Andrew Keen’s book, The Cult of the Amateur: How today’s Internet is killing our culture, was officially published this week. It is a shabby and dishonest treatment of an important topic.
We do face many problems in a digital age, including several of the general issues Keen raises. (I wrote about many of them in my own book three years ago.) We do need to be dealing with those problems.
But when someone seeks, as Keen claims to be doing, to engender a conversation about serious issues, he should base his assertions on reality. Keen’s work doesn’t come close to meeting that standard, as we discover time and again in this volume.
Let me offer the first word in this regard to my friend and occasional colleague Larry Lessig, the Stanford law professor, founder of Creative Commons and thinker/author of note. Lessig, one of the many people Keen attempts to trash, writes that Keen’s self-described “polemic”
purports to be a book attacking the sloppiness, error and ignorance of the Internet, yet it itself is shot through with sloppiness, error and ignorance. It tells us that without institutions, and standards, to signal what we can trust (like the institution (Doubleday) that decided to print his book), we won’t know what’s true and what’s false. But the book itself is riddled with falsity — from simple errors of fact, to gross misreadings of arguments, to the most basic errors of economics.
So how could it be that a book criticizing the Internet — because the product of a standardless process where nothing is “vetted for accuracy” (as he says of Wikipedia) — could itself be so mistaken, when it, presumably, has been “vetted for accuracy” and was only selected for publication because it passed the high standards of truth imposed by its publisher — Doubleday?
And then it hit me: Keen is our generation’s greatest self-parodist. His book is not a criticism of the Internet. Like the article in Nature comparing Wikipedia and Britannica, the real argument of Keen’s book is that traditional media and publishing is just as bad as the worst of the Internet. Here’s a book — Keen’s — that has passed through all the rigor of modern American publishing, yet which is perhaps as reliable as your average blog post: No doubt interesting, sometimes well written, lots of times ridiculously over the top — but also riddled with errors. Keen’s obvious point is to show those with a blind faith in the traditional system that it can be just as bad as the worst of the Internet. Indeed, one might say even worse, since the Internet doesn’t primp itself with the pretense that its words are promised to be true.
Lessig is, of course, indulging in actual satire. He then goes on to pull apart Keen’s lies and misrepresentations relating to his own work. Read his entire post, then come back here.
Now, it’s almost impossible to get everything wrong, and Keen’s book does make at least a few valid (and factually supported) points. But he thoroughly undermines them with the repeated assertions based on conjecture, “facts” that are false and pretzel logic.
I just flipped to a random page, and noticed a howler that had escaped me on first reading. In a section about the very real problem of bloggers who tout or trash products or people for undisclosed pay or other compensation, Keen sermonizes that anti-corporate bloggers are also “loose with the truth.” He uses as an example the 2005 case of the fraudulent finger-in-food case at a Wendy’s restaurant. When this story broke widely
every anti-Wendy’s blogger jumped on it as evidence of fast food malfeasance. The bogus story cost Wendy’s $2.5 million in lost sales as well as job losses and a decline in the price of the company’s stock.
He has a point in this case, but he should be making it against traditional media. The bloggers were a comparatively tiny noise amid a big-media cyclone. Certainly, some bloggers piled on, as did countless professional journalists in this and many, many other cases — the Duke lacrosse team “rape” comes to mind — where the real damage was done by the pros and where we’re still waiting for forthright admissions of error from most of them.
My own difficulties with the book mirror Lessig’s. Among other things, in just a few pages about citizen journalism, Keen seriously misrepresents what I’ve said and written; gets some fairly important facts wrong; and cherry-picks quotes, omitting other quotes from the same interview that would refute what he wants to convey, to make the entire concept of citizen journalism seem shallow.
In a particularly bizarre and wrong-on-its-face assertion, for example, Keen writes, “Most amateur journalists are wannabe Matt Drudges — a pajama army of mostly anonymous, self-referential writers who exist not to report news but to spread gossip, sensationalize political scandal, display embarrassing photos of public figures, and link to stories on imaginative topics such as UFO sightings or 9/11 conspiracy theories.”
Do some bloggers fit this description? Of course. Do any data to support the broad characterization? Of course not, because it’s unsupportable.
Of my own work, Keen writes that I say the news should be a “conversation among ordinary citizens…” Actually, as even a modest amount of reporting would have revealed, I say it should be a conversation that includes the professionals and the citizens, as well as the newsmakers (the institutions and people who are the subjects of journalism).
I’ve been harping for years now on why we need what the pros do — they do vital work — but also why we need, among other things, to find a way to incorporate the knowledge of the audience into the journalism. I discussed all of this in the introduction and several chapters of “We the Media,” and devoted an entire chapter to ways the professionals can work with the audiences.
Had Keen asked, which he didn’t, he’d also have known that I’ve been working with several traditional media companies on these very questions. Nor does he discuss the genuine professionalism in parts of the blogosphere, which I frequently discuss, or acknowledge that many of us are working hard to help citizen journalists understand the principles of journalism.
To mention any of this would have undermined Keen’s thesis. Perhaps that’s why it’s missing.
Keen builds an entire section of a chapter around a flagrant falsehood, saying that while professional journalists risk jail for doing important work, bloggers write about trivialities. He approvingly cites a San Francisco Chronicle journalist’s sanctimonious claims that several of the newspaper’s reporters, who were then being threatened with jail terms for contempt of court after refusing to identify a source, are the true protectors of the First Amendment.
Really? Again, a casual search would have revealed more than a few threatened bloggers, some of whom have indeed been jailed, around the world. But Keen, who lives in Berkeley, California, didn’t need to look very far. When he interviewed the Chronicle staffer in the fall of 2006. blogger/videographer Josh Wolf was in a nearby federal lockup, and had been since July, for contempt after refusing to give up out-takes of his videos. (Wolf was released a few weeks ago after cutting a deal with the government.) So egregious was this case that the the Society of Professional Journalists local chapter named him one of the journalists of the year for 2006 and the California First Amendment Coalition (I’m on the board of directors) came to his defense as well.
Keen approvingly quotes the Chronicle journalist saying that libel laws have been taking “a vacation” when it comes to bloggers. The growing number of cases in which bloggers have been threatened — and at least a few actual lawsuits that have been filed — haven’t received enormous amounts of publicity, but Keen could have learned about them if he’d cared to do even a little reporting. If there haven’t been more such cases, there’s a good reason: Most bloggers don’t have the deep pockets that attract the plaintiff’s lawyers to defamation cases against traditional media companies, not because of any legal holiday.
Keen claims that I see the “real value” of citizen journalism in its addressing of niche markets. I do believe it’s one of the key opportunity spaces, but have made clear again and again — in my book, on my blog, in public events and in every interview I can recall where the topic came up — that it’s not the only one.
To back up his bogus claim about what he apparently wishes I believe, Keen cites a single quote from an Internet radio interview he conducted with me (in which he praised my book, incidentally). He asked for an example of niche journalism. I pointed him to a website where people discuss the Toyota Prius in sufficient depth to have made the site a primary source of useful information about the car. In his book, he ignores not just all of the other valuable facets of the genre; he even ignores other parts of that same interview, including my specific mention of blogging by an economics professor — is economic policy a serious enough topic for him? guess not — as another example of how bloggers and other citizen-media creators can go deeper than most traditional journalists on important subjects.
I would fail a journalism student who made such blatant misrepresentations and did such inadequate reporting.
As I noted at the outset, Keen raises important issues in this book. But the topics need a serious treatment, not such slipshod dishonesty.
Many weeks ago, when I confronted him with my objections, he addressed only one of them. When I pointed out that he’d gotten even that wrong, he didn’t respond directly but resorted to something he paraphrased at a later public event, that whatever else one might think the book is “a polemic designed to encourage mainstream debate about all these issues.”
Let’s definitely have that debate. But let’s base it on facts, not falsehoods and demagoguery.