Wednesday, August 22, 2007

The Cult of the Amateur

Andrew Keen's new book is meant to be controversial. He said he wasn't even aiming for a balanced look at Web 2.0. I knew this going in, so I expected to disagree with him much of the time. And I did. But I didn't disagree with everything. I do think there are some problems that need to be addressed. The problems are complicated: the issue of anonymity, copyright, spam, credibility, and the disappearance of traditional media. We can't simply dismiss all of Web 2.0 as trash simply because there are serious and legitimate issues that need to be addressed.

One of the serious flaws I see in the book is Keen's lack of hard data to back up much of what he says. There are sometimes examples--news reports mostly--but there's no real evidence that, for example, people are hoodwinked by advertising posing as sincere blog posts or video diaries. He states that "We're never sure if what we read or see is what it seems" (79). That's true of anything and if the Internet helps people be a little more skeptical and critical of what they see, hear and read, then it's not all bad.

Keen is worried not just that our culture is degrading as a result of amateur work posted on the web, but that the past purveyors of culture--newspapers, magazines, tv--are losing money and laying people off. He bemoans the loss of music stores, for example. Is it sad that Tower Records no longer exists? Yes, certainly, but could Tower Records have come up with a way to stay in business? Quite possibly. Instead of blaming the record stores and the music industry for failing to come up with a new business model in the age of the Internet, Keen blames the illegal downloads on the downfall of the stores and the industry. Certainly, illegal downloading is partly to blame, but did the music industry drop prices on CDs or open up more virtual store fronts? No to the first, and too late to the second.

He takes on the movie industry as well, warning that it may suffer the fate of the music industry. Has the movie industry learned anything from the music industry? A little. Movies are offered for download from Amazon, Netflicks and via many DVR players for $3.99 as a "rental." One can buy digital versions of movies for as little as $10, but most are $14.99. When going to a movie costs $9-$10 per person, many people will opt to watch most movies at home, especially if they have a nice, new big screen HD TV, which more and more people do. Making movies available for download is smart. What's not smart? Keeping ticket concession prices so high that most people think it's not worth a trip out. Does Keen mention this? No. He mentions that Disney is losing money. Has Disney made a really good film lately? Hmm, must be the Internet's fault.

The newspaper industry, too, is losing out to the Internet. At least here, Keen mentions that cable news has had some effect. Keen rightly points out that, for the moment, online ad revenue has not kept pace with print ad revenue even though a paper like the New York Times has over 40 million online readers. This is a real problem, but I don't think it can be blamed on the amateurs on the Internet. It seems more a function of trying to replicate a print model on the web and maybe they need to get more creative than that.

Perhaps my favorite over the top criticism is how the Internet is ruining our children--in multiple ways. First, "Web 2.0 technology is . . . creating a generation of plagiarists and copyright thieves with little respect for intellectual property. . . . Our kids are downloading and using this stolen property to cheat their way through school and university. . . " I don't deny that plagiarism and copyright violation problems have increased since Google became popular. However, the problem, as usual, isn't the Internet itself, but the fact that many teachers, professors, and parents treat it like the forbidden fruit instead of discussing these very issues. Instead of saying "don't use the Internet for research," we need to be having a serious discussion about what kind of research can be done on the web and how to treat sources with respect. The blog culture--at least the one I'm involved in--is very respectful of their sources. We need to encourage students to treat any source the way they'd treat an academic paper.

The other way that the Internet is harming our children is exposing them to a virtual Las Vegas--gambling, sex, etc. This is a tired, tired argument. The percentage of children who fall prey to an online predator is so small. A recent report that I can't find right now showed that children (usually teens) who get involved with an online predator are often participating in other risky behavior, online and off. It's so bad, Keen warns, that we're in a virtual war: "Parents must man the front lines in the battle to protect children from the evils lurking on the Web 2.0."

I don't think the Web 2.0 world is some kind of utopia. I do think, as a society, we need to wrestle with many of the issues that Keen raises, but I think we need to do so in a much more thoughtful way than Keen does. Keen essentially runs around saying "The sky is falling." It's hard to take him seriously when he resorts to that kind of argument. I don't have answers to the issues of illegal downloading, anonymous flaming, lying, or porn. But the answer certainly isn't to run away. I think we need to face these issues head on and talk about them and come up with some real solutions. I'm not seeing anyone out there doing that right now. The RIAA upped its pursuit of illegal downloaders. Most newspapers still haven't quite figured out what to do online. Anonymous trolls still roam around the web unleashing their scorn everywhere. Schools block sites like MySpace and filter searches. Even though I find Keen's book distasteful, at least he reminds me that most people are ignoring the very real problems of our Web 2.0 world and that we need to start talking about these things.

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