Web 2.0 seems to have been careering along for some time now with much of the irrational exuberance of Web 1.0 - and I've been increasingly puzzled by the curious absence of challenge. To take the phenomenon of blogging alone: surely anyone, irrespective of age, who was nicely brought up with some respect for accuracy, scholarship, confirmed sources, expert authority and concision must have felt at least slightly uneasy at the apparently unstoppable multiplication of self-obsessed bloggers? Seventy million of them at the last count (which was five minutes ago), at least another 10,000 since, and almost without exception, endless, aimless, shapeless, baseless and worthless.
Perhaps, I thought, everyone out there felt like me: so determined not to be branded reactionary old bigots that we kept our growing apprehensions to ourselves.
Now here's a book that confirms and compounds my every silent doubt. Its subtitle says it all: ‘How today's internet is killing our culture and assaulting our economy.'
Ex-pat Andrew Keen is no reactionary old bigot. A self-confessed pioneer in the first internet gold rush, he founded one of the first digital music sites, audiocafe.com. His book, in his own words, is ‘the work of an apostate, an insider now on the outside who has… resigned his membership of the cult'. Had he not resigned, he'd certainly have been thrown out by now.
Bloggers remind him of TH Huxley and his theory that, if provided with an infinite number of typewriters, an infinite number of monkeys would eventually write Hamlet. But instead of creating masterpieces, these millions of bloggers, ‘many with no more talent than our primate cousins, are creating an endless digital forest of mediocrity… Blogs have become so dizzyingly infinite that they've undermined our sense of what is true and what is false, what is real and what is imaginary. These days, kids can't tell the difference between credible news by objective professional journalists and what they read on joeshmoe.blogspot.com.'
Then there's Wikipedia: ‘The blind leading the blind, infinite monkeys providing infinite information for infinite readers, perpetuating the cycle of misinformation and ignorance.' And: ‘YouTube eclipses even the blogs in the inanity and absurdity of its content.'
Furthermore, and ‘gravest of all, the very traditional institutions that have helped to foster and create our news, our music, our literature, our television shows and our movies are under assault as well'. Thanks to the migration of advertising from the printed media to internet sites that offer free classifieds, ‘Newspapers, the most reliable existing source of information about the world we live in', are ‘facing extinction'.
Says Keen: ‘One chilling reality in this brave new digital epoch is the blurring, obfuscation and even disappearance of truth… But perhaps the biggest casualties of the Web 2.0 revolution are real businesses with real products, real employees, and real shareholders… Our culture is essentially cannibalising its young, destroying the very sources of the content they crave.'
All these excerpts come from the first 30 pages of The Cult of the Amateur - and Keen, relentlessly, returns to the same points over and over again. And that's what makes reading this book such a strange journey.
To start with, my small internal voice was crying: ‘Yes! Yes! Yes! Just as I always suspected!' And I found myself uncritically convinced by the evidence presented - even eager to hear it. But then, quite gradually, that eager acceptance became a lot less eager and I found myself moving into questioning mode. That small internal voice began to say: ‘Hey, wait a moment. This is all a bit doomsday, isn't it? Can you see no light at all?'
It's hard to disagree with Keen's analysis of the status quo. All the threats he so convincingly itemises are undoubtedly real. But he seems to have strangely little faith in the human ability to self-correct.
Yes, quite soon, there will be 500 million blogs - and almost all of them will be of interest only to their authors. But a tiny few of them will be wonderful - and they'll somehow become known. Finding needles in haystacks is one of the things that the internet is best at.
Yes, there will be a continued blurring of distinction between editorial and advertising; and smartass marketing companies will slyly present their corporate messages in the duplicitous hope that they'll be taken for spontaneous user-generated content. But - I fervently believe - they won't get away with it for long. We all need trusted guides, and never more than in the immediate future. New experts and new authorities will bubble up from the marshes of mediocrity and will not only be welcomed but will make money. And, yes, traditional media will continue to be challenged by all these upstarts - and will need, as they have for a couple of hundred years already, to re-position, re-group, and re-market themselves.
Despite its doom-laden and repetitive tone, The Cult of the Amateur needed to be written and it needs to be read. The indignant wrath it has provoked from the blogging community, even before publication, already justifies its existence. One blog I stumbled on read, hilariously: ‘I'd never heard of this guy [Keen] until Doc Searls wrote about his new book, The Cult of the Amateur. I've ordered the thing, because it's important for me to read this stuff, even though I can tell you it's all bullshit.'
As Keen might have responded: ‘I rest my case.'
The Cult of the Amateur: How today's internet is killing our culture and assaulting our economy is published by Nicholas Brealey Publishing at £12.99