Andrew Keen, a former Silicon Valley entrepreneur, has set the blogosphere alight with his new book, a scathing attack on user-generated content. Sub-titled How the Internet is killing our culture, Keen’s book is a polemic against the “anything goes” standards of much of online publishing.
Mr Keen does not believe in “the wisdom of the crowd”. Much of the content filling up YouTube, MySpace, and blogs is just an “an endless digital forest of mediocrity” which, unconstrained by professional standards or editorial filters, can alter public debate and manipulate public opinion
Mr Keen answers questions on user-generated content and the digital revolution below.
You talk about the “structural crisis of much of contemporary mainstream media institutions”. What do you consider to be the causes of this crisis? Are they to do with economics and business models, the challenges of change, social and cultural trends, or is it a politically-driven crisis? And do our political leaders have any responsibility for upholding ’the difference between truth and fiction’?
Nico Macdonald, London
Andrew Keen: Great, questions, Nico, which probably deserve a book length response. I think the causes can be found in both the popularity of the internet and the rather pedestrian nature of much mainstream media. In my book, I talk about a solution in which we combine the best elements of authoritative professional mainstream media and the dynamism and irreverence of the Web. The Guardian online and the FT are both doing this quite well (and profitably).
Really good question about the responsibility of our political leaders. Entrusting defence of ”truth” to them is a little Orwellian. However, I do think we need a debate about the societal value of a free press and the way we may, in the future, need to treat newspapers or independent media as a public utility. I think this is particularly relevant in the US, where the free market is undermining the viability of many traditional media institutions. Newspapers or even record labels as non-profits is one solution. I hope my book will at least begin to spark this kind of conversation.
I agree with much of what your book seems to be saying, though I find it a bit extreme. In response to another question today, you state your book is a polemic and is countering a belief that hasn’t been countered much at all, and that’s why it’s so black-and-white. But looking around at blogs in particular isn’t part of the problem of Web 2.0 publishing the rise of polarisation and polemic?
James Doherty, London, UK
Andrew Keen: Fair point, James. I think that’s a very valid criticism. the problem is that a very balanced book doesn’t have the same kind of impact as a polemic (both commercially and intellectually). What I’ve tried to do is throw a bomb in the book and then have slightly more reasoned conversations in person and on the web. So far, this has worked quite well. I’m thrilled with the response. We need to talk about media literacy - it’s an important part of becoming literate.
What’s the initial reaction been so far to your ideas? Are you the most hated person on the blogosphere? Do you think your ideas will catch on?
Kate Gallagher, Luton, UK
Andrew Keen: Lol. No. Actually the response has been very fair. There are a few people on the internet who think i’m the analog anti-christ. But many responsible web 2.0 people - Kevin Kelly and David Weinberger for example, have engaged in very interesting conversation with me.
I’m currently in New York and last night I did a debate with Jeff Howe of Wired Magazine. He said he disagreed with 100 per cent of my book but was thrilled that i’d written it and sparked the debate. That’s exactly the kind of reaction that I was looking for. We need to have this debate. It’s too important now to ignore.
Doesn’t all of this really speak about human behaviour? Isn’t it all about people creating their own social environments using the technology? It’s not the web that’s evil after all.
Alex Brdar, London
Andrew Keen: Very good point. I’ve never claimed that the web is evil. It’s simply a mirror. When we look into it, we see ourselves. Often, that view is quite encouraging. But in the Web 2.0 age, we are increasingly looking at a culture which has lost its ethical moorings.
Rampant pornography, gambling, spamming, anonymity, identity theft, flaming etc etc doesn’t speak highly about what you call ”social environments.” And it’s our responsibility to improve these environments, to make them more civilised, to increase trust and cooperation on the Internet. We want to be proud of ourselves when we look in the mirror. For most of us, however, looking at the Internet (ie: ourselves) is a sobering and rather shameful experience.
What’s the implication of your critique for the more accountable environs of a corporate intranet - would you accept wikis might release real new potential in some contexts?
Adam Hibbert, London
Andrew Keen: Of course. I think wikis in managed, corporate environments, where everyone reveals who they actually are, has great potential. The key problem with public wikis like Wikipedia is their anonymity and lack of accountability. This lends itself to corruption, intellectual bullying and contextless information. Managed, accountable wikis - if that’s not a contradiction in terms - are the reverse. I’ve been involved in several myself which have been very fruitful and a lot of fun.
With the genie of anything goes “creativity” on the web out of the proverbial bottle, what can be done at this late stage - other than bemoan the state of our society - to rein in the runaway wagon train that is the blogosphere and its denizens who feel that they possess an absolute right to procure the intellectual property of others for their own benefit?
Michael Lee, The Hague
Andrew Keen: Books like mine challenge all this. The responsibility is now with teachers, parents and politicians to responsibly manage the consumption and use of this media. This is particularly true on the IP front. We shouldn’t be shy to aggressively fight organisations like the Creative Commons which peddle a lot of seductive nonsense about the common ownership of intellectual content.
Do you really think internet users are so stupid that they can’t see a fact stated on an .edu site is more credible than one included on Wikipedia?
Andrew Keen: Unfortunately, I’m not convinced. Many new internet users appear to trust websites like Wikipedia as if they were the Britannica. The challenge is building media literacy. The problem, I fear, is that a generation brought up relying on unreliable, trivial and often corrupt internet information resources will have no intellectual means of critically reading through the news.
What do you think of Wikipedia’s content control mechanisms, and do you think a user-submitted encyclopaedia can be relied upon to be factually accurate or offer a true world view on any particular topic?
Guy Carpenter, Istanbul
Andrew Keen: I’m not impressed. The problem is anonymity. I want to know who the editors are. I trust Britannica because I know it’s managed by experts. I don’t trust Wikipedia because I have no idea who is running it.
What is your view on the social implications of internet trends and where do you see it all going? Where do you see the social and cultural impacts of Web 2.0?
A Kisel, London
Andrew Keen: I deal with this in great detail in my book. Overall, the social implications are an increasingly narcissistic world in which we will be broadcasting to ourselves. Common cultural understandings will breakdown. A common mainstream culture will be the victim of the fragmenting consequences of an increasingly personalised media ecosystem.
What is your opinion about the Web 2.0 bubble?
Fabio Sacco, Rome
Andrew Keen: It’s an intellectual and economic bubble. People are already getting bored with it. But the problem of the long term flattening of mainstream media is real. Things aren’t going to suddenly revert back to the way they were.
Saying Web 2.0 is an endless forest of mediocrity is thinking in black and white. Web 2.0 creates the ability to promote anything indeed, but anything can be very interesting as well. If you leave the arbitrage to a (group of) professional(s), you insert a subjective filter and that what’s Web 2.0 doesn’t do. There are more and more well established artists who became known thanks to Web 2.0. Still, I agree a lot of junk is available too. So wouldn’t it be better to broaden the colour palette and add shades of grey?
Jean-Louis de Hasque, Belgium
Andrew Keen: My book is a polemic. I am warning of the logic consequences of our drift into a self-broadcasting world. Such a dystopia needs to be imagined if we are to constructively deal with the profound changes of the Web 2.0 world. You only get grey out of black and white. There’s a lot of white out there with Web 2.0 idealists. The black of my book is a healthy sceptical antidote to the utopians.
How did we arrive at this state? Why are we attracted to amateur output when the professional stuff can be so much better? Said another way, why can’t intellectual quality stand on its own merits? Is what you describe part of broader, progressive forces at work: hasn’t every age introduced technologies that have progressively facilitated the process of dumbing down? Why isn’t the internet merely the one in ours?
Phil Stekl, Chicago
Andrew Keen: I’m very troubled by your pessimism. There is nothing inevitable about what you call ”dumbing down” of culture in this or any other age. I think the internet offers great potential to uplift our entertainment and information economies.
The challenge is to harness its radical potential and success integrate it with old media. We are not faced with an either/or alternative. The future can be an improvement on the past if we are able to utilise technology to strengthen professional media.
How does one compete against the MTV-istion of culture and art on the internet? It seems more and more difficult to find useful information, to gage what journals, if online, are performing a cultural good, and to ascertain what might be called the permanence of the internet phenomenon with regards to the internet serving as a credible repository of creative work. I am a writer and visual artist, my work appearing both online and in print.
Andrew Keen: We can compete with MTV (or MySpace and YouTube) by stressing the political and cultural benefits of media literacy in our schools and universities.
Parents, too, have a responsibility to help their kids consume media critically. I am particularly troubled by the media illiteracy that Web 2.0 is spawning. This is the most problematic consequence of a supposedly democratised media.
Whilst I agree that there is a lot of crap to be found online these days, how does Keen propose we police or monitor what gets posted? Surely the whole beauty of sites like YouTube is that it does act as a breeding ground for amateur film-makers to make their mark. Although many videos might not be the finished article, Web 2.0 often provides the necessary platform to get the message out there.
Finlay Clark, Edinburgh
Andrew Keen: This may be true. But the problem is that it’s currently extremely hard to find high quality content on sites like YouTube. What we forget is that traditional media has done a great job historically finding, polishing and distributing content. An algorithm can’t do this. Nor can the crowd.
You’re right, there is a lot of rubbish online; but what about the importance of freedom of speech and expression? Isn’t it librerating that many more people now have the opportunity to explore their creative side and voice their opinions, even if the rest of the world may think the outcome is nonsense.
Andrew Keen: I don’t have a problem with amateurs expressing themselves online as long as they remain consumers of professional media content. The problem, however, is that the rise of a user-generated-content media is intimately bound up with the structural crisis of much of contemporary mainstream media institutions. This isn’t a coincidence.
I support Mr Keen’s concern for quality, but would like to know if he feels that young people aren’t up to the mark. Does he see the blog as merely an inferior version of literature? People who read blogs or view YouTube clips may not be seeking truth, but stimulus.
Lee Gilbert, Singapore
Andrew Keen: I don’t want to write-off all of our young people. However, I do think that we need to focus on teaching kids their responsibility in seeking the truth by a critical reading of information media. This Wikipedia generation are growing up with a dangerously relativistic notion of the difference between truth and fiction and between independent content and advertising.