Part II: Andrew Keen and Cult of the Amateur

In his post arguing that we should take seriously at least some of what Andrew Keen (author of Cult of the Amateur) has to say, Clay Shirky writes:

What Wikipedia (and Digg and eBay and craigslist) have shown us is that mature systems have more controls than immature ones, as the number of bad cases is identified and dealt with, and as these systems become more critical and more populous, the number of bad cases (and therefore the granularity and sophistication of the controls) will continue to increase.

In this Business Week video interview with Keen, Andrew keen postulates his primary thesis that amateur content is diluting the market for professional content, and that amateur content is, by default, unreliable. His solution seems to be, people need to be made aware of it and turn away from amateur content.

To me, this isn’t an issue of pro vs. am; it’s signal vs. noise. Unlike Keen, I don’t believe that amateur content is intrinsically bad. Nor do I believe that pro content is always good. People get paid for lousy stuff all the time.

The point I think Keen misses is that digital media is an evolving ecosystem. Like all evolutionary processes, it begins as struggle and strife and perfects itself through increasingly complex solutions to problems. The net is barely out of the primordial soup phase. The amphibians are only now developing legs.

Keen, however, has sliced off a sliver in time and says, “we’re all doomed if we don’t do something.”

Outside of “pay better attention,” I haven’t yet figured out what Keen thinks we should do. (If the solution is in his book, he didn’t articulate it very well in the BW interview, nor have I seen it pop up elsewhere.)

Yes, we need to be more aware and more discerning. That’s part of how this ecosystem will evolve. It is an obvious natural progression. In the BW interview, Keen says that there’s already evidence that people are getting over “this internet fad” (my words/paraphrase). I don’t buy it. UGC is not going to chase people away from the internet. People are not suddenly going to start switching off computers in favor of newspapers and network television (though some might). Kids are not going to stop using SMS out of fear and loathing. That’s magical thinking. The technology is not going away.

But as the shine begins to dull on web 2.0 participation, people will naturally become more discerning. Nobody can consume all the media that is out there. Some where along the line you must make choices about what you like and don’t like.

Individually-derived choices is part of the solution to the signal vs. noise problem, but the ecosystem will also evolve through technological improvements in tools that help us find, sort and filter content; and publishers will also engage in some social engineering and human power solutions, because helping people get better information is a good business practice.

In the BW interview, Keen asserts that if we don’t do something, in 25 or 50 years, we will no longer have mainstream media.

I think he’s wrong. First, if that were to happen, the time line is more like 10 or 15 years, or sooner, as rapidly as technology is evolving, but secondly, the economic models may change, and established players may disappear, but there will always be a market for good content (whether it be informational or entertainment).

There will always be a class of people who make their living producing content. They may be self employed, or part of pod-like collectives, or even now working for new startups that eventually become the big media of tomorrow, but rest assured I don’t see professionalism dying so long as people feel the need for reliable information or good entertainment. Quality and reliability will always have value.

If Keen’s point is that amateurism is going to kill professional content, thereby making us all dumber and less informed and not nearly as well entertained, I don’t buy it. But let’s just say, we reach a point where content producers can no longer get paid for their work, and all content is produced by amateurs, then my questions are:

  1. Will audiences accept undifferentiated crap, or will they migrate toward the best stuff?
  2. Can amateurs only produce crap, or will they get better?
  3. If people stop getting paid for their good work, won’t they be forced to find another line of work, meaning there will be less content produced, meaning the economic value of the best stuff that actually is produced will rise?

Those are purely rhetorical, leading questions, because I think you know the answers. In a free, dynamic market, competing forces are always changing the equation, but money is always part of the equation. People will get paid. It just may not look like it does today.

In other words, I’m not buying Keen’s main point: That UGC is ruining the world. There is no economic model I can imagine (not in a free society) where such an assertion makes sense. Things may change, established companies may die, new economic models may arise, but there will always be good stuff, and good stuff will always have an audience. I don’t see how that point is rationally assailable.

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