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The Cult of the Amateur: How Today's Internet is Killing Our Culture Hardcover – June 5, 2007
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From Publishers Weekly
Keen's relentless "polemic" is on target about how a sea of amateur content threatens to swamp the most vital information and how blogs often reinforce one's own views rather than expand horizons. But his jeremiad about the death of "our cultural standards and moral values" heads swiftly downhill. Keen became somewhat notorious for a 2006 Weekly Standard essay equating Web 2.0 with Marxism; like Karl Marx, he offers a convincing overall critique but runs into trouble with the details. Readers will nod in recognition at Keen's general arguments—sure, the Web is full of "user-generated nonsense"!—but many will frown at his specific examples, which pretty uniformly miss the point. It's simply not a given, as Keen assumes, that Britannica is superior to Wikipedia, or that record-store clerks offer sounder advice than online friends with similar musical tastes, or that YouTube contains only "one or two blogs or songs or videos with real value." And Keen's fears that genuine talent will go unnourished are overstated: writers penned novels before there were publishers and copyright law; bands recorded songs before they had major-label deals. In its last third, the book runs off the rails completely, blaming Web 2.0 for online poker, child pornography, identity theft and betraying "Judeo-Christian ethics." (June)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
What the experts are saying about Andrew Keen’s thought-provoking polemic
“My initial reaction to the book was: ‘Geez, I have a lot of things to think about now.’ For people immersed in the social communities of Web 2.0, this is bound to be a thought-provoking and sobering book. While I don't agree with everything Keen says, there is page after page of really interesting insight and research. I look forward to the much-needed debate about the problems that Keen articulates—which can't be lightly dismissed.”
—Larry Sanger, co-founder, Wikipedia and founder, Citizendium
“Marvelous and provocative . . . . I think this is a powerful stop and breathe book in the midst of the obsessions and abstraction of folks seeking comfort in Web 2.0. Beautifully written too.”
—Chris Schroeder, former CEO, WashingtonPost/Newsweek online and CEO, Health Central Network
“Important . . . will spur some very constructive debate. This is a book that can produce positive changes to the current inertia of web 2.0.
—Martin Green, vice president of community, CNET
“For anyone who thinks that technology alone will make for a better democracy, Andrew Keen will make them think twice.”
—Andrew Rasiej, founder, Personal Democracy Forum
“Very engaging, and quite controversial and provocative. He doesn’t hold back any punches.”
—Dan Farber, editor-in-chief, ZDNet
“Andrew Keen is a brilliant, witty, classically-educated technoscold—and thank goodness. The world needs an intellectual Goliath to slay Web 2.0's army of Davids.”
—Jonathan Last, online editor, The Weekly Standard
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Top Customer Reviews
I certainly see that the picture Keen paints with, for example, music recording, also applies in the areas of military badge collecting, for example, or wargame publications. There used to be a number of wargaming magazines, to continue the example, that in part reviewed new games. These magazines have all gone bankrupt thanks to free content on the internet. (The destruction of old institutions by the Internet is one of the themes Keen explores.) A look at YouTube or sites like boardgamegeek will show thousands of review videos now, by untrained amateurs, that are mostly rambling and incoherent with low or no production values. Videos of people unwrapping boxes. Videos by people who haven't played games, giving 'first impressions'. Some of these, as Keen points out, may even be corporate shills for all we know, with a veneer of trustworthiness unearned. There are a relative handful of high quality productions, but the energy expended in finding them is immense, and moreover, what has the cost been in providing them?
Keen lays the foundation for anyone to make the same connections with their own interests and hobbies. Perhaps the negative reactions to the book are predictable. Web 2.0, as he calls the democratization of the Internet, is empowering. People generally like doing what is bad for them. Like eating a whole bag of potato chips, we just can't stop ourselves.
However, although _The Cult of the Amateur_ is highly thought provoking, it is marred by sloppy thinking. For one thing: "Amateur" is never defined. Professionalism is a complicated concept in the fields of literature, music, visual arts, and dance (the last is a field this book does not cover, but it is one I am familiar with as a performer and teacher). Professionalism is often not defined by whether the person makes his or her living as a writer, musician, etc. Most people in most arts fields, including some highly skilled and well-known artists, simply cannot earn a living working in the arts full time because the pay is typically too low. Professionalism is sometimes defined by whether the artist has passed "gatekeepers," in the form of publishers or producers, or by winning contests. On the other hand, in the fields of live music and dance performance, this is often not valid, as the hiring parties often do not know enough technically to know whether the performers are any good. I have heard professionalism defined as whether the artist continually strives to achieve his or her best--and then studies and works to improve even more. That would have been a good definition for this book to adopt.
But even the book's implied definition of professionalism, which is the passing of gatekeepers, is not consistent. For example, the book discusses how some amateurs were recruited by major companies via contests to create advertising material for those companies. The winners were paid, more than a pittance though less than seasoned pros--which seems reasonable enough, since beginners in a field are usually paid less. Instead of viewing this as a situation where some beginners gained a toehold in the field of professional advertising and a credit to put on the resume when applying for advertising jobs, the book laments it as professional opportunities and money being thrown away on rank amateurs. But: The contest winners did pass the gatekeepers.
The book fails to address another aspect of the Internet that degrades the quality of the publications on it: The Internet heavily rewards change. The ethos is that change is inherently good, and frequent change means a much higher search engine rank. And many people are blogging, or providing free informational articles, to promote their businesses. (Another aspect of the Internet this book does not address: It assumes everyone except big businesses blogs, posts, and chats on e-lists out of sheer narcissism.) Not infrequently these promotional bloggers or site owners are professional writers who have passed "gatekeepers" elsewhere.
But: If they were writing for traditional book and magazine publishers, together with the publisher they would _finish_ each work and perfect it as far as humanly possible. Every monthly issue of a magazine is a different, polished publication. Even the most frequently updated books, such as directories, are only published annually. But the work on a website is supposed to be never done--meaning many of the best writer/website owners post half-finished work and fluff just to keep up their search engine rank. Others constantly chase people to write free "guest" articles--so the website owners can get on with their real writing work. The least scrupulous website owners and bloggers (these are not, I sincerely hope, professional writers), merely lift material from other sites: The ethos of change is yet another incentive to violate copyright.
The book also displays no historical sense beyond a few years ago. (When I first saw the subtitle, my snide thought was, "Today's Internet as opposed to that of the Middle Ages?") For example, it decries book self-publishing as an Internet phenomenon. Which isn't technically correct, since most books are not actually published on the net. But to get back to history: Self-publishing was the main model of book publishing before the 19th century. Everyone can name "great works of literature" that were self-published, as well as "great authors" who published pseudonymously (which this book says is also an Internet phenomenon). Everyone can also name what now are judged really awful self-published books that were bestsellers in their time (for example, Lady Caroline Lamb's celebrity tell-all novel about her affair with Lord Byron). And, some at least can name journalists, such as the novelist Colette's first husband Willy, who shamelessly wrote positive reviews of work by spouses, friends, etc., at times under false names.
As someone who has both worked for "traditional" publishers as an editor and writer, and who has self-published, I don't feel the dismissal of all self-published books as junk is fair. Both traditional and self-publishers tend to view the public as a very important gatekeeper: Does the book sell well? If so, it's of significant value to a significant number of consumers--and its sales keep the publisher in business. Why is someone who invests all their money in self-publishing books considered a narcissist, while someone who invests all their money in self-publishing software is considered an entrepreneur? Well, that's partly because our culture has a low estimation of the arts, an attitude this book continually ascribes to the Internet but which is far more wide-ranging and long-standing. If people valued well-written works, our best magazines and newspapers wouldn't need to sell ads for other companies' products to stay in business--and therefore would not be suffering so from competitive advertising on the Internet. And also, readers would not be so eager to violate copyright law, a problem the Internet has increased exponentially by the ease of pirating works and distributing the copies.
I agree with this book's premise that there is simply too much stuff on the Internet. There is far more information and entertainment available to everyone, than any one person can ever use or effectively sort out. However, that has been true for a long time--the information just didn't use to be on the Internet. People have always chatted informally, and critiqued books, plays, etc. for their friends--they just didn't do as much of it in writing. Since the invention of photography, people have shown around their home photos and movies (and earlier, their amateur watercolors). Since the average person became literate, people have kept diaries--most just didn't make them public.
And, there have always been amateur publications and minor professional ones--little club newsletters, neighborhood newspapers, and so on. Publications for which there was _some_ gatekeeping, but readers never expected them to be of the same quality as a large daily newspaper or national magazine. Nor have readers ever expected a tabloid to be the same kind of publication as a major daily. But, I do not agree with the author's premise that gatekeepers for publications, no matter how prestigious, are so invariably right that readers should simply accept whatever they say. Everyone should learn to analyze and evaluate the information they receive (though most people don't seem to) no matter whether the source is a blog on the Internet, a tabloid, or a major daily newspaper
I believe, by the way, that the insatiable appetite for attention and confession displayed on many amateur e-groups and blogs, is fueled by the practices of some traditional media, especially television and the tabloids. After years of seeing the media obsess over the most minute details of celebrities' lives--not to mention any real scandals--people have come to believe that the public is equally fascinated with all details of their own lives, and that publishing those details turns them, too, into celebrities. Any potentially scandalous behavior of their own seems like just good copy, as celebrity drinking problems and adulteries do to the tabloids. For these amateurs any attention--real or fancied--is a valued payment.
_The Cult of the Amateur_ points out many problems inherent in this transitional period. The models for magazine, book, and newspaper publishing, and the distribution of music and films, are drastically changing. Major and excellent businesses are losing money; many smaller ones have been bankrupted.
But, I believe that within a few years a new stratification of publication and distribution will arise, to aid both readers and publishers. Professional online (or even printed) publications, paid for by subscription or otherwise, will aid readers by doing what traditional book and magazine publishers have always done. That is, by sorting through a vast quantity of information submitted, choosing and collecting that of particular interest on a specific topic, or to a certain group of readers, then editing and otherwise refining the information to ensure the best quality and presentation. Ultimately, such online publications would greatly aid readers adrift in a sea of search results--and also, by making money, be able to pay their contributors and editors. (I agree with this book that most writers and artists can't spend the huge amount of time, and often money, required for professionalism unless someone pays them; whether this is consumers buying the work, or companies helping to produce and/or distribute the work in return for a share of the profits.) So, perhaps people wanting to read amateur work will read blogs, just as people who do not want an in-depth book review have always asked friends casual questions about the book. But readers wanting quality will turn to professional publications, on line or in print; just as they've long turned to newspapers, rather than rumors, for most of their news.
Unfortunately, the publishers that figure out how to make money in the new world of publishing and distribution, may not be the same as some of the best ones now in business. Also, making money in publishing, music, and films _does_ depend on the enforcement of copyright law, and given the ethics of many Internet users, I think publishers need better technical protection systems than any now existing. I do not believe most publishers can continue to rely on ad sales--there are just too many places to advertise cheaply on the Internet.
This book continually points the free-ad-competition finger at Craigslist. But the fact is that any small business can now create a large, four-color, long-term website of their own for less than the price of one printing of one classified (or small display) ad in a major newspaper or magazine: And most of them are doing it. Also, an enormous number of websites, including amateur ones, are trying to sell banner ads and links. With so many Internet venues for cheap advertising--even if Craigslist went out of business instantly--the revenues from most advertising sold either on the Internet or off it are likely to continue minimal.
I also believe that new software will be developed to help the individual consumer search for and sort out the material of most interest to him or her (which is a different issue from whether it is "good").