What I haven’t had time to say about the Cult of the Amateur

was said pretty well yesterday at Daily Kos.

Keen tends to claim that the participatory web is destroying traditional media at great cost to our culture.  I’ve always thought that the mainstream media has done a great deal to destroy itself.  And I don’t think I can say it better than this:

The media — newspapers, radio, and television — is not made up of reporters running on a sparkling field of journalistic integrity.  Those reporters are instead embedded in a machine intended to do the one thing that Mr. Keen sets as the mark of professionalism — make money.  And the way the media has chosen to make money over the last few decades is, perversely, by devaluing their own product.

I’m not just annoyed by Keen in interviews and panels.  I think his completely uncritical acceptance of the traditional corporate media as a guarantor of quality is destructive to the very discourse he claims to embrace.  “Debate” about the participatory web that is sparked by arguments like Keen’s tends to look like this:

Andew Keen: But the problem is that gatekeepers — the agents, editors, recording engineers — these are the very engineers of talent. Web 2.0’s distintermediated media unstitches the ecosystem that has historically nurtured talent. Web 2.0 misunderstands and romanticizes talent. It’s not about the individual — it’s about the media ecosystem. Writers are only as good as their agents and editors. Movie directors are only as good as their studios and producers. These professional intermediaries are the arbiters of good taste and critical judgment.

David Weinberger: Actually, I’d suggested you take a look at the Top 40 songs. Of course you’re within your rights to cite the New York Times best-sellers list instead, but that’s indicative of the problem with your method. Are you seriously maintaining that pop culture off line is represented by six good books on the New York Times hardcover non-fiction list? Why do you find it so awkward to acknowledge the obvious point that the gatekeepers of commercial publishing and production — the producers of TV shows, magazines, pop music, movies, books — are usually driven not by high cultural standards, but by the need to reach a broad audience? Do I need to remind you that “The Secret” is likely ultimately to outsell all six of those worthy books combined?

Full-Text: Keen vs. Weinberger (WSJ)

Weinberger, or whoever is engaging with Keen-ish arguments can sit there taking home-run swings at Keen’s blind approval of the “media ecosystem” — making the earth-shattering argument that the mainstream media wants to reach a broad audience and make money.  I want to see what Weinberger says when really pushed about the limits and value of the participatory web.  Keen, regrettably given how much attention the media gives him, never provides that push.

And in libraries, the same thing goes on when Michael Gorman writes on these topics – because he has the same kind of un-critical acceptance of traditional scholarly methods as Keen does of mainstream media producers.  We need serious discussion about the implications of the read/write web for scholarly knowledge production, and that can only happen if we turn the same critical eye on traditional practices as we do on the new.  But as long as one can engage with Gorman by saying “peer review isn’t perfect” – that real discussion doesn’t have to happen.

(For an example of what I mean by “real discussion” – the March issue of First Monday is a good start)

(And let me say that I have a lot more sympathy for Gorman than anyone who would make the claim that movie studios these days, minor subsidiaries of corporate conglomerations as they are, have a clearer picture of quality than directors)

I haven’t read the comments on this piece – I don’t usually see Daily Kos because there’s too much discussion there and I know I won’t resist the comment threads even though I can’t keep up – so thanks to Copyfight for the pointer.

4 thoughts on “What I haven’t had time to say about the Cult of the Amateur

  1. Thanks for passing this on! I’m more likely to read Weinberger than Keen, but so far I kind of think they’re both hacks.

    I spent some time with a newspaper photographer this weekend, and, clearly, money was not his motivation. He took pictures of anything that “the public might be interested in”. The story is going to run in a fluff section (or perhaps even a fluff supplement), and yet, the photographer was still chiefly interested in promoting democracy.

    And according to the Daily Kos, he does this because he’s embedded in a machine. Or, to my mind, he was hamming it up a bit, but still, it got me thinking that vis a vis democracy, the role of newspapers is not all that different than the role of public libraries.

    I recently read the New Yorker’s article covering newspapers and the early 20th-century debate over democracy and newspapers. Given that an informed citizenship able to make democratic decisions is very far from the truth, should we junk the system and give that responsibility to a trusted few (as Walter Lippman argued), or promote democracy through conversation (as John Dewey argued)?

    I see Keen and Weinberger duplicating part of this debate, only here, discussion is the problem, not anyone’s solution. Keen argues against a discussion that includes amateurs and Weinberger argues that we should move to a discussion that is more centrally controlled.

    Excluding amateurs, or sorting them out, it amounts to the same thing, kind of like putting ‘And Tango Makes Two’ in the adult fiction section so kids can’t find it on their own.

    Saying all that, of course, as a hack myself.

  2. I can’t really weigh in on the who’s less wrong between Keen & Weinberger – well that’s a lie. I’m pretty sure Keen is more wrong. I’ve been reading Margaret’s copy of Everything is Miscellaneous only in the sense that “reading” = “occasionally seeing it under some magazines on the coffee table.”

    I may have to do a little more work in that are, though, because I am intrigued by the connections to democracy and the idea that they end up in the same essential place in so far as discussion and discourse are concerned. I don’t know Weinberger’s argument enough to see that or not for myself.

    But the idea that libraries and newspapers play similar roles re: democracy also freaks me completely out because — how well could we do what we do if the same few, for-profit, probably located really far away, answering to people who may or may not care at all about democracy or anything else we care about professionally owned us all?

    If Tribune owned the Chicago Public Library and the LA Public Library and a dozen or so other smaller systems? Or the NYT owned both New York and Boston? And that doesn’t even get to Gannett – in this tortured analogy they’d own 91 systems across most of the country. I looked it up! I wonder what kind of impact i could have as an individual in a context like that?

    Because that’s what I liked about the DK piece – I didn’t think he was saying that the reporters and photographers are doing these things because they are embedded in a machine. I thought he was saying that when they are doing these things they are embedded in a machine and that that machine inherently imposes constraints.

    Which is why Keen bugs me so much – he refuses to acknowledge that sometimes people turn away from the media because the product sucks, it doesn’t do its job. And he does it in such a ham-fisted way that he stifles discourse on the topic. Weinberger may do so as well – I don’t know if he’s smart or not because it doesn’t take much to argue better than Keen.

    But you, Caleb – you are an anti-hack!

  3. We are suckers if approach the problems of free speech on Keen’s terms. Maybe what’s bothering me about Weinberger is that he seems to like taking the bait.

    I was commenting only on the discussion in the WSJ article. I haven’t read Weinberger’s books or Keen’s either. Hence, a hack. Dilettante, maybe?

    I also had Everything is Miscellaneous on the coffee table, until the stack of library books got too tall and I moved it to the floor. I started reading it yesterday, but I put it down after the intro chapter and decided to renew it again.

    But after the introduction, he’s already got me teeming with the idea that people don’t ask for help because they “view it as a personal failure”. Hopefully, he’ll redeem that segment later.

    I think I am also unfair in comparing Weinberger to subversive censorship in libraries. It’s probably better to compare his discussion of “gatekeepers” directly to libraries.

    Already, libraries are deep in the myth that we provide access to information. Sometimes we do, but most of the information we provide access to is from a list of books that has been filtered by book vendors choosing publishers and publishers choosing authors and titles. In this way, libraries are a trusted gatekeeper of knowledge.

    If this is how we’re supposed to deal with the multitude of voices online, I think the model needs improvement. People *do* respond to trusted online gatekeepers / aggregators – Huffington Post, Pitchfork, Slashdot, info-fetishist (they come in so many forms). I hear Weinberger saying we need better and more official gatekeepers, but I don’t think it makes sense to turn the web into a pyramid, even if we can essentially build our own. There has to be information flowing the other way, and side-to-side, and askew.

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