Thursday, February 26, 2009

Andrew Keen Could Learn A Thing Or Two From Us Monkeys

In his book, The Cult of the Amateur: how today's internet is killing our culture, author Andrew Keen argues that Web 2.0 (content for media consumers created by media consumers) will soon spell the death of Western media culture as we know it. I don't disagree with him, but unlike Mr. Keen, I don't think that's a bad thing.

Mr. Keen likens the worldwide community of bloggers and indie artists to "infinite monkeys...typing away". He says that where the web and media are concerned:

"...democratization, despite its lofty idealization, is undermining truth, souring civic discourse, and belittling expertise, experience and is threatening the very future of our cultural institutions."

"Moreover, the free, user-generated content spawned and extolled by the Web 2.0 revolution is decimating the ranks of our cultural gatekeepers, as professional critics, journalists, editors, musicians, moviemakers, and other purveyors of expert information are being replaced ('disintermediated', to use [an O'Reilly] term) by amateur bloggers, hack reviewers, homespun moviemakers, and attic recording artists. Meanwhile, the radically new business models based on user-generated material suck the economic value out of traditional media and cultural content."

Mr. Keen is apparently unaware of the possibility that the public at large doesn’t feel our culture, or access to it, requires “gatekeepers”. He also fails to acknowledge the reality that those “gatekeepers” have abused our collective trust with such regularity, we no longer recognize their status as arbiters of anything other than what stands to make their industries and corporate backers the maximum quantities of money in a minimum quantity of time. Whether we’re talking about big publishers with their ‘celebrity novels’, journalists with their ‘infotainment’, or TV executives with their so-called reality programming, the gatekeepers are now known to us primarily as experts in misdirection, hype and obfuscation.

It goes without saying that there are many honest, hardworking people in all branches of media who are doing their level best to deliver accurate, incisive content, but these are the minority voices in the cacophony of a vocal majority with less lofty goals.

Keen says, "The value once placed on a book by a great author is being challenged by the dream of a collective hyperlinked community of authors who endlessly annotate and revise it, forever conversing with each other in a never-ending loop of self-references."

And the problem here is…what? As an author of both fiction and nonfiction, I would be very happy to have an audience so engaged in what I’ve written that they’re moved to discuss it in groups. Isn’t that what literary study and criticism is all about? Keen seems to be suggesting that once a manuscript is bound between two covers, it should be laid to rest with no further analysis or study on the part of its readership. But isn’t it—and hasn’t it always been—the mission of great literature and nonfiction to spark thought, public discourse and debate?

Keen implies the author should always have the final word where his work is concerned, but I disagree. In my view, the author gets to open the discussion, but the readers get to have the discussion. And that’s not a bad thing.

Keen goes on to talk about how free online content is stealing the very money out of the pockets of hardworking businesses and corporations. For example, Encyclopedia Brittanica has steadily lost marketshare to online compendia such as Wikipedia. But lest we feel little sympathy toward corporate behemoths like Brittanica that have been slow to get on the technology bus, or perhaps even feel some of those behemoths are about due for extinction, Keen trots out the story of the archetypal ‘little guy’:

"Then there's Guy Kawasaki, author of one of the fifty most popular blogs on the internet...And how much did Kawasaki earn in ad revenue in 2006 off this hot media property? Just $3,350. If this is [Wired founder] Anderson's long tail, it is a tail that offers no one a job. At best, it will provide the monkeys with peanuts and beer."

As it turns out, Guy Kawasaki is no ‘little guy’ at all. Keen neglects to mention the fact that Kawasaki has 10 bestselling nonfiction books in print. Hmmm…you don’t suppose Mr. Kawasaki’s blog has increased his book sales at all, do you?

The central failure of Mr. Keen’s book is his base assumption: that our culture needs gatekeepers and professional arbiters of quality in media, that people need to have their tastes, thoughts and opinions carefully formulated and shaped for them, that we lack the ability to make intelligent choices for ourselves. In addition to the snobbery inherent in his arguments, Keen’s scorn for the common man is evidenced by his repeated references to bloggers and indie artists as “monkeys”.

If Mr. Keen and his compatriats among the media elite knew anything about history, they'd know that every major step forward in human culture has been brought about by the dismantling of---wait for it---the then-powerful media elite. From the French Revolution to the American Revolution, from Martin Luther pinning a note on a church door to Martin Luther King Jr. leading a march on Washington D.C., from the literature and art of The Age of Enlightenment to the Cinema Verite movement of the 1970's, whenever the controlling forces in our culture overreach or come to scorn the very public they claim to serve, that public will rise up in an overthrow and the outcome will be cultural progress.

Mr. Keen,
the cheese has moved. You are welcome to join the cheese in its new location or to seek out new cheese on your own, but it’s pointless to keep demanding that all the people you think are beneath you bring the cheese back to you, because they are all quite happy with the cheese in its current location and you haven’t done anything to earn their affection or respect. Your whining diatribe of a book may be very popular among your peers in the media elite however; you might be able to launch a cheese-finding expedition with them, were it not for the fact that they have no idea how the cheese got away either, and like you, are not terribly welcome in the monkey house.


Anonymous said...

As one who researches mass media and journalism I found Keen's book very interesting and often hilarious.

However, I think he ignores most of the 'good' of Web 2.0 and applies anecdotal emphasis too often to make a solid case. I did often say to myself (while listening to his audiobook) that he seems bitter. I think his charm is that even though people may disagree with him, outright, his way of putting things is funny and engaging enough to hear him out.

April L. Hamilton said...

bakariakil -
Thanks for reading & commenting. I too had that feeling of "Bitter? Table for 1. Bitter?" while reading Mr. Keen's book.

The way he heaps derision on the general public, then moans about how little concern we seem to have for his vaunted institutions of culture, reminded me of Mr. Burns on The Simpsons sneering at his nuclear plant employees (paraphrased to the best of my memory): "Why do those thieving, shiftless idiots despise me so?"

Rhiannon Frater said...

Just as a side note, you may want to check this out.

After I read it, I was furious.

Or maybe just delusional. :)

April L. Hamilton said...

Rhiannon - here's my response to Mr. Konrath & all those who commented on his blog in agreement with him:

Leon1234 said...

Such a wonderful post. Web 2.0 is the future and we are slowly adapting to it. I think it is definitely for the better.