Wednesday , February 28 2024
The Internet held such promise. Today, we can't help but wonder -- when did it screech to a halt and stop delivering innovation?

Book Review: The Cult of the Amateur – How Blogs, MySpace, YouTube, and the Rest of Today’s User-Generated Media are Destroying Our Economy, Our Culture, and Our Values by Andrew Keen

Since first published in 2007, Andrew Keen's look at Web 2.0 culture, The Cult of the Amateur, has proven prescient in forecasting the state of technology. From its inception, the Internet promised and delivered so many breakthroughs, yet we can't help but wonder: When did it screech to a halt and stop delivering true innovation?

What it has delivered instead, is what Keen calls an avalanche of amateur, user-generated free content. Keen concedes that "not all user-generated amateur content is worthless, talented or without merit … We need to talk about the consequences of today's user-generated media before it's too late."

I can identify what that observation because I felt great unease when journalism sources, both print and online, began stressing consumer eye-witness accounts of events, with jumpy photos taken by cell phone, and network news programs broadcasting these reports from eye-witnesses with no sense of what the real news story was, no verification. More importantly, these instant eyewitness news stories offered no context, which is what we look to professional journalism to provide.

In his foreword to the January 2008 paperback edition of The Cult of The Amateur, Keen categorizes Web 2.0 innovations such as blogs, MySpace, YouTube, Wikipedia, and their ilk as leading to the anonymous unfettered nature of user-generated media. He argues it contributes to the "misinformation of young people, corroding civic participation, endangers our individual rights to privacy and corrupts our sense of personal responsibility and accountability."

Yes, Keen takes a curmudgeonly view of the state of technology, but he has the research to back up his findings. His thesis about user-generated amateur content has already proven to be true. Today, a year later, amateurs are decimating the ranks of our 'cultural gatekeepers' by replacing professional critics, journalists, and editors.

The book takes a dim view of social networking sites, including MySpace and Facebook, and enlightens parents about what the majority of teens are doing online. It isn't just harmless fun if it provokes contact kids would be afraid to attempt in person. And with staggering statistics of over two million visitors a month to these sites, there is no safety, no control, and no limit to what will be tried and tested.

From the dumbing down of media, to the unfiltered web of lies or truth, and the risks to children in the artificial reality online, Keen also does a good job of explaining the inherent risks in search engine technology. The aggregated result of our web searches, and snippets of private information stored online, with our permission, provide the world with an unstoppable database of private information in public hands.

Other points raised:

  • The more we empower the amateur, the more we undermine the authority of experts, and so we get what we pay for.
  • Who polices the blogs that misstate information, and wiki entries that alter history or spread rumor as fact?
  • Where are the editors, fact checkers, regulators, and skilled journalists?

Since Web 2.0 isn't going to roll over and die, Keen concludes The Cult of the Amateur with examples of ways we can put Web 2.0 back in the hands of the experts. He sites the British newspaper, the Guardian Unlimited, which "does a brilliant job of integrating the authoritative traditions of the newspaper with the interactive democracy of the Web 2.0 world." Of necessity, other newspapers and journalism sites now follow the same path: using the web to bring the best journalism to more people through more methods, but it is solid, tested, journalism backed by integrity.

Intended to stimulate open-minded discussion of the digital revolution, Keen's book will open your eyes to the rapid changes in society brought about by user-generated resources online, and the staggering economic cost of transforming "other people's free content into a multi-billion dollar advertising machine."

If you don't have time to read about how Web 2.0 robs us of our time – maybe Keen has made his point.

About Helen Gallagher

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