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"Who is this Butki? Why is he giving away his labor for free? And why should I trust him?" - Andrew Keen

Interview With Andrew Keen, Author of The Cult Of The Amateur

This interview – and a subsequent rant/review that will follow shortly – has been one of the most difficult I have done in several years. This is because it was hard – okay, nearly impossible – to separate the subject matter of how the Internet negatively affects our culture from the fact that I was doing the interview for the very type of site he criticizes.

I decided the solution to that dilemma was to just quote directly what Andrew Keen, author of The Cult Of The Amateur, said about this type of site (letting participants realize he's called us) and ask him to elaborate on this comment:

They are the digital equivalent of online gated communities where all the people have identical views, and the whole conversation is mirrored in a way that is reassuringly familiar. It is a dangerous form of digital narcissism; the only conversations we want to hear are those with ourselves and those like us.

In preparation for the interview, I set up a topic on Newsvine to solicit questions. What was notable this time was seeing how many negative reviews and comments were generated about this book by bloggers and others colleagues I respect. A notable exception was a glowing review in The New York Times from the famously brutal critic, Michiko Kakutani

 

But some, like popular blogger Jeff Jarvis, even went so far as to ask readers to ponder whether it was even worth appearing with him due to the implied credibility it gives him – not to mention the publicity it provides.  Many suggested that to write about him at all was to help him, and I struggled with that.

As you might guess, I have many thoughts and criticisms to share about this book but I'll save that for next week.  I thought that in order to be fair I would keep those opinions separate from the interview today.

So let me begin by saying a few nice things about Mr. Keen. When I emailed him, after reading about his book in Newsweek or Time a few months ago, he quickly arranged to have a copy of the book sent to me and agreed to an interview.  Then, after I started reading it, my opinion of him dropped considerably and my questions and attitude toward the book became more negative.  He could have easily pulled the plug at that point but didn’t.

So thank you, Mr. Keen, for agreeing to do the interview this week.

Who is Andrew Keen? When I asked him for some biographical information he pointed me to his blog:

The San Francisco Chronicle recently wrote that “every good movement needs a contrarian. Web 2.0 has Andrew Keen.” Andrew is indeed the leading contemporary critic of the Internet.
Andrew hasn’t always been a contrarian. In the mid Nineties, he was a member of the pioneering generation of Silicon Valley visionaries who first “got” the Internet. He founded Audiocafe.com in 1995, and, securing significant investment from Intel and SAP, established it as one of the most highly trafficked websites of the late nineties.

Somewhere along the line, his opinion changed. It’s not totally clear from the book what happened. These days, Keen hosts an Internet chat show called afterTV and writes for various publications.

Scott: Were you surprised by the response to the book by writers like Lawrence Lessig, a Stanford Law School professor, lawyer, author? Lessig blasted the book, citing errors and generalizations.

Andrew: Not surprised. Think of Lessig as the equivalent of an all-powerful papal authority (he has the nasality and bald pate of a supreme prelate). As Victor Keegan of The Guardian wrote today, “I'm the Martin Luther of the Internet. And I've got more hair than Lessig and a much sexier voice.”

 

Scott: What was your goal with this book? Bloggers on panels with you have said you have likened the book to a grenade intended to annoy as many people as possible. Is that an accurate assessment of your goal with this book? Is there anything you wish you had done different with the book?  

Andrew: It's certainly meant to challenge the assumptions of bloggers. But there's a much more serious goal of the book too.  This is a book written for a mainstream, non technophile audience — parents, teachers, librarians, editors, lovers of the arts, musicians, IP lawyers, writers, college professors, all professionals in fact — who are troubled and confused by the Web 2.0 revolution. That's my real audience. These are the people with whom this book is resonating.   

The one thing I wish I would have added is a chapter critiquing the worst elements of mainstream media. I think that the most troubling thing about mainstream media is that it itself has fallen under the spell of the cult of the amateur. Thus, reality TV and call-in radio are one step away from the cultural anarchy of the blogoshere.

 
Scott: You spend a lot of time in the book pointing out problems, or what you perceive as problems, on the Internet yet you have a blog to promote the book, you blog on Amazon (which you also criticize in the book) and we have exchanged numerous emails. How is that not hypocrisy? What are the three best things about the Internet, in your opinion?  

Andrew: I’m not against blogs as self-marketing tools for the sale of physical products such as books. Instead, what I object to are amateur blogs as a substitute for reliable journalism and newspapers. Nor do I ever criticize email, which I think is a very valuable communications tool. In fact, I’m anything but a Luddite. I own four computers, spend hours on the Internet everyday and couldn’t have written Cult without either the Internet or a computer.  

Three best things about the Internet: email, professional podcasts (BBC, NPR) and Soccernet.com.

Scott: You make a bunch of what I'd call leaps of logic.  For example, you attribute the problems of newspapers (lay-offs, ad revenue cuts) directly to the popularity of the Web.  Isn't that a bit simplistic? You dismiss blogs as being too partisan and quoting too many extremists while seemingly ignoring that television shows do that all the time?  

Andrew: I don’t think that the only reason for the decline of newspapers is the emergence of the Internet. But it is one important reason. Newspapers would certainly be in a healthier state without Craigslist. They would also be more read if we weren’t all engaged in writing and reading narcissistic and irrelevant blogs.  

I don’t think mainstream shows like Meet the Press, NewsHour with Jim Lehrer or Face the Nation are too partisan.  Nor is BBC's Newsnight or the discussion shows on C-SPAN or many other news shows on local stations (although they tend to be a bit inane). And, in comparison with many blogs, even shows like Crossfire and Hannity and Colmes  – which I find politically repulsive — appears relatively restrained.  

 
Scott: On what are you basing these two assertions?

a) These days, kids can't tell the difference between credible news by objective professional journalists and what they read on joeshmoe.blogspot.com . For these Generation Y utopians, every posting is just another person's account of the truth; every fiction is just another person's version of the truth; every fiction is just another person's version of the facts.

Do you have any proof to back that assertion up? The closest thing I saw to proof was a study cited regarding Google ads which is a much different issue.
b) Same question for this assertion: "For the sad fact is that while Dr. William Connelly may be able to discern the misinformed ravings of moonbats from the wisdom of experts, the average Internet user cannot" '    

Andrew: a) Blogs aren’t edited, they aren’t fact checked, they are often authored anonymously. That’s the difference between their content and the carefully edited and fact checked content on professional media. This is enough proof for me.   b) The problem with sites like Wikipedia is that they are seductively authoritative. Kids in particular uncritically believe what they read on them. This assertion is based on conversations I’ve had with many teachers as well as my own experience as a college professor.  

Scott:  I read a great question to which I'd like to hear your response. This is from blogger Steve Boriss:

Most who write for Old Media are professional journalists, but amateurs in the topics they write about. By contrast, most of the leading, elite bloggers are experts in their specialized topic areas, but amateurs in journalism. Is the public really better off reading amateur-grade information from journalists rather than professional-grade information from non-journalists? More to the point, will they prefer it? 

Andrew: Don’t agree. Who are these elite bloggers? The intellectuals I pay to read (Christopher Hitchens, Slavoj Zizek, Jurgen Habermas, Charles Taylor, Robert Fisk, Martin Amis, Don Delillo, Howard Jacobson, Joan Didion) don’t blog. They continue to sell their work through traditional channels. Once guys like Hitchens, Delillo and Zizek start blogging (ie: giving away their valuable content for free), then maybe I start taking blogs more seriously. But, for the moment, it is generally the refuge, at best, of failed or second-rate print journalists and writers.  

Scott: Some, perhaps most famously Jeff Jarvis, have hesitated to do interviews or panel discussions with you because they think you are just taking a position in order to irk people and sell books. How do you respond to that assertion? What do you think of them referring to you variously as a troll, a talk show prostitute and a curmudgeon?  

Andrew: Never heard of the word “troll”. Yes, I’m a professional author and my business is selling books. That’s how I pay my bills. Thus I’m more than happy to appear on the media (and in this exchange) with the goal of convincing people to pay cash for my book.  

Scott: Are you as critical of newspapers, books, and television as you are of the Internet? Did you let those mediums off scot-free because you did not want to clutter your premise? Because I read, for example, "Not a day goes by without some new revelation that calls into question the reliability, accuracy, and truth of the information we get from the Internet" and I'm thinking the same statement could be said about the "mainstream media." Are you playing with the facts some to make your points?  

Andrew: The main weakness in Cult is that I’m not sufficiently critical of the political bias of some of the mainstream media (see #1). However, I do think that mainstream media, even at its worst (Fox), is less susceptible to corruption than the blogosphere. Even at its worst, mainstream media has gatekeepers and the creators of its content can’t hide behind anonymity.  

Scott: I am doing this interview for Newsvine and Blogcritics. Now you refer to sites like these on the Internet this way:

They are the digital equivalent of online gated communities where all the people have identical views, and the whole conversation is mirrored in a way that is reassuringly familiar. It is a dangerous form of digital narcissism; the only conversations we want to hear are those with ourselves and those like us.

I'm sure the readers of these sites, who are of all political, racial, ideological stripes, who often find the most popular debates are over controversial and contentious issues, would like to know what makes you sure your description of them is better than mine. Did you actually visit some of these sites and participate in them before dismissing them?  

Andrew: I didn’t visit Newsvine, but I did look at Reddit, which is particularly inane and dangerous. Just looked at it  – Newsvine. It appears interesting, although I’m troubled by the fact that a number of the suggested articles are recommended by a certain Scott Butki. Who is this Butki? Why is he giving away his labor for free? And why should I trust him?

Thanks again to Mr. Keen for the interview.  This is that Butki guy signing off.

About Scott Butki

Scott Butki was a newspaper reporter for more than 10 years before making a career change into education... then into special education. He has been doing special education work for about five years He lives in Austin. He reads at least 50 books a year and has about 15 author interviews each year and, yes, unlike tv hosts he actually reads each one. He is an in-house media critic, a recovering Tetris addict and a proud uncle. He has written articles on practically all topics from zoos to apples and almost everything in between.

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