A Blog Entry on the Sinister Nature of Blog Entries

Or “Why the Future (of Mass-Media) Doesn’t Need Us”

Rage Against The MachineI simply love it when someone presents a really good (meaning reasonably well thought-out) contrarian view to widely held and agreed-upon notions.  Such as Bill Joy did with his anti-technology argument in “Why the Future doesn’t Need Us.”  Another grumpy technology-kill-joy by the name of Andrew Keenhas been making the rounds lately, griping about “these kids today,” what with their modern-day Frisbees (MySpace), Rock-n-Roll (YouTube), and Hula-Hoops (Blogs).  He is pimping his new book “The Cult of the Amateur” and appeared on the PBS Newshour a while back.  

There is a Point Here Somewhere

Now, it would be easy to dismiss as a hack and a Luddite someone whose only experience with the Internet was running a dot.com-bubble-era company into the ground (audiocafe.com).  But amid the clutter and shrillness of his argument, there is some useful meaning to be extracted somewhere in the mire of Keen’s digital diatribe.  While Keen’s gripes are so many it is often hard to see his overarching premise or exactly what he is saying the real problems are, the theme seems to be this:

We are losing high quality media content in favor of the lower quality, user-generated content of Web 2.0.  “The so-called ‘democratization’ of the Internet is actually undermining reliable information and high-quality entertainment”

Just in the first chapter of his book (which you can read here), he bounces freely between topics ranging from

  • “Digital Darwinianism, Survival of the Loudest and Most Opinonated” i.e. problems with
    • The pure chaos and noise of the flattened internet information model
    • The inability to find reliable, high quality information
  • Dismay that Search Engines are the new Big Bother (“1984 2.0“)
    • True enough, people enter their most private thoughts/questions into these commercial tools
    • These commercial tools then turn this very personal information into a means of selling advertising and products
  • (A possibly misguided belief) that free content sites, such as YouTube (in the case of TV) and craigslist (in the case of newspapers), are cannibalizing and destroying legitimate paid content venues
  • Justifiable authorship concerns
    • Source, bias, and reliability of information
    • Skill, quality, and experience
    • Copyright, loss of income
  • A general lamentation on the pure inanity of it all and ultimate further dumbing down of the culture.

Cult of the Amateur Cover

O Tempora! O Mores! – Oh the times! Oh the morals!

Since some of Keen’s primary targets (along with YouTube and Wikipedia) are blogs, I find it a little ironic that when I wanted to find out more about this intriguing character that I was directed where?  You guessed it – to his blog at http://andrewkeen.typepad.com/.  Also, there was a Wikipedia article and some YouTube videos, but I won’t rub that in – I guess blogs and YouTube are OK for him and his “high quality content” but not for the ordinary rabble.

As far as Keen’s observations go, they are much like Joy’s – big on problems, not so good on proposed solutions.  The book is half polemic and half hyperbole.  He cherry picks the best of traditional media, the Bob Dylans and the New York Times-es, while completely ignoring the very same “corrupt, trivial, and inane” aspects that he is criticizing in Web 2.0. 

For argument effect, Keen sometimes makes statements that surely he can not truly believe.  For instance, he repeats the myth that craigslist ads cannibalize local newspaper revenue.  Does anyone who has ever been to craigslist believe 1) someone would actually pay for most of these ads or 2) these ads would ever appear in a newspaper?  Is there anyone who has ever paid $50 for a 15 word, 1-day newspaper classified ad that didn’t feel a little bit exploited themselves?

The Problems According to Keen

Internet as a “Chaos of Useless Information” and “Libertarian Anarchy”

The Internet has resulted in less culture, less reliability, less organization, and less ability to find high quality information.  Bloggers and other amateurs simply lack the resources to produce quality content in terms of being able to travel, assemble teams, gain internal access to facilities, and hire editors/quality control personnel. 

At some point we need trained experts to filter information for us and tell the masses what are the most important issues of the day.  To extract any value from information, we need hierarchy, organization, and expertise.

“Digital Narcissism”

He remarks that there are “a hundred million bloggers all simultaneously talking about themselves.”  True enough, people are showing off, bragging, revealing inane details about themselves, and putting virtually their whole lives on the Internet. 

Internet as an “Echo Chamber” and as a Great Divider

We are staying in places on Internet that just echo/reflect our own ideas.  We aren’t being exposed to different and diverse ideas and cultures but are becoming further isolated and stratified.  We go to the Internet just “to confirm what we already believe.”

We don’t know our own neighbors but we intimately know the videos of YouTubers and the ideas of bloggers (many who just share our own ideas).  “Internet democratization … is not improving community. It’s not increasingly developing rich conversation.  It’s not building collaboration.”  There is a “fragmentation of taste” and a “channel for every one of us in which we are the solitary broadcaster and sole audience.”  

Internet Anonymity

Because of anonymity, we will never truly know the motivation behind those who produce the content and therefore can’t judge the reliability.  And as Keen calls it, “an anonymous culture where people seem to be perpetually insulting one another.”  The Internet manifestation of the anonymous driver “sticking up his middle finger.”

The Internet as a Reflection of Ourselves

The Internet shows the lighter and darker aspects of humanity.  It is “youthfulness, playfulness, energy, and excitement.”  But it is also “addiction to pornography and  gambling,” as well as all of the other unhealthy aspects of the Internet: compulsive and impulsive shopping (eBay), incessant chattering, and virtually any other unhealthy human habit in digital form.  Keen makes an excellent point here and we very seldom hear about the addictive and unhealthy nature of Internet activities.    

The Solutions

In Keen’s own words (on the NewsHour), he says

“[Internet self-expressers should] should ask themselves, “Is this really valuable?  Do I need to tell the world what I’m eating for breakfast?  Do I need to tell the world what I think of the latest TV show?”  Much of the self-expression on the Internet is wasteful. …” 

He also suggests that, in free societies (one can argue whether this ever truly exists), there is no need for anonymity on the Internet.  He believes removing anonymity would quickly self-correct problems with unreliable and uncouth information. 

An Inane Blogger’s Take on Keen

Who knew icanhascheezburger, Chris Crocker, the Numa-Numa kid, or the Chocolate Rain guy could wreak such havoc?  Is time spent watching inanity on the Internet any less wasteful than time spent watching inanity on TV?  If this original “high quality media” was so great, why would people even be seeking out other alternatives?  And isn’t actively producing content such as blogs or other media, no matter how inane, more beneficial than merely passively absorbing content. 

Exactly which of these Web 2.o sites is the villain? 

  • Blogs and Social Networking sites: MySpace, FaceBook, LinkedIn, etc.
  • Photos and Videos: Flickr and YouTube
  • Encyclopedias: Wikipedia, Math World
  • Media Discussion and Aggregation: Forums, Digg, Slashdot

And do any of these sites not have an analogue in the non-Internet world (even if the barrier of entry is now considerably less)?

I find that I read much more news than I ever did before when I received newspapers.  And I find the quality of the content, even the novice-generated content, much higher.

It just seems like the old Cathedral versus Bazaar argument.  That there is only one traditional way to produce content and it must be handed out by those content elites.  More recently this argument was made with Proprietary versus Open Source Software

But Keen’s elitist argument has been repeated again and again down through the ages.  That is that there should be centralized gatekeepers who tell the population what they should think, how they should behave, or what they should consume.  Be these gatekeepers high priests, politicians, or modern-day media moguls.

In the final analysis, as Keen points out, the Internet, and now Web 2.0, for good or ill, is like all media, be it cuneiform or stone slabs: a Mirror of Ourselves.  Hopefully this time not just a lazier, darker, and more inane reflection and manifestation of ourselves.

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