More on Andrew Keen’s “The Cult of the Amateur”

June 26, 2007

Instead of writing more of my own views about Keen’s book, I’ll let this YouTuber have her say.  She didn’t even read the book, but she understood its basic idea.  Here she speaks specifically about journalism and news.

Andrew Keen’s “The Cult of the AmateurExpert”

June 26, 2007

Book review:  I’ve discussed Andrew Keen’s book “The Cult of the Amateur” once already.  I’m not sure the book deserves much more.  It’s a rant, sweeping in its attack, but thin on its evidence of support.  Today, I’ll mention one more problem I have with Keen’s argument, his romanticization of so-called “experts.”  

The Cult of the Expert in Keen’s world:  Keen romanticizes “experts” as being the preservers of “our culture.”  For example, he writes:  “the free, user-generated content spawned and extolled by the Web 2.0 revolution is decimating the ranks of our cultural gatekeepers, as professional critics, journalists, editors, musicians, moviemakers, and other purveyors of expert infromation are being replaced … by amateur bloggers, hack reviewers, homespun moviemakers, and attic recording artists.” (p. 16)

In my view, this argument is just wrong.  It’s true that, in some areas, we need experts — medicine, law, economic policy, etc.  But Keen’s not talking about those areas.  He’s talking about experts in “our culture,” which includes art, entertainment, music, movies, books, publications, news.  His idea is that experts in these areas should filter out for the rest of us things that are worthy of our time. 

There are two problems with this argument.  First of all, it’s elitist and anti-democratic.  Maybe Keen would have us elect a Minister of Culture in the United States who would decide for us what content is worth consuming?  As I asked in my last post, what “expertise” qualifies Keen, a Silicon Valley enterpreneur, to tell us what is good for protecting “our culture”?  Second, many of these areas involve matters of taste or prediction for which so-called “experts” are virtually useless.   I don’t need an expert to tell me why I do or don’t like Britney Spears’s music.  I just listen to her music and decide for myself.  Except for maybe journalism and encyclopaedias, I don’t think any of Keen’s examples involve matters where expertise can determine a “right” answer.  It’s all subjective, matters of taste.

Business and innovation are pretty similar.  There’s no “expertise” in predicting what’s the next thing that will take off.  I’ll end with a quote from the co-founder of YouTube Jawed Karim, who gave the commencement address (video) at University of Illinois this year:      

“What I learned next may sound counter-intuitive:  Don’t listen to so-called experts.  When the time came for responding, initial reactions from investors were mixed.  Some of them called the website cute, but they questioned its long term growth.   They told us get advice from experts on what to do with your website. That’s when I realized that there were no experts because, after all, if those experts really existed, how come they hadn’t built this website?  We realized that we were now experts and it was up to us to figure out how to proceed.  Within 18 months, YouTube had a far greater impact than anyone, including us, could have predicted.


“People often ask me what do I take away from this phenomenon. To me, it just shows that there are talented people everywhere.” 

Is YouTube really “killing our culture,” as Andrew Keen says?

June 20, 2007

Book review: Andrew Keen has a book just out, provocatively titled, “The Cult of the Amateur: How Today’s Internet Is Killing Our Culture.” In the book, Keen launches into a tirade against YouTube, Wikipedia, the entire blogosphere, and all other user-generated or “amateur” content in our Web 2.0 world. Keen’s basic thesis is this: “[D]emocratization [on the Internet], despite its lofty idealization, is undermining truth, souring civic discourse, and belittling expertise, experience, and talent. … [I]t is threatening the very future of our cultural institutions” (15). Yes, according to Keen, YouTube is a big part of the problem.

Over the next few days, I’ll be reviewing this book. Today, let me begin with two points.

1. The rhetoric in the book. It’s filled with punchy writing and clever turns of phrase. The rhetoric is often fun to read, in part because it’s so over-the-top. But I think the rhetoric ultimately undermines Keen’s own message. Keen says he wants more detailed, reasoned professional analysis. But his own book sensationalizes stories and speaks with the same kind of overgeneralizations and rantings that Keen criticizes on amateur blogs. Keen is taking a contrarian view on Web 2.0, and because his book is being mass-marketed, he’s more likely to sell books if his position is more sensationalized or extreme.

2. Is Keen himself an amateur?: Keen decries the amateur and hails the professional expert as the source of “truth” (more on truth in a later post). But what kind of expert is Keen? From his own bio, he’s a Silicon Valley entrepreneur who once was a CEO of a dot com and who now is CEO of “afterTV LLC, a firm that helps marketers optimize their brand desirability in the post-TV consumer landscape.” Oh, and, of course, Keen has his own blog.

OK, so does that make Keen an expert in democracy, freedom of the press, journalism, the entertainment industry, the music industry, intellectual property, libel law, click fraud, identity theft, and child predators–topics all covered in his book? My point is not to attack Keen’s credentials, but to question his overall argument in his book–that “amateur” productions should be kept in check because they are ruining “our culture” (more on “our culture” later). If that were the rule, his book shouldn’t have been published at all.  The people at Doubleday should have edited out any bit of material for which Keen had no expertise.