Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Andrew Keen: The Cult of the Amateur: How Today's Internet Is Killing Our Culture

Author: Andrew Keen
Title: The Cult of the Amateur
Subtitle: How Today’s Internet Is Killing Our Culture
Publication: 2007 Community / Doubleday, ISBN 978-0-385-52080-5, 228 pages, hardcover, indexed

The title of this book, making arguments that I have heard for a number of years and which would inevitably get collected into a formally published book, links the words “cult” and “culture” and that is certainly logical. The book, written by a Silicon Valley entrepreneur, certainly does call for us to rethink our moral paradigm as to how information gets out into the public and gets disseminated, and how we ascertain the credibility of content and its providers. The book was mentioned by the opening panel at the Digital Media Conference in Silver Spring, MD last Friday, June 22, 2007.

Actually, some of the issues that he raises pre-existed before what we call “Web 2.0” became a common buzzword. (It was supposed to re-invent Silicon Valley after the first dot-com bust, as the silliness of too much reliance on on-line transactions for everything played itself out.) Take, for example, Internet censorship and the concerns for children. The Supreme Court struck down the censorship provisions of the original Communications Decency Act (CDA) as far back as 1997, and COPA, the Child Online Protection Act of 1998, which the author supports, was passed in 1998 but has been under injunction since February 1999. In a published book, it’s hard to follow something like this in enough detail; I know since I am one of the plaintiffs.

I “self-published” my first book in 1997 (info) and developed my first major website at the same time to maintain “footnote” files to keep the political information current. (I actually had started this in late 1996 with AOL personal publisher.) By late 1998, when COPA was going to be litigated, I knew how important search engines and Internet self-publishing – then I just used simple hand-edited html—would be. By 1999 media was starting to report more “problems” – like people manipulating stock prices illegally with their own websites. In March 2000, I wrote an online essay describing how problematic online self-publishing by ordinary employees (often based on their personal values) could become for employers. By 2003 or so, we were starting to see people say that employers needed to develop blogging policies, and in 2005 I wrote a sample one But once social networking sites took off (like around 2004 or so), it was not too long before the major media sources were reporting that employers were looking at applicants’ and sometimes employees’ profiles for signs of unsuitability for employment. (He covers this late in his book.) I may well have lost an offer or two during the 2003 and 2004 period, before the era of myspace. One point is that my "page request count" has grown steadily over the years, despite the exponential increase in blogging as a whole. Why? Any high school student good in Algebra II knows that you don't have to raise 2 to that high a power to reach, say, a billion (that's the mathematical "wide-open secret" of the search engine); furthermore, I have collected and cross-referenced materials and "connected the dots" in unusual ways that I believe interest many readers.

Of course, any younger person should think seriously about formal education and getting as much certification in sellable skills as possible. I wish I had stuck to my guns (hard to do during the Cold War) and stayed with music, where today I might be able to express myself "professionally" (in his sense) in music. I am 63, however, having "retired," then "traded queens into the endgame" so I am pretty much past that (perhaps in a queenless middlegame). What I do find is that sometimes personal candor does have a place in writing on issues, and that, even in movie or book reviews, it's possible to impart some extra insight that could not come from the licensed, established "media."

I’ve covered a lot of the Internet dangers on my blogs, as my readers know. (Check http://billsinternetsafety.blogspot.com/ ) In a way, this is like any new technology. Automobiles and airplanes pose dangers too, and they did back in the 1950s, well before today’s contentious debates. Freedom has always involved personal risk, so we really need to look into the principles to see what is going on.

Spam provides one example of what comes out of the "amateur culture." Because email was developed before it was perceived as a global medium, the protocol was permissive and allows sender spoofing. Amateurs seeking limelight could attract spoofers (or other schemes to implicate them, some harder to disprove). Yet so do major corporations and, especially, banks.

But, when Mr. Keen talks about the change in culture, he is referring (quite appropriately) to our loss of perspective on and respect for expertise. Indeed, the whole concept of professionalism, which we pay for, is based on that. Before the Internet (and, to some extent, low-cost desktop publishing) we were used to the idea that most content goes through formal corporate (or sometimes governmental or organizational) channels to become disseminated to the public. Journalism, particularly, has always had its ethical standards for fact-checking. (Read Foster Winans ‘s 1989 book “Trading Secrets” (St. Martins) for a lot on this.) And all of that has been wiped away. Right?

Not completely. Keen talks (sometimes whines, it seems) about the job losses in media companies that prospered with older business models. These losses have occurred, and some of them have been due to piracy, true, and that is a big problem, with DRM controversial. Less clear is that the “competition” from free content offered by the pajama-crowd under a “free entry” mechanism offered by Internet companies really has affected them that much. I disagree with him on this. Many other forces, ranging from natural business cycles, to normal evolution of consumer interests, to even threats like pandemics (which he neglects to mention) can also affect and sometimes endanger commercial "professional" media businesses.

I’ll speak for myself here, again. I go to two or three movies a week in theaters (mostly smaller, independent films in only one auditorium), buy some hardcopy books from Amazon and BN, buy magazines and newspapers occasionally. It is frankly much easier for me to work on a current event when blogging if I have a hardcopy news story near my computer. And, yes, on an airplane or at the beach, I would rather have a hard-copy old-fashioned book or magazine than an e-book or an iPhone. This is all from someone who has self-published as much content (most of it heavily footnoted) on the web as I have in the past ten years. I have self-published three books, had one essay published by a conventional trade publisher, and plan to submit fiction and screenplays through conventional third party agents. In the past, I used to purchase many classical records and CDs. I rent films (that I missed) regularly from Netflix, often for research to support my own screenplays. I don’t think that “competition” from me will throw people out of work.

I personally find that most of Wikipedia is actually factual and reasonably reliable. I used it. Wikipedia, as we all know, has been criticized, and many schools (and news organizations) do not allow it to quoted as a source, although its articles usually point to more standard sources. Wikipedia, as a result of unfavorable comments recently, is tightening its standards, and certainly competition from credentialed sources like Compendium is welcome. I watch some videos on line, but most of them are from companies or individuals whom I know. I have watched some YouTube, but generally only things that really appear to be original and interesting. For some things, I have to dig. If I have a technical problem on my computer, I find that I need to look at six or seven sources on the web before I have a reliable idea of what is causing my problem. But that is OK with me.

Part of the problem is understanding what the point of a posting is. An online encyclopedia should be a repository of facts and reference material, not be a place for debating or venting opinions. In the old world, some encyclopedias like Britannica extended their reference concept with the idea of “Knowledge in Depth” volumes and I think that idea is good for the Internet, too. Opinions about difficult issues (such as sexuality and family values) can be debated, but they should be cross-referenced to each other and then to validated sources (with options to pay for content) with systems yet to be developed. But, gradually, people in the user-generated content business are recognizing this and proposing solutions. I do very little “social networking” on line and almost never look at strictly personal information on social networking sites, as it is of no interest to me.

It’s also important to understand that some of the security problems on the Internet are caused by misbehavior of large companies, not individuals. Compromise of identity security is exacerbated by carelessness of banks and mortgagers in granting credit, and better procedures (like checking USPS NCOA databases offline from the Internet) can be developed. Other problems, as he admits, like online gaming, somewhat depend on whether society requires that I be my brother's keeper.

Keen points out that amateur bloggers or social networkers are rarely sued, yet some of their postings defame others, to the point that others (when employers find them by search engines) lose job opportunities. Professional journalists (whose employers have deep pockets) get sued all the time, incur risk of prosecution sometimes for failure to disclose sources (Judith Miller) or even risk and lose their lives (Daniel Pearl in the movie "A Mighty Heart"). Theoretically, however, intellectual property law applies to novices just as it does to professionals; and at least people doing illegal downloads have learned that the hard way with legal phone calls from the RIAA.

Major sites like Amazon, imdb and Netflix invite users to review and "star" books and movies, and provide searching and cross-referencing of reviews. Often the comments from users are more specialized than what is usually available from professional reviewers.

Toward the end of his book, he does make some suggestions for regulation, both by government and industry itself. It’s not hard to advance the idea that information that companies can keep about their consumers could be regulated and safeguarded. But the real philosophical question concerns the issue of entry into the world of online publishing. It's all to easy to envision the no-no of increasing "barrier to entry" (or maintaining "standards of entry") to make the content that gets out there more credible -- and this would certainly lead to bitter, anti-libertarian political battles. It’s easy to propose tightening age requirements, and maybe making people pass a quiz showing that they understand legal concepts like defamation and copyright (ideas that now need to be taught in public school at least to high school students). Because disk space and bandwidth have become so cheap, it has been easy to offer almost unlimited space; but it’s easy to imagine limitations of exposure (in terms of bandwidth times length of contract). If network neutrality legislation is not passed, it is conceivable that ISPs and telecommunications companies will have reason to limit “vanity” publishing that doesn’t result in financial results (or, in the case of cooperatively published books, sales volumes) in a reasonable amount of time. It’s also possible to imagine rules that require third party review or accountability (the old idea with some people that “self-publishing doesn’t count”). After 9/11, one concern that I had was that individual people could attract security threats (steganography or zombie-making by hackers), and a long term legal threat is that individuals could be held much more responsible for this than they are today. It's easy to imagine requiring Internet self-publishers to post bonds to justify the indirect downstream "risk" that they pose, but that would wreak economic havoc on the entire digital media business, and I recall seeing that suggested in the book.

We used to have a world in which the control of information flow as tied to political, familial and even (especially) religious power structures. Personal advancement through the family, church or corporation was thought to make what one had to say worth hearing. (This bears on our current debate over sexuality and gay marriage. Think about how the Vatican claims that only it has the right to speak on the Teachings of the Church!) I’ve even heard people tell me that I would be much more credible if I would run for office (and guess what, ask other people for money!), and prove that I can will elections – as well as publish. But I am not interested in having other people under a political span of control. I just want to see all of the arguments made, and see us move beyond a world where what we hear from politicians is just what we want to hear out of narrow self-interest. I do understand the other side of a coin on this -- that blogging and online attention-seeking ("15 Minutes") has become a placebo for many people who are unable to have effective interpersonal relations with others on their own terms. But I want us to grow out of the picket line, petition and demonstration stage. But that is a double-edged proposition.

What seems at stake, besides professionalism and expertise, is the nature of our democracy, whether political and familial power controls the flow of information, or whether the liberating attempt to give the flow of information to the individual succeeds.

Coordinated quick review on my other domain, here.

Related post on Wikipedia "notability" here.

Electronic Frontier Foundation links on blogging and journalism:

Reporter's Privilege

Media Access

Freedom of Information Act

Update: July 1, 2007

As for "counter-amateurism" check The New York Times Magazine on July 1, 2007 with the story by Jack Hitt, "The Amateur Future of Space Travel." The magazine cover reas "The Amateur's Hour" Or why the tool-bench inventers, self-schooled savants, Internet nighthawks and all the rest of the utterly eccentric nonpros are the last, best embodiment of American independence." Welcome to October Sky and The Astronaut Farmer.

Update: March 7, 2008


The United States Air Force has decided to block access to almost all "blogs" (based on URL) except from those on "reputable professional media sites," from military personnel, on military computers, partly out of fear that airmen might compromise security with the comment features. Ironically, the site that reported the story, AOL switched com, is blocked itself. Here is the link.

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