Tuesday, April 08, 2008

Optimism Is An Obligation

Originally uploaded by amsterboy
I just got back from Andrew Keen's lecture at Felix Meritis. Keen has made a fortune during the last year's by writing a bestseller called The Cult of the Amateur where he attacks the Web 2.0 phenomenon. According to Keen, we are not witnessing growing democracy but public masturbation of narcissists and a race to the bottom. As Keen puts it:"Most of us aren't talented. Most of us have nothing to say." According to Andrew Keen true democracy is not handing people the tools for self-expression, it is providing articles of professional journalists globally to everyone. "One learns about the world by listening to experts", he points out.

People like Keen frustrate me. He has found a segment in the market and hit it by simplifying his arguments to a cynical provocation piece. Personally I find it so sad when I witness professional writers choosing full pessimism as their final resting place. According to Keen, Web 2.0 is not about Wisdom of the Crowd, he thinks it is the Rule of the Mob lead by oligarchs such as Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook and Larry Page of Google.

I am right on the hit list of Keen's attack. We launched today a new version of www.strangerfestival.com which links videos by those vicious amateurs thematically and allows just everyone to even comment on them. Already now the thematic map shows fascinating aspects such as the amount of violence compared to religion. Come and have a look.

I get annoyed by attacks such as Keen's which blame user-generated culture for everything from drop in CD sales to falling subsciption rates of newspapers. Keen consciously forgets that at the same time as the Internet fosters blogs which are all about Me-Me-Me, it also creates opportunities for more people to reach quality and share quality. It allows people to gain recognition and creates a sense of belonging. Borrowing an idea of Karen Spaink from today: the goal of videos like the ones in StrangerFestival is not to prove that amateurs are as good as journalists and artists, not at all. We are talking of a new culture which creates its own narratives, frameworks and rules. Sometimes the goal is to change the world, sometimes it is just to share a feeling with friends of like-minded. Sometimes you reveal systematic torture by governments, sometimes you tell about struggling sleepless nights with a newborn, at times you want to show your holiday pictures to your loved ones and sometimes you tell about losing your legs in a bomb in Iraq.

Pessimism like Keen's is easy but not helpful. As Karen Spaink asked smartly:"So should we just tell people to shut up?" Maybe it my studies in political science but according to me this does not sound like spreading democracy, Mr Keen.


TH said...

Great post.

Keen is obviously taking a very extreme view to stir conversation (and promote his book, the cynic/realist would say).

His points are more valid with regards to wikipedia, for instance, where you can (often) say some piece of "information" is either wrong or right. I can't see, however, how that could be extended to art or entertainment, or any form of (political or otherwise) self-expression.

His arguments for quality control ignore the nature of social media, and the fact that the acts of doing and sharing are the key, not the act of evaluating it from the outside, using outsider criteria.

I have to admit, I haven't read the book, but I've heard quite a lot about it, and have to wonder how these wholesale generalisations and oversimplifications are still getting so much attention. At best, it's a very culturally insensitive take on the issue - looking at the web 2.0 from the perspective of the technobubble where access or freedom of expression aren't the issue, high viewer counts and google ad revenues are.

Here's an interesting Silicon valley -take on Keen & wikipedia, with a documentary by the Dutch filmmaker Ijsbrand van Veelen, filmed at the recent Web 2.0 conference in Amsterdam (which you've prob seen already) in Techcrunch.

In this context it's interesting to note that one of wikipedia's founders, Larry Sanger actually declared that wikipedia is broken and can't be fixed, and set up Citizendium, which started from a copy of wikipedia and now tries to improve it, by having stricter editing rules and requires everyone to operate under their real names. Interesting to see how this develops, it seems however that even Sanger has underestimated the power of the crowd in producing high quality content and thus also underestimated the amount of work that would have to be carried out by this more selected bunch of "experts".

Tommi Laitio said...

Yes, the documentary that you refer to was shown yesterday as an introduction to Keen´s lecture. My favourite part of the documentary was the quote from Encyclopaedia Britannica´s former Editor in Chief on Wikipedia:"I cannot be held responsible for correcting a mistake I see."

It reminds me of a comment by a Swedish friend of mine:"In a way the Swedish welfare state is overindividualistic and selfish. We pay a lot of money for someone to care on our behalf." In a way the new paradigms could be seen as returning responsibility for accuracy back to the people.

And you are right in pointing out that Keen's argumentation is shockingly Western without openly acknowledging it.