Internet, which allows anyone to publish weblogs or record music on their computer or distribute video over the Internet, smashes the traditional barriers to entry. From a pyramid, the culture industry is flattened into a pancake. And it is on this democratized plain that today’s online cultural revolution is taking place. Empowered by digital technology, anyone with a personal computer and broadband Internet access can be a writer, a movie maker, a musician. Our inner creativity is supposedly liberated. We can all discover the hidden artist inside us. As Dan Gillmor claims in We the Media:
“When anyone can be a writer, in the largest sense and for a global audience, many of us will be.”
In place of expertise and authority, the Web 2.0 crowd offers us interactivity and “conversation.”
stowe: Who is suggesting that expertise and authority have no place in the world? I guess Keen’s meaning is that only those dubbed as authoritative experts by some organization — like the New York Times, or Fox News — deserve a change to write and be read. Those starry-eyed wannabes laboring in obscurity on the Internet could never generate anything of value, after all.
One of the most radical of all the digital utopian visions is The Cluetrain Manifesto: The End of Business as Usual. The book begins with 95 Theses, the same number that Luther had (these Cluetrain folks have the cheek to think of themselves as contemporary Luthers, sparking a new revolution, pinning their thoughts to the electronic gate). These theses all focus upon undermining the idea of expertise in business and commerce. Some sound so opaquely childish that they could have been authored by a tipsy literary theorist:
#1: Markets are conversations.
#7: Hyperlinks subvert hierarchy.
#20: Companies need to realize their markets are often laughing. At them.
#39: The community of discourse is the market.
#74: We are immune to advertising. Just forget it.
Written by a quartet of leading digerati, The Cluetrain Manifesto is a good example of the way Sixties countercultural contempt for authority and hierarchy has become fused with the libertarian optimism of the typical Silicon Valley technologist.
stowe: Why are these statements childish? That assertion is unsupported. It is just a rhetorical poke-in-the-eye, based on bile and nothing more. It was originally Gregory Bateson, the anthropologist, who observed that the best way to consider the workings of a business or a marketplace of businesses is as a network of conversations. Keen simply wants to stick with other ways of perceiving the world, which is fine, except he is using tired rhetoric to attack the “conversationalist” perspective, rather than actually discussing the idea. And of course, he is missing the benefits of considering the world through a Batesian lens.
The common enemy of both the counterculture and the technology libertarians are “elites.” There are elites of every stripe: political, economic, cultural, social, even technological elites.
In his 1946 essay “Politics and the English Language,” George Orwell wrote that “the word Fascism has now no meaning except in so far as it signifies something not desirable.” Today’s equivalent to the word “fascism” is “elitism.” As critics like Thomas Frank and William Henry have observed, the worst of all linguistic insults today is to accuse someone of being an elitist.
What is the opposite of the elite? It is the ordinary people – known in Silicon Valley as we the media. It is those 70 million bloggers churning out their 1.5 million daily posts. In place of the creative artist or the businessman or the expert, in place of an elite, technology empowers the masses. Technology “disintermediates” mainstream media. The traditional owners of culture such as Hollywood studios or newspapers no longer have a monopoly on either the means of production or the channels of information.
But the real consequence – unintended or otherwise – of Silicon Valley’s “participatory” media revolution is a culture of digital narcissicism in which our most meaningful cultural reference is ourself. Today, on the tenth anniversary of the blog, media is turning into a mirror. Everywhere we look, we are faced with 70 million versions of ourselves: our own electronic diaries, our own half-informed opinions, our own stupidity and ignorance. This antisocial outcome of the social software revolution will be the reverse of the nightmare in George Orwell’s dystopian Nineteen Eighty-four. Big Brother — what Silicon Valley idealists eulogize as “citizen media” — is turning out to be ourselves.
stowe: Why is it narcissism when people participate in media? Narcissism is generally understood to be an unhealthy absorption with the self to the exclusion of any concern for others. But that is not at all what is happening in the blogosphere. People are absorbed in the medium because of others: the desire to be connected with others, and therefore made larger, greater, better off. People are conversing through blogs about all manner of things: politics, technology, knitting, walking the dog. Alexander Pope once wrote “The proper study of mankind is man.” So, is there something immoral about blogging about what we care about, or is there something evil inherent in reading about what others are up to? Is it only legitimate to be influenced by authoritative experts, anointed by editorial boards? And the heavy-handed comments about “stupidity” and “ignorance” shows Keen as arrogant elitist, who is in essence saying that average folks have the right to self-expression but should shut up because they are stupid, self-centered and uninformed.
In the final analysis, Keen doesn’t get what is happening in the blogosphere. He sees self-publishing where community is growing. He sees narcissism where people are sense-making collectively. He sees utopianism where people are engaged in changing the word one post at a time. He sees a dark side, a technological elite hornswoggling the average person, where there is emergent participatory culture changing society for the better. He sees a mob of semi-literate and self-absorbed slobs, where a dynamic participatory learning environment is being fostered.
Keen and his noxious ilk will continue to rail, will continue to use bad rhetorical tricks to attack those involved in a new way of communicating. But it won’t work.
Power has moved from the organized media that Keen is implicitly supporting, the failing broadcast media empires. We, out at the edge, are engaged in conversations, and others are defecting from the centroid model of controlled narrative and joining into a more egalitarian experience. And once you taste the forbidden fruit, you won’t go back to a paternalistic media ‘garden of eden’. Once they have felt the freedom, the edglings will never give the power back.
Keen can say that it isn’t a revolution, that its some sort of shell game, that it’s uneconomical, that it won’t last. He can say whatever he likes, but it just isn’t so.