Part I: Andrew Keen and the Cult of the Amateur

I’m late to the Andrew Keen debate. His book (Cult of the Amateur) came out at a time when I was way behind in reading my RSS feeds, had a lot going on and didn’t have much time to dig down into his arguments. I saw the sniping at his work, gleaned a general idea that he was broad-brushing user-generated content, and decided to leave the debate to others.

This morning, I’m nearing the end of a project to catch up on RSS and in the process, I hit upon a post by Jeff Howe defending the notion that rather than dismiss Keen as a troll, we should recognize that his ideas are going to resonate with enough people that we should offer a response.

The fact is, Keen’s arguments will sound mightily persuasive to a significant constituency who do believe the Internet is primarily a repository of porn, spam and corrosive amateurism. Failing to recognize that the choir to which Keen preaches might just be larger than our own congregation is an arrogant, and potentially irreversible blunder. While Web 2.0 insiders might love to hate Keen, many in the world at large will love to love him.

Jeff directed me to Clay Shirky, who wrote a lengthy piece that argues that there are some parts of Keen’s position that do deserve consideration, even if his case lacks substance and is purely anecdotal.

I recommend you read Clay’s entire piece, because I’m just going to cherry pick two elements (one in this post, and one in a follow up) and offer a reaction.

On the primary contention that efficient distribution has made it much easier for lousy content produced by people without talent to find an audience:

More importantly, talent is unevenly distributed, and everyone knows it. Indeed, one of the many great things about the net is that talent can now express itself outside traditional frameworks; this extends to blogging, of course, but also to music, as Clive Thompson described in his great NY Times piece, or to software, as with Linus’ talent as an OS developer, and so on. The price of this, however, is that the amount of poorly written or produced material has expanded a million-fold. Increased failure is an inevitable byproduct of increased experimentation, and finding new filtering methods for dealing with an astonishingly adverse signal-to-noise ratio is the great engineering challenge of our age (c.f. Google.) Whatever we think of Keen or CotA, it would be insane to deny that.

Yup, there’s a lot of crap out there.

But there are two things I know:

  1. More good stuff is available, and easier to get, than ever before;
  2. Many people who are now producing crap will eventually get better, if not become great, thanks to the new opportunities of a networked media world.

First, digital distribution and unmediated content channels have made it possible for many talented people to find audiences they might never otherwise reach. I’m thinking of people like those behind TheBurg.tv, or GeekBrief.tv, or Rocketboom. While these are arguably professional productions, it is hard to imagine them existing a decade ago. If not for the net, what would the exceptionally talented people behind these shows be doing today? Maybe some of them would eventually make their way in professional media, but would they be doing as well?

When I was playing around with MP3Caravan.com, I found about 100 great songs on the web — all for free, and mostly by people you’ve never heard of and probably never will. These are still among some of my favorite songs on my iPod.

The explosion creativity that I see in music today (I say this as a fan of Paste Magazine and XM’s XM-Cafe and The Loft and X-Country, where I hear great music all the time that will never make it to commercial radio) is great for music fans, but maybe it’s not so great for people hoping to make a living in music. In a more fragmented market it’s harder to make the volume of sales necessary to make a living.

Over time, I imagine the free market will sort this out and some sort of equilibrium will be reached.

But of course, there is going to be an ever increasing stream of talented content producers entering the market place, thanks to the complete destruction of any meaningful barrier to entry.

And this goes to my second point.

The thing about making it possible for more crap to get released is that some of the people producing that junk are pretty serious about it. I think back to the Ira Glass pieces on YouTube — if you’re a smart, observant person looking to produce media, you have good taste, and you know when you’re putting out songs, video or writing that falls short. If you’re ambitious and enterprising, you’ll keep at it and keep trying to get better, and eventually you’ll stop making crap. Some of what you make, in fact, might actually be brilliant.

Talent may be unevenly distributed, but in the old content-production model, opportunity was unevenly distributed. Now opportunity is less about who you know or happen to meet and more about taking advantage of the tools and channels available. Achieving success still carries an element of luck, but getting a chance to even spin the roulette wheel is no longer dependent on the right financial backing.

It’s important to remember that we were all amateurs at one time. Walt Whitman was an amateur when he first self-published Leaves of Grass. Ralph Peer changed American music forever when he discovered amateurs the Carter Family and Jimmie Rodgers in Bristol, Tenn. Hollywood was the original cult of the amateur, and look how far it has evoled.

As I’ll argue in my next piece, Andrew Keen has taken a rather myopic view of the current state of media and has failed to see that we are currently viewing only one point along a continuum of change.

UPDATE: While preparing my next post, it struck me: Keen is himself an amateur who has benefited from the digital distribution ecosystem. His blog posts and articles have been widely distributed through the net’s efficiency. While he has apparently been paid for some of his articles, it’s doubtful writing has ever been his sole source of income (as it would be for a professional writer), or that he has dedicated himself to the craft, the way a professional would. His academic and professional qualifications to be considered an expert in media seem fairly slim. It seems to me that Keen is what he hates.

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