More Idiotic Panic About the Online World

I read this article today on some fellow named Andrew Keen, whose book The Cult of the Amateur: How today’s Internet is killing our culture takes the position that, well, the internet is killing culture, apparently because it lets anyone say anything, and then anyone can listen to them, instead of listening to the experts (provided to us, presumably, by a gracious and disinterested traditional media, which seeks only truth and knowledge).

I haven’t read the book, so I can’t comment on it directly, but this Keen fellow has wrung his hands about the Internet before, most notably in this essay for the Weekly Standard, in which he compared the Web 2.0 with Marxism, which must have given all those Silicon Valley millionaires and billionaires a nice hearty chuckle as they lounged in their hot tubs filled with hookers and blow (indeed, anyone who buys this “Web 2.0 = Marxism” nonsense is invited to scope out FanLib, which is the ne plus ultra of the worker alienated from her labor).

Keen has since written other tub thumpers against the Web; one assumes this book is a continuation of that gravy train. It’s nice work for him if he can get it, although Publishers Weekly, at least, is less than impressed with the book, noting “his jeremiad about the death of ‘our cultural standards and moral values’ heads swiftly downhill.” That darn traditional media!

Anyway, based on what I have read of this Keen fellow, despite his own tech history and savvy (he’s even got his own site!), he’s got his head well up his ass for a lot of reasons, and I’d like to point out two of them.

1. The Internet is not nearly as “amateur” as he asserts. The issue is not how many people there are on the Web but who is listened to, and if one bothers to cruise, say, the most popular blogs on the Internet, as ranked by Technorati, one notes — or should note — that nearly all of them are professional blogs, written by people who are experts in their fields and/or are professional journalists and/or owned by multinational media corporations.

Anecdotally, even regarding personal blogs, it’s been my experience that the most popular personal blogs and sites are the ones written and maintained by people who are experts in one field or another, and very often were so before they began to write online — which makes sense because the online medium is still relatively new. Much of the arrogance of folks in other media regarding the online world is steeped in the misapprehension that by definition, no one writing online, particularly independently or on a personal blog, has any formal expertise on any subject — and that online readers make no discrimination between someone without formal knowledge opining on a subject, and someone with experience doing the same. Among many other things, this shows rather a lot of ignorance regarding who is blogging, and shows contempt toward readers.

Look, I’m an example of this, aren’t I? Yes, I’m amusing, and it brings people in. But the fact that I can speak knowledgeably on any number of subjects because I am a paid, professional expert on them — science fiction, film, writing, the online world — is a major reason why people keep coming back, and why I get 25K visitors on a daily basis. People seek out expertise when they can; they may not know a science fiction writer or a film critic in their social circle, but they feel like they know me (or at least, know me as much as it is possible to know anyone online), and thus when they have a question that involved these areas of expertise, they feel they can ask. I know it works this way because this is what I’ve been doing here for years and what I see quite a few other bloggers doing. That I and they will also discuss other subjects (or put up pictures of cats, or whatever) is neither here nor there to this.

2. As telegraphed by the assertion that Web 2.0 is akin to Marxism, I suspect Keen is actually rather less concerned about culture than he is about economics. More to the point, I suspect his shirt-rending over culture is a stalking horse for his apparent fetish for 20th Century western capitalism. Thus, moaning about the online denaturing of the culture of “Mozart, Van Gogh and Hitchcock” is pretty amusing considering the Mozart lived in a time in which artists had almost no enforcable IP protections, Van Gogh famously sold almost nothing in his life and owes his fame to the transmission of his art via the public domain, and Hitchcock worked in an industry whose founding fathers moved their work to California to avoid Thomas Edison’s monopoly on film, and who were called pirates in their day. This is to say that culture functions just fine regardless of the economic system in which it happens to be.

The major economic problem with old-line media and culture outlets is not the online world allows people to democratize the culture but that the old-line media were simply caught flat-footed when the economic river jumped its banks and left their business models high and dry. The example given of Wikipedia and Encyclopedia Britannica in that first linked article is actually a good one for this: The reason Wikipedia is pre-eminent encyclopedia online is not because the public has a democratic fetish when it comes to encyclopedias; it’s that Britannica — which had been caught flat-footed business-wise several times in the last 15 years, and which is basically a model example of how not to work with technology — opted to offer its product to the public using a business model — a paid subscription service — that doesn’t work. I say this as someone who has had a subscription to Britannica for years, incidentally.

If the Britannica people had any brains at this point, what they would do is open up their main content (not just the skimpy free articles they have up) and then plaster context-sensitive ads down the margin, make their money that way and then ramp up the ancillary product lines. This is an economic model that seems to work online, and I suspect rather strongly that it would work for them; shirt-rending aside, people do still want expert information, and there is a profit to be made off it, albeit in a manner different from what Britannica is used to.

And this is the point, of course: The market has changed, but it is still a market. Quality information (and culture) will still extract a premium. But how that premium is extracted, and from whom, is what is truly at issue here. I’m sad for Keen that his favorite economic model is getting its ass kicked online, but his inability to see that this is a fairly straightforward business problem should not be equated to the end of culture as we know it.*

Speaking of paranoid Marxist fantasies, here’s a fun quote regarding Keen: “He is not against technology: he just wants to see a bit more control.” Really. Control by whom? The government? Roving bands of technocratic bureaucrats, straight out of the spittle-flinging finale of Things to Come? Talk about a lack of faith in the free market and in the free market of ideas. Panicked hand-fluttering aside, we are not in the grip of some informational corollary of Gresham’s Law, in which bad information drives out the good. Information is not a plug nickel. In a free market of ideas, bad information devalues itself and creates value for good information — no one likes to be fed crap forever.

Finally, if Keen wants to wail that hoi polloi does not know how to differentiate between good and bad information, then he ought to ask why. If he doesn’t find himself pointing an accusatory finger at the same “culture” he now strives to defend against the Big Bad Web, he’s an even shallower thinker than I suspect he is.

(*On the subject of Wikipedia, I do find myself in agreement with Keen that at least some Wikipedia admins appear to be actively hostile to experts in the field coming in and making edits to articles in topics they feel territorial about. This is one of the many reasons I don’t believe anything I read in Wikipedia until I read from another source I know I can generally trust. Now you know why I keep my Britannica subscription.)

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