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Amateurish "Cult of the Amateur"

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.

24 Comments on “Amateurish "Cult of the Amateur"”

  1. #1 Seth Finkelstein
    on Jun 5th, 2007 at 9:45 pm

    As I said here : http://blogs.britannica.com/blog/main/2007/04/the-citizen-media-revolution-10-year-anniversary/

    “As I’ve remarked to you before, it seems the only sort of critique of blog evangelism which can get much media traction is the hell-in-a-handbasket sort of pontification that’s aimed at pleasing a type of cultural conservative. Anyone else doesn’t have the media access to get *heard*, and will just be slammed with no recourse by A-listers. Which, recursively, proves the part of the critique about the false utopianism.”

  2. #2 Delia
    on Jun 6th, 2007 at 6:59 am

    So how about that debate? What are the serious issues Andrew raises, as far as you can see? (the “topics that need serious treatment”) D.

  3. #3 Seth Finkelstein
    on Jun 6th, 2007 at 9:14 am

    My idea of a debate is not one party screaming “COMMIE!” while another screams back “FASCIST!”.

    Which is roughly all you’re going to get if the “debators” are doing the pundit equivalent of a professional wrestling bout.

  4. #4 Delia
    on Jun 6th, 2007 at 4:06 pm

    Seth,

    I don’t mind hearing what you think but I was really asking Dan.

    Delia

    P.S. oh… Seth, I don’t know how to say this but you come across like a frustrated kid that nobody/nothing can make feel better… I think it would be nice is you quieted down (you have a lot of good ideas but they always seem to come with whine) D.

  5. #5 Jon Garfunkel
    on Jun 6th, 2007 at 10:32 pm

    re Keen’s comment about:
    “every anti-Wendy’s blogger jumped on it as evidence of fast food malfeasance…”

    Uh-oh. I had mentioned that as an example of bloggers behaving badly The New Gatekeepers series (2005). I’ll agree with Dan that in this, like many other similar stories, are driven by the existing “tabloid” media. Of course, if tabloidism (big headlines, 24 hour news) as a technology format tends to exacerbate this, then it’s entirely conceivable that the weblog format does, too.

    Otherwise I’ll reserve judgment until I can actually read through the book.

    Another interesting metric, if people are interested in the sort of number crunching I’m doing these days: 26 comments to Lessig’s blog post, 3 edits to Lessig’s wiki page of the same thing.

  6. #6 Seth Finkelstein
    on Jun 7th, 2007 at 12:18 am

    Delia – I’d prefer something like “bitter cynic who is doomed to rage in futility against the corruptions of the world”. It sounds so much more weighty. I don’t know if being rich and A-listy would make me feel better, but I’d be willing to try it as an experiment :-) .
    FYI, not that I’m deeply offended (I’ve gotten far, far, worse), but just as a statement of fact, note the process – people who cheerlead, get approval. People who don’t, get driven out. You are correct that I shouldn’t waste my time like this, but we all have our flaws, and quixotic commentary is one of my vices.

    Jon – the underlying problem is that rather than being any better than the mass media, *overall*, bloggers tend to the worst aspects of it. You can see this, *reversed*, over and over in the blog-evangelists reply to Keen – the defense of the bogosphere being a bad version of mass media, is that they are like the mass media when it’s bad. That is, the blog-evangelists play a shell game of shifting comparison. They’ll compare the best bloggers to the average or worst journalists. But when someone wants to compare the average blogger to the best journalists, or tries to compare the average blogger to the average journalists, the blog-evangelists try to make it a comparison of the average blogger to the worst journalists.
    It’s not much of a rally cry to say “We’re no better than the MSM”.

  7. #7 Dan Gillmor
    on Jun 7th, 2007 at 5:53 am

    Seth, it’s just not true that people who don’t cheerlead get driven out. Nick Carr, whom I disagree with a lot, has a big and well-earned following, for example.

    Delia, I talked about the issues a lot in my book, and will continue to do so here. Stay tuned.

  8. #8 hochan.NET : links for 2007-06-07
    on Jun 7th, 2007 at 6:21 am

    [...] Amateurish “Cult of the Amateur” (tags: 아마추어) [...]

  9. #9 Delia
    on Jun 7th, 2007 at 7:29 am

    Dan, you are *talking* about a lot of issues here but I don’t see much of a debate going on… so I think this could be a good opportunity to do something like this: I’d pick the “best issues” both you and Andrew agree on (although you probably ONLY agree on the fact that they *are* issues…), invite Andrew over and anybody else who would care to participate and… have that debate! D.

  10. #10 Seth Finkelstein
    on Jun 7th, 2007 at 9:47 am

    Dan, sigh, add qualifier “unless they’re masochists or have a pundit-base themselves (i.e. Keen)”

  11. #11 Delia
    on Jun 7th, 2007 at 12:38 pm

    Don’t get hurt, Seth… get better ;) ; you can do it! it’s all in the frame of mind… don’t take it too seriously — look at it as fun! D.

  12. #12 Pie and Coffee » Items
    on Jun 8th, 2007 at 8:36 am

    [...] about your blurbs Dan Gillmor, on Andrew Keen’s The Cult of the Amateur: “A shabby and dishonest treatment of an [...]

  13. #13 Brad Sparks
    on Jun 8th, 2007 at 3:36 pm

    Jonathan Bailey wrote a very good review of the book at:
    http://www.plagiarismtoday.com/2007/06/08/review-the-cult-of-the-amateur/

  14. #14 Sabrina
    on Jun 8th, 2007 at 6:09 pm

    Humph…as an independent singer/songwriter, blogger and sometimes “citizen journalists”…I’m one of those so-called “amateur monkeys” Keen is referring to. Ok so what is a person who is overeducated (two BA degrees) supposed to do…live the life of quiet desperation and fret about the white male elitist “rat pack” like Keen would love to keep me out of their game. He’s just mad because we found a way to express our pent up creativity…and we’ve become so popular and powerful that Keen and his ilk can no longer control the masses because they’ve bored the masses to death. Who is Keen to decide what is amateurish and what is not? Who died and made him God of all cyberspace?

    As far as I am concerned, blogging, Wikipedia, Creative Commons, independent musicians, etc may very well be the last bastion of democracy and free speech in our society what with all the suits trying to buy up every blessed entity on the planet! Let Keen huff and puff all he wants…that “big bad” wolf called corporatism and snobbery will NOT blow my e-house down any time soon, nor will he blow down anyone else’s e-house no matter how “amateurish” we seem to him. The internet is NOT killing the culture…it is redefining it!

  15. #15 Decontructing the Cult of the Amateur « reportr.net
    on Jun 11th, 2007 at 12:25 pm

    [...] have not read the book so will refrain from comment. But I can recommend two reviews of it. Dan Gillmor describes it as “a shabby and dishonest treatment of an important topic”. And Lawrence Lessig offers a [...]

  16. #16 Scott Rosenberg’s Wordyard » Blog Archive » The blog-dimmed tide is loosed!
    on Jun 14th, 2007 at 11:48 am

    [...] of the Amateur. Keen’s critique has already raised mountains of ire, from people including Dan Gillmor, Dave Winer, and Terry Heaton (who calls it “a whining, outrageous and defensive fantasy [...]

  17. #17 Center for Citizen Media: Blog » Blog Archive » Amateurish Pro Journalism Promotes Dishonest Book
    on Jun 16th, 2007 at 4:00 pm

    [...] noted here and elsewhere, the book is rife with falsehoods and misrepresentations, but journalists [...]

  18. #18 Le culte de l’amateur
    on Jun 18th, 2007 at 7:27 pm

    [...] our Culture” d’Andrew Keen. J’avais déjà entendu parlé de la chose dans ce texte qui met les choses en [...]

  19. #19 Sean
    on Jun 19th, 2007 at 11:20 am

    Sabrina, no doubt you’re right – there are quite a number of people out there who are highly educated and use Wikipedia and YouTube. However, I look at my niece and her friends and a lot of them are simple bores to talk to – no imagination, constantly tied to their cell phones, dress like tramps, hardly ever read a string of text beyond “lol! OMG, LFAO, UR so meen.” Many many aren’t like this, but reading your statement, it occurred to me a lot of kids are where I live :-/

    “Let’s definitely have that debate. But let’s base it on facts, not falsehoods and demagoguery.”

    Eh, the whole book is one guy’s opinion. The biggest “facts” you’re going to get are some questionable statistics and internet-user diagrams all subject to opinion.

    At the risk of sounding old, just back away from the monitor and look around you, are the kids dead heads?

  20. #20 ViNT // Vision - Inspiration - Navigation - Trends » Helpt Internet ons naar de kloten?
    on Jun 21st, 2007 at 8:44 am

    [...] frisse blik wordt natuurlijk niet door iedereen gewaardeerd. Guru’s Dan Gillmor, Jeff Jarvis en Lawrence Lessig hebben hun kritiek al gespuid, zelfs voordat het boek in de winkel [...]

  21. #21 Ralfy
    on Jun 24th, 2007 at 11:12 am

    What I find interesting is that many of the articulate critics of Keen’s book grew up without Youtube, Wikipedia, and the Internet.

  22. #22 Jeff Coleman
    on Jun 29th, 2007 at 10:03 pm

    Sean–

    How old are your nieces? It sounds like they’re in their teens or younger. Show me a time in history when older people DIDN’T find the mass of teenagers fairly banal to interact with. In the 80′s it was all about “Oh my god, gag me with a spoon”, and how tight to wear your acid wash jeans or what kind of bow goes with what type of sweater. In the 60′s, kids were crazy over those long-haired Beatles and their “yeah yeah yeah”s. In the 50′s it was poodle skirts and rock-and-roll. The 20′s had flagpole sitting and phone booth packing.

    My point is, the internet may impact the specifics of why you find your niece and her friends to be shallow, but the underlying causes are just human nature. The internet is mostly irrelevant to a discussion of that.

  23. #23 Defending the Amateur « mtippett
    on Aug 29th, 2007 at 2:52 pm

    [...] citmedia.org via [...]

  24. #24 Depois dos amadores, Andrew Keen investe contra o Google « Webmanário
    on Jan 30th, 2009 at 6:05 pm

    [...] of the Amateur“, se transformou num clássico da contracorrente (e também do mau humor), criticado até as últimas consequências pelos entusiastas do livre [...]