Andrew Keen is one of the most hated people on the internet. The reason for bloggers’ anger is his Web 2.0-critical book, The Cult of the Amateur. The self-proclaimed “Antichrist of Silicon Valley” explains what all the fuss is about.
.net: Could you explain the theory described in your book, The Cult of the Amateur: How Today’s Internet is Killing Our Culture and Assaulting Our Economy, in a few sentences? And why did you write it?
AK: The Cult of the Amateur is a critique of the ideal of citizen media. It argues that, behind the seductive language of a “democratised” media lies a threat to objective information and high-quality entertainment. The book argues that the traditional gatekeepers of mainstream media are being replaced by a chaos of anonymous internet activists who are pursuing often corrosive cultural, political and economic agendas of their own.
I wrote the book to challenge the stifling intellectual orthodoxy of digital Utopianism in Silicon Valley. The Cult of the Amateur is a subversion of the original subversion. I’m exposing Web 2.0 and revealing that, behind the radical rhetoric lies the economic, cultural and political interests of a new class of media oligarchs.
.net: The book has created quite a stir and has angered many people, especially bloggers. What do you think about the reaction you’ve caused?
AK: I’m not really interested in the reaction of bloggers who’ve criticised my book without having read it properly (if at all). I’m thrilled, however, with the reaction to my book by professional librarians, teachers, broadcasters, editors, journalists, talent scouts, agents, marketing and advertising executives. These brave souls are on the front lines of the new culture wars, and they’ve carefully read the book from cover to cover. They understand the cultural illiteracy that the blogosphere is engendering. They get the corruption and unreliability of all the user-generated content on the web.
.net: How do you feel about having been called “the nemesis of the new worldwide web” by The Observer?
AK: When I was growing up in North London, it was always my ambition to become the sworn enemy of something really big and powerful. So I’m thrilled to have become the nemesis of the new worldwide web. In my next book (to be called “Star Wars 2.0”), I aim to become the nemesis of the entire galaxy.
.net: Why don’t you like user-generated content and social networks? Isn’t it great that the power is in the hands of the people now?
AK: Who says that power is in the hands of the people? I don’t see any evidence of this. The A-list bloggers – mostly rich, white men in Silicon Valley – are no more representative of the people than any other traditional cultural or economic elite. The only people economically benefiting from user-generated content are the freshly minted multimillionaires at Google, YouTube, MySpace and Flickr.
User-generated content is a huge scam. It’s a way for the owners of sites such as YouTube and MySpace to get content for free, drive massive audiences and then sell advertising around it. If content has any value, then its creators should sell it. Anyone who gives away their content for free is either untalented or naive. If the market won’t pay for your content, then work on improving it, but don’t give it away for free. Don’t help pay for the Bentleys and Maseratis speeding up and down Route 101 in Silicon Valley. Power is no more in the hands of the people today than it was in May 1968 or October 1917.
.net: Why can’t citizen journalism and traditional journalism happily coexist?
AK: I really hope they can. The final chapter in my book addresses the way that I hope old and new media can work together. Examples of high-quality online newspapers that incorporate the vitality of the web and the reliability of mainstream media include the incomparable Guardian Unlimited and the increasingly promising Huffington Post.
.net: Is Google really a “fearful monster” that “wants to monopolise our minds”?
AK: Perhaps not now, but Google is one hell of a scary monster that’s profoundly revolutionising the world of information and the personalisation of data. Early this year, Eric Schmidt, its billionaire CEO, was asked what sort of questions Google would be able to answer in five years’ time. Schmidt responded that he hoped Google would be so smart, so knowledgeable about our individual desires, that it would be able to tell us what job we wanted and what we wanted to do tomorrow. That’s really scary, particularly since Google isn’t a public interest group dedicated to our communal wellbeing. No, Google (current market cap somewhere north of $170billion) wants to know us intimately so that it can “personalise” our advertising experience and improve its own bottom line. The monstrous thing about Schmidt’s hubris is not its Orwellian Big Brother dimension, but rather the way in which he’s transforming Google into our own personal shrink so that he can sell more advertisements.
.net: If it’s all so bad, why do you blog and podcast yourself?
AK: I blog for one reason: to promote myself and the sales of my physical book. I have something concrete to sell and thus, by blogging, I’m not giving away my labour for free. Blogging (that is, online brand building) is actually a great medium for professional authors with book contracts. It is not, however, a viable medium for artists seeking to make their living selling their digital content online. So blogging is a faulty economic system – but it’s not a faulty system for self-promotion.
.net: Where will the Web 2.0 hype end?
AK: Something awful will happen. Just as all the hype about Web 1.0 was finally laid to rest by the shocking reality check of 9/11, so all the euphoria about Web 2.0 will be shattered by something dramatically unexpected – another terrorist outrage, a mass internet suicide, a Google scandal or an all-consuming Middle Eastern war that leads to a global economic meltdown. One day, in the not-too-distant future, we’ll look back at our infatuation with the inanity of Second Life, MySpace and YouTube with a mix of shame and nostalgia.
.net: What can we do to save the net and how should we deal with the consequences of the digital age?
AK: The internet is just a mirror. When we look at it, we’re staring at ourselves. So if we want to save it, we need to be more self-critical and honest about what we’re doing online. That means stopping posting anonymously. It means challenging our most narcissistic impulses to turn the web into an infinitely fragmented self-broadcasting platform. It means recognising and fighting our addiction to online pornography, gambling and tasteless chat. It means taking responsibility for passing on a more civilised and civilising medium to our kids.
.net: Why did your own online business, Audiocafe, not survive the dotcom crash? And why didn’t you leave the tech industry there and then?
AK: It didn’t survive because it lacked both an original commercial idea and a viable business model. Audiocafe.com died in January 2000, so it not only didn’t survive the dotcom crash (April 2000), but actually folded before that crash. Why would I leave the tech industry then? In Silicon Valley, failure is the greatest mark of success. Since the collapse of Audiocafe.com, I’ve played a series of very senior executive roles at technology start-ups, including Pulse3D, Santa Cruz Networks and Pure Depth. I’ve produced a popular show about the future of technology (MB5) and successfully founded another start-up called afterTV, which is now part of the BAM Ventures stable. And, of course, The Cult of the Amateur could never have been written without my experiences at Audiocafe.com, so it definitely was the most glittering failure of my career.
.net: How has your opinion changed since you’ve written the book?
AK: My opinions haven’t really changed. I wish I’d added a chapter more critical of the way in which traditional media has been seduced by the cult of the amateur – particularly focusing on reality TV, call-in radio and other over-democratised forms of traditional media. But the main thrust of my jeremiad is as true today as it was when I wrote the book last year. The great seduction of user-generated content continues to undermine the viability of the mainstream media economy. Our biggest collective nightmare, I continue to believe, is Web 2.0’s digital narcissism. What I fear most is a media in which accountable gatekeepers are replaced by the corruptible abstraction of the online crowd.
.net: Where do you see the future of the internet and the media?
AK: I hope it’s the Guardian Unlimited – a healthy mix of high-quality, independent content, energetic user-generated opinion all successfully financed by a viable business model. The future I fear, however, is YouTube – one long commercial break in which all the supposedly independent content is actually advertising. So will it be Guardian Unlimited or YouTube? It’s our choice. In media, as in life, we get what we deserve. I hope we can collectively earn the Guardian Unlimited. But if we end up with the crass inanity of YouTube, then we will have gotten what we deserve (Calvinism 2.0).
Job: Entrepreneur and author
Education: Bachelor’s degree in history, London University; Master’s degree in political science, University of California, Berkeley
Previous career: Founder of audiocafe.com; worked at Pulse 3D, SLO Media, Santa Cruz Networks, Jazziz Digital and Pure Depth
Sue-Anne / 16/10/2007 / 12:57 / http://create-sparks.blogspot.com
Good to know someone's watching the other side of the coin as well. Undoubtedly, Web 2.0 seems to be the most monstrous phenomenon that won't stop growing till. It becomes whatever it will become. Although I'm really enjoying the mass wisdom made accessible on the net now, I'm glad that there is someone who stands firm in his critique. At least this will seem more real than being too good to be true.
Khalid El-Nahmean / 20/10/2007 / 09:51 / http://eldoggrag.tumblr.com
This seems almost a metaphor for a republican democracy versus a true democracy. in bashing idealism on one end, mr. keen seems to have an ideal of his own (the guardian unlimited, or a democratic republic as it may be seen). but we all know, even this concept or any alternative ideals can be corrupted and rendered much less useful than what those who promoted it had in mind. it all depends on personal philosophy and responsibility, really.
Mark Steven / 23/10/2007 / 13:38 / http://www.collectiveid.co.uk
How refreshing. I particlularly enjoyed, and fully agreed with: "One day, in the not-too-distant future, we’ll look back at our infatuation with the inanity of Second Life, MySpace and YouTube with a mix of shame and nostalgia." But then what better "radio station" is there than Last FM?
Nick Poole / 26/10/2007 / 16:11
I found this article really interesting, and it is certainly refreshing to get a reality-check about all things Web 2.0. I'm not convinced, though, that things are as bad as the article implies (and I freely admit I haven't read the book yet - although I certainly plan to).
All progress happens this way - there's always a period of revolution where a generation believes it is shattering the icons and mistakes of the past and blazing a new trail. This period is almost always followed by a time when things stabilise, and doubts start to creep in about things which appeared absolute and certain before. Finally, the revolutionary becomes the norm, and it is time to start learning the valuable lessons from it and discarding the less valuable ones.
There'll be a Web 3.0, and an anti-web backlash, and a reinvention, and anybody under 30 will probably be part of all these things during their lifetime. I don't hate Youtube or Myspace - they were examples of some interesting princples. And I don't really even mind that some people made some good money out of them - someone's always going to make the money somewhere.
Andrew seems like a very sensible thinker with a good view of where things stand. I rather get the impression that, if he has made some fairly extreme assertions, he has rather been forced into it by the passion and the orthodoxy of the Web 2.0 movement.
DD / 26/10/2007 / 18:04
Well... it's away for selling paper !
Justin / 30/10/2007 / 14:51
He brings up some interesting points but I'm not sure he's all together right or wrong. Does anyone else think that maybe he is underestimating the web 2.0 user's ability to distinguish between quality user generated content and what is irrelevant?
steve kelsey / 08/11/2007 / 13:42
Democratisation is good.
It allows individuals true freedom of expression and other individuals the freedom to choose whetehr they want to listen.But it also delivers the means of manufacture and distribution to individuals as well cutting out the middlemen like journalists,marketing, researchers,brand owners and this has them in a panic.
It delvers a wealth of choice at minimal cost to the individual but strips value from barnd owners and conventional manufacturers-the music business is an excellent example of this in action.The result has been some bright people are beggining to learn how to live with democratisation and make money from it.
This will happen to all businesses including manufacture.
Andrew is a clever man but has missed the point.We are in a transitional stage and have yet to see the true effect of democratisation.When we do many of his concerns,especially the fear of the oligarch in his Maserati,will fade away.