Andrew Keen certainly thinks so. In his book, “The Cult of the Amateur: How Today’s Internet is Killing Our Culture and Assaulting Our Economy,” he bemoans the effects of user generated content. In interviews, Keen attacks citizen journalism and their penchant for sensationalism.
What Keen seems to believe is that the internet is destroying our culture, as we know it. He speaks at length on the demise of expertise, paying particular attention to the efforts of citizen journalists. While he is correct in that just about anyone with access to the internet seems to think that they know more than the next person, his assertion that it is killing expert opinion is incorrect.
It seems to me that the flood of bad writing will simply bring to light good writing. On a stage filled with self-branded experts, those with true skill will stand in the spotlight.
It does mean that the average reader has to sift through page after page of bad content, but how long will they continue to read bad content before moving on?
Overall I disagree with Keen. The beauty of the internet is that it is an outlet for everything and everyone. It requires us, as readers, to form opinions and use our heads when sifting through content. It also gives us opinions that might otherwise not have an outlet. It creates a whole new group of thinkers and doers. It forces experts to face opposition. Where in the past they were an authority on matters, they now have to justify their expertise.
Journalistically, the experienced and educated writers and producers will still have the stronger voice. When faced with the challenges place upon them by the citizen journalist, they will be faced with defending their position. If a thousand blogs exist, whose will stand out? It won’t be John Q. Public’s ranting on Blogger, but Rachel Maddow, a host on MSNBC who will be referenced as an authority on liberal matters and opinion.
However, there are some dangers to citizen journalism that do exist, and Keen isn’t exactly wrong. This weekend I found the website literallyunbelievable.org. The site is dedicated to screen captures of Facebook pages of users who have posted The Onion articles, believing them to be true. This came to my attention when a friend posted an article about a Louisiana Congressman who believed an Onion article about Abortionplexes. The facility houses an abortion clinic as well as a full sized shopping center complete with food court and bars.
While we don’t want to limit the contributions of citizen journalists, it is instances like this that we have to be a little concerned with how and what poorly referenced material can lead to. We like to believe that the general public is capable of evaluating content and making informed decisions, telling the difference between fact and satire. There are still those who will choose to believe anything put before them. After all, the idea of an Abortionplex seems completely unbelievable, yet this article is over eight months old and continues to surface as “fact” to those who are seeking reasons to defend and reinforce their own ideals.
Keen does make a point that I can agree with. In his interview with the Futurist senior editor, Patrick Tucker, he states that “nothing much of intellectual or cultural value has come out of the Internet as an artistic medium.” What he goes on to say is that cultures have created lasting impressions on history.
Think of the renaissance and its legacy. The da Vinci’s Mona Lisa, Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus, and Michelangelo’s The Creation of Adam are lasting legacies. While there are true technological artists on the internet, how much of their art will be notable 400 years from now? How many times have you seen digital art and thought “that’s about the coolest thing I’ve ever seen?” How long ago was that? Is it still relevant? Do you even know who created it or what folder on what hard drive you have it stored on?
The same can be said of music. With the advent of digital music manipulation, nearly anyone can create music, but in most cases, they are not creating new music. The most egregious example of this is music sampling, which is to say, taking another artists work, splicing it differently or with other music and then calling it your own. At its height, MySpace had been a haven for would be musicians, but has since died as the public lost interest due to a lack of anything new and notable.
Keens’ motives are honorable, but his tactics are lacking. Instead of finding a way to move the digital age into its own renaissance, he chooses to attack and belittle its would-be masters. Instead of writing a book demeaning his potential audience, he should choose to educate instead. After all, he himself could be considered one of the masses at this point as he is a user of typepad, a blog service open to anyone who can use the internet.