THE CULT OF THE AMATEUR: HOW TODAY'S INTERNET IS KILLING OUR CULTURE
By Tony Cenicola
Digital utopians have heralded the dawn of an era in which Web 2.0 - distinguished by a new generation of participatory sites like Facebook.com and YouTube.com, which emphasize user-generated content, social networking and interactive sharing - ushers in the democratization of the world: more information, more perspectives, more opinions, more everything, and most of it without filters or fees. Yet as the Silicon Valley entrepreneur Andrew Keen points out in his provocative new book, "The Cult of the Amateur," Web 2.0 has a dark side as well.
Mr. Keen argues that "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 judgment." In his view Web 2.0 is changing the cultural landscape and not for the better. By undermining mainstream media and intellectual property rights, he says, it is creating a world in which we will "live to see the bulk of our music coming from amateur garage bands, our movies and television from glorified YouTubes, and our news made up of hyperactive celebrity gossip, served up as mere dressing for advertising." This is what happens, he suggests, "when ignorance meets egoism meets bad taste meets mob rule."
This book, which grew out of a controversial essay published last year by The Weekly Standard, is a shrewdly argued jeremiad against the digerati effort to dethrone cultural and political gatekeepers and replace experts with the "wisdom of the crowd." Although Mr. Keen wanders off his subject in the later chapters of the book - to deliver some generic, moralistic rants against Internet evils like online gambling and online pornography - he writes with acuity and passion about the consequences of a world in which the lines between fact and opinion, informed expertise and amateurish speculation are willfully blurred.
For one thing, Mr. Keen says, "history has proven that the crowd is not often very wise," embracing unwise ideas like "slavery, infanticide, George W. Bush's war in Iraq, Britney Spears." The crowd created the tech bubble of the 1990s, just as it created the disastrous Tulipmania that swept the Netherlands in the 17th century.
Mr. Keen also points out that Google search results - which answer "search queries not with what is most true or most reliable, but merely what is most popular" - can be manipulated by "Google bombing" (which "involves simply linking a large number of sites to a certain page" to "raise the ranking of any given site in Google's search results"). And he cites a recent Wall Street Journal article reporting that hot lists on social networking Web sites are often shaped by a small number of users: that at Digg.com, which has 900,000 registered users, 30 people were responsible at one point for submitting one-third of the postings on the home page; and at Netscape.com, a single user was behind 217 stories over a two-week period, or 13 percent of all stories that reached the most popular list in that period.
Because Web 2.0 celebrates the "noble amateur" over the expert, and because many search engines and Web sites tout popularity rather than reliability, Mr. Keen notes, it's easy for misinformation and rumors to proliferate in cyberspace. For instance, the online encyclopedia Wikipedia (which relies upon volunteer editors and contributors) gets way more traffic than the Web site run by Encyclopedia Britannica (which relies upon experts and scholars), even though the interactive format employed by Wikipedia opens it to postings that are inaccurate, unverified, even downright fraudulent. This year it was revealed that a contributor using the name Essjay, who had edited thousands of Wikipedia articles and was once one of the few people given the authority to arbitrate disputes between writers, was a 24-year-old named Ryan Jordan, not the tenured professor he claimed to be.
Since contributors to Wikipedia and YouTube are frequently anonymous, it's hard for users to be certain of their identity - or their agendas. Postings about political candidates, for instance, can be made by opponents disguising their motives; and propaganda can be passed off as news or information. For that matter, as Mr. Keen points out, the idea of objectivity is becoming increasingly passé in the relativistic realm of the Web, where bloggers cherry-pick information and promote speculation and spin as fact. Whereas historians and journalists traditionally strived to deliver the best available truth possible, many bloggers revel in their own subjectivity, and many Web 2.0 users simply use the Net, in Mr. Keen's words, to confirm their "own partisan views and link to others with the same ideologies." What's more, as mutually agreed upon facts become more elusive, informed debate about important social and political issues of the day becomes more difficult as well.
Although Mr. Keen's objections to the publishing and distribution tools the Web provides to aspiring artists and writers sound churlish and elitist - he calls publish-on-demand services "just cheaper, more accessible versions of vanity presses where the untalented go to purchase the veneer of publication" - he is eloquent on the fallout that free, user-generated materials is having on traditional media.
Mr. Keen argues that the democratized Web's penchant for mash-ups, remixes and cut-and-paste jobs threaten not just copyright laws but also the very ideas of authorship and intellectual property. He observes that as advertising dollars migrate from newspapers, magazines and television news to the Web, organizations with the expertise and resources to finance investigative and foreign reporting face more and more business challenges. And he suggests that as CD sales fall (in the face of digital piracy and single-song downloads) and the music business becomes increasingly embattled, new artists will discover that Internet fame does not translate into the sort of sales or worldwide recognition enjoyed by earlier generations of musicians.
"What you may not realize is that what is free is actually costing us a fortune," Mr. Keen writes. "The new winners - Google, YouTube, Facebook, Craigslist, and the hundreds of start-ups hungry for a piece of the Web 2.0 pie - are unlikely to fill the shoes of the industries they are helping to undermine, in terms of products produced, jobs created, revenue generated or benefits conferred. By stealing away our eyeballs, the blogs and wikis are decimating the publishing, music and news-gathering industries that created the original content those Web sites 'aggregate.' Our culture is essentially cannibalizing its young, destroying the very sources of the content they crave."
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