Cult of the Amateur, full of holes, great read!

If you tend to get pulled into discussions about the pros and cons of social media, Andrew Keen’s The cult of the amateur is a good book to get you all fired up. It is full of holes, plenty of hyperbole, and comes across as an angry dissertation by someone who wanted to get things off his chest in a hurry. But that’s precisely why it’s important to check it out.

These are the kind of arguments someone in the room will bring up when debating whether comments ought to be moderated, or the management team should care about comments by the ’stupid public’ in relation to a YouTube video.

Keen is the kind of person who would have dismissed Abraham Zapruder’s film as unreliable and amateurish, just because he was not a real journalist. Keen is very passionate about the morphing or passing away of the old media. Some of what he observes is accurate, about the digital economy, the downside of internet as an economic and communication conduit. The usual suspects are paraded: click fraud, Google bombing, anonymous YouTube videos (like the Penguin attack on Al Gore by a PR firm), online gambling, fake blogs etc.

For every Perez Hilton and Matt Drudge, bottom-up distribution through blogs, podcasts, Flickr and Digg has created discourse about journalism and law, for instance –from the likes of Jeff Jarvis, Lawrence Lessig and Glen Reynolds. He omits mention of how the pajama bloggers he vilifies fact-checked and checkmated Dan Rather. He would be terribly upset that NBC anchor, Brian Williams writes a blog, and that the queen of England released her Christmas day message through the same democratized distribution network that amateurs upload content, YouTube.

But Cult’s true weakness is in mixing up his argument about amateurism, with an argument about all things digital. To suggest that YouTube, Google, iTunes and Craigslist is causing the extinction of newspapers, television and record labels misses the reality about how these older media were structured, and how some of them failed to respond to changing audience behavior and interests. Smart journalists realize that this isn’t the slippery slope, and that they could adapt. A few weeks ago Dan Shearer, senior editor of the Mesa Republic hailed a citizen reporter for being the first responder with information and pictures of a church fire.

“Ignorance meets bad taste meets mob rule” does fit some of the awful content that passes for entertainment and news, but we haven’t said bye bye to the experts and gatekeepers. It’s just that they are different, and operate differently. To me this has nothing to do with the democratization of media; it’s what we have put up for years on (sigh) the six-o-clock news on television, long before the digital tsunami hit.

Just for the record this is the lens through which Keen sees social media:

  • Amazon: “chief slayer of the independent book store”
  • YouTube: “a large commercial break”
  • Google: a “parasite,” and “an electronic mirror of ourselves”
  • Pastors who research sermons online are “plagiarists;” Lessig is “misguided;” the internet is a “moral hazard.”

There is hope. The last chapter, Solutions, does offer some ideas as to what could be done to save the world from going to hell in a hand-basket. But I won’t spoil it for you. It’s a book I still believe everyone, even those mildly involved in media and communications, ought to read, after Wikinomics. When looking up Wikinomics on Amazon, Keen’s book does not come up as “Customers who bought this item also bought,” recommendation. But then the “chief slayer of the independent bookstore” wouldn’t be reliable, would it?

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