A book that I picked up over the weekend, entitled The Cult of the Amateur by Andrew Keen, has fast turned out to be a savvy and acerbic analysis of the negative effects of the Internet on traditional professionalism. Basically, Keen’s thesis is that by allowing anyone and everyone to publish their own journalism, music and video on the web, we’ve consequently lost respect for the more traditional experts within these fields, such as broadsheet journalists, classical composers and old school filmmakers.
The tag line for the book reads: “How blogs, MySpace, YouTube and the rest of today’s user-generated media are killing our culture and economy” – which immediately piqued my interest. Keen is described in the blurb as an “English digital media entrepreneur and Silicon Valley insider” whose work has been featured in everything from Business Week to Esquire. My initial inference, then, is that Keen could well be one of these unfairly neglected experts.
In Chapter One, Keen cites a technology conference in 2004 as the place where he first started hearing this irritating new term, ‘democratization’: “Media, information, knowledge, content, audience, author – all were going to be democratized by Web 2.0. The Internet would democratize Big Media, Big Business, Big Government. It would even democratizeBig Experts […].” Keen had hoped that the Internet would bring beautiful music to the masses but instead he discovered: “The new Internet was about self-made music, not Bob Dylan or the Brandenburg Concertos. Audience and author had become one, and we were transforming culture into cacophony.” Difficult to dispute, perhaps, when performing even a cursory appraisal of MySpace and Youtube. Keen continues:
“Everyone was simultaneously broadcasting themselves. But nobody was listening. Out of this anarchy, it suddenly became clear that what was governing the infinite monkeys now inputting away on the Internet was the law of digital Darwinism, the survival of the loudest and most opinionated. Under these rules, the only way to intellectually prevail is by infinite filibustering.”
This, again, is hard to dispute, especially when presented with the rise to prominence of the likes of Perez Hilton. Keen expounds: “Because democratization, despite its lofty idealization, is undermining truth, souring civic discourse, and belittling expertise, experience and talent. […] it is threatening the very future of our cultural institutions.” Strong stuff. I have to admit, though, Keen makes a convincing argument. As a documentary maker myself, who attended a traditional film school, I’ve heard many a fellow filmmaking graduate denounce the fact that anyone can now pick up a camcorder, upload a video to YouTube or Vimeo and thereby call oneself a ‘filmmaker’, despite probably never having studied cinematography or film processing, or even ever having held a light meter or loaded a single roll of film into a mag. Maybe this is too purist an argument for some but I can certainly see Keen’s point of view. He believes that the concept of Web 2.0 was a noble ideal, but that in reality it is nothing but a ‘great seduction’:
“The Web 2.0 revolution has peddled the promise of bringing more truth to more people – more depth of information, more global perspective, more unbiased opinion from dispassionate observers. But this is all a smokescreen. What the Web 2.0 revolution is really delivering is superficial observations of the world around us rather than deep analysis, shrill opinion rather than considered judgement. The information business is being transformed by the Internet into the sheer noise of a hundred million bloggers all simultaneously talking about themselves.”
This is a cutting summation. Far from being just a frivolous concern about moody teenagers over-saturating the web with their musically bland, bedroom compositions and amateurish, hand-held videography, Keen points out a much darker and more threatening side to the problem in which hidden political groups can lobby menacingly from behind the smokescreen of innocent, unbiased facades. Keen refers to the online political spoof, Al Gore’s Penguin Army, which although initially appeared (in 2006) to be “just another example of YouTube inanity”, was eventually outed by the Wall Street Journal as having actually emanated from “a conservative Washington D.C., public relationships [sic] and lobbying firm whose clients include Exxon-Mobil.” Intriguing.
It’s not just politics and teenage antics that are clogging the broadband though. Keen observes that commercial giants including General Electric, General Motors and IBM “all have blogs that, under an objective guise, peddle their versions of corporate truth to the outside world.” Of course, he adds, “the anticorporate blogs are equally loose with the truth. In 2005, when the famous and fictitious finger-in-the-chili story broke, every anti-Wendy’s blogger jumped on it as evidence of fast-food malfeasance. The bogus story cost Wendy’s $2.5 million in lost sales as well as job losses and a decline in the price of the company’s stock.” Worrying reading.
I can even remember seeing the photograph of a piece of ‘brain’ allegedly found inside a KFC meal, doing the rounds on my Facebook newsfeed not long ago. Furthermore, as I wrote the word ‘newsfeed’ just then (surely a word none of us had ever heard or used before Facebook’s proliferation in 2007), I was struck by a questioning thought about how many people spend more time reading the self-publicised news of their friends on Facebook, than actually reading the more pertinent news on, say, the Telegraph or Guardian websites. Keen seems genuinely worried:
“In a flattened, editor-free world where independent videographers, podcasters and bloggers can post their amateurish creations at will, and no one is being paid to check their credentials or evaluate their material, media is vulnerable to untrustworthy content of every stripe – whether from duplicitous PR companies, multinational corporations like Wal-Mart and McDonald’s, anonymous bloggers, or sexual predators with sophisticated invented identities.”
In an era when we are increasingly hearing new revelations of online disingenuity, much of this is becoming unsurprising. In 2011, for example, even a professionaljournalist, Johan Hari of The Independent, was suspended from his paper following multiple charges of plagiarism and for having made malicious edits of his critics’ Wikipedia pages under a pseudonym. Far from making information more accurate, then, anonymity on the web has simply made it a fool’s (and troll’s) paradise.
In Chapter Two, Keen takes aim at the ‘noble amateur’: “In fact, citizen journalism is a euphemism for what you or I might call ‘journalism by nonjournalists’.” Keen makes a further pithy observation: “The simple ownership of a computer and an Internet connection doesn’t transform one into a serious journalist any more than having access to a kitchen makes one into a serious cook.” I wonder whether he is being too hard on the more genuine of the citizen journalists though. Maybe a fourteen-year-old girl who writes a daily blog about Kim Kardashian’s latest outfit, spelling mistakes abounding, isn’t really expecting to win a Pulitzer. Maybe it’s just for fun. There are, however, many citizen journalists who contribute to local newspapers in a sincere attempt to gain the work experience necessary to start a career in professional journalism. Keen seems particularly offended, however, by the more casual, laissez-faire progenitor of news, such as the ‘bystander with a smartphone’:
“In 2005, in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, for example, many of the initial reports of the damage came from citizen journalists, people on the scene blogging about the chaos and taking photos of the devastation with their camera phones. But, as it turned out, these initial reports helped to spread unfounded rumours – inflated body counts and erroneous reports of rape and gang violence in the Superdome – that were later debunked by the traditional news media. The most accurate and objective reports instead came from professional news reporters who brought us high-quality photographs of the disaster and information from key figures like the New Orleans police, rescue workers, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, as well as first-hand accounts from the citizens and victims themselves.”
This last part is difficult to dispute. Obviously President Obama is more likely to sit down and debate facts with a BBC reporter via satellite than with young Kevin from MyKoolPolitiksBlog via Skype. Keen succinctly adds: “Citizen journalists simply don’t have the resources to bring us reliable news. They lack not only expertise and training, but connections and access to information.” True. I do believe, however, that news in general can benefit from the best of both worlds. If, while Obama is being interviewed by the BBC, a group of protesters outside the studio are causing a ruckus, it gives us a better sense of the bigger picture if a citizen outside manages to capture this protest on video (albeit a shaky, pixellated one). Maybe that’s a more positive way to consider citizen journalism, then – as a complementary (if sometimes dishevelled) counterpart to its more professional cousin. Regarding the interminable plethora of teenage, musical dross on MySpace and YouTube, however, I might have to agree with Keen’s most pithy line of all: “Amateur hour has arrived, and the audience is now running the show.”