Book review: The Cult of the Amateur

cult of the amateur

The Cult of the Amateur: How Today’s Internet is Killing our Culture.
Andrew Keen.
Doubleday, 2007. 228 p.

The Cult of the Amateur argues that blogs and social networking sites like MySpace and YouTube are destroying America’s culture. These interactive technologies and the trends they enable are, to use Andrew Keen’s words, scary, horrible, ominous, grave, chilling, disturbing, threatening, and nightmarish.

A frequent contributor to William Kristol’s Weekly Standard magazine, Keen posits an edenic world where not long ago “our collective intellectual history was driven by the careful aggregation of truth—through professionally edited books and reference materials, newspapers, and radio and television.” But now, he says, the Internet has infected our culture with mistakes and fraud.

Keen does make valid points along the way. Namely,

* It’s important to be able to distinguish between credible and worthless sources of information.

* Parents and teachers should educate kids about dangers on the Internet. Parents should set browser filters and should place their computers in a family room, rather than in the kid’s bedroom.

* Record shops and bookstores (independents and chains) have closed because of competition from online vendors and because of illegal music downloading.

* Copyright is being violated as new technologies make it easier to access and redistribute content.

* Some Internet activities like online gaming should be more heavily regulated.

But the good points that Keen makes are embedded among off-topic rants and weepy sympathy for media giants like the Disney Company and Time Warner.

And sounding at times like a Bible-waving evangelist, Keen claims that America’s moral fabric is unraveling because of blogs, wikis, and social networking sites: “The Web 2.0 seduces us into acting on our most deviant instincts and allows us to succumb to our most destructive vices. It is corroding and corrupting the values we share as a nation.” In other words, Keen uses hyperbole and misleading statements to argue that the Internet/Web 2.0 is bad because it’s full of hyperbole and misleading statements.

Keen’s favorite whipping boy is Wikipedia, the online encyclopedia. Time and again, Keen unfairly and inaccurately portrays Wikipedia as written by clueless, irresponsible people in a vacuum devoid of fact-checkers or editors. Based on my experience, Wikipedia contributors seem knowledgeable in their subject area and contribute articles as a public service. And if Keen had ever tried to post an article there he would have soon realized that there is indeed a large cadre of eagle-eyed editors who flag errors, suggest corrections, and even remove offending material.

If Keen really believes that the Internet is truly killing our culture, he should talk with educator Will Richardson, an author and technology consultant who writes for professional education journals. Richardson has successfully demonstrated how blogs, wikis, and podcasts can be used in the classroom to engage students and to promote learning.

If Keen really thinks Web 2.0 is endangering business, he should talk with communications consultants Shel Holtz and Neville Hobson, who show businesses and public relations professionals how they can communicate more effectively using blogs, podcasts, and other Web 2.0 tools.

A few more of Keen’s silly assertions, with my responses.

“Not a day goes by without some new revelation that calls into question the reliability, accuracy, and truth of the information we get from the Internet.”

Response: Not a day goes by without some new revelation that calls into question the reliability, accuracy, and truth of the information we get from the government, from the military, and from big corporations.

“Blogs and wikis are decimating the publishing, music, and news-gathering industries that created the original content those Web sites ‘aggregate.’”

Response: Much of the material on blogs and Wikis is unique. Many journalists find blogging a welcome addition to their normal writing outlet. I’d suggest looking at some of the journalists’ blogs at the Washington Post, the New York Times, and the Los Angeles times. Musicians and visual artists with limited publicity budgets use blogs to share samples of their work and to publicize upcoming shows.

“Before Web 2.0, independent media content and paid advertising existed separately, in parallel, and were easily distinguishable from each other.”

Response: Before Web 2.0 there was payola in the record industry, corporate-sponsored TV infomercials, and paid product placement in movies.

“The CD market plummeted 25 percent between 1995 and 2005.”

Response: The CD market deserved to plummet because CDs are way overpriced. That’s part of what has driven so many consumers to find alternative ways to get music (both legally and illegally).

Books rarely make me angry, but this one did. Keen will be happy to know that the blogosphere will light up with more responses to it.

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One Response to Book review: The Cult of the Amateur

  1. […] I was happy to see that Kevin Keohane’s review of Andrew Keen’s snotty book, “The Cult of the Amateur,” agrees in large part with my rather huffy reaction. […]

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