7/05/2007

KEEN TO TAKE DOWN THE WEB

My Webwalk column from last week about web entrepreneur and author Andrew Keen's book which attacks the social networking and user genrated content trends that have characterised the recent development of the internet.

Andrew Keen's blog is here and reading to see his response to the global furore the book has created.

Keen also links to a very interesting Forbes article about how technology is alienating us. Worth a look...

WEBWALK
by Peter Griffin


He hates MySpace, thinks YouTube contributors are digital narcissists and believes the internet is destroying culture. Web entrepreneur Andrew Keen's book The Cult of the Amateur: How Today's Internet is Killing Our Culture and Assaulting Our Economy hasn't even hit the shelves yet and already it is causing rabid debate around the world.

That's a good thing. We need to have this discussion and Keen the contrarian is right in one respect. There's been far too much euphoric celebration of many of the Web 2.0 services that have emerged in the last couple of years and not enough analysis of how good they actually are, what value they have to society. A victim of the last dotcom crash, Keen knows only too well how an industry can be built on a blast of hot air only to fall flat on its face.

But he goes further. He is fundamentally writing off the value of the digital revolution that is under way in the world. In doing so, he has lost the plot.

What's particularly disturbing is his dismissal of one of the web's most powerful attributes - its ability to give everyone a voice that has a chance of being heard.

As Keen told the Observer newspaper: "In the same way that not everyone should be doctors or teachers or astronauts, not everyone should be an author. Most people do not have anything interesting to say."

Keen pines for the old days when you had to get into the newspaper or on to TV to have your voice heard.

He thinks the fact that a college kid in Cleveland can post an unedited, stand-up comedy routine from his bedroom to the internet for people the world over to see, is pathetic. I think it's powerful.

He dislikes Wikipedia because of its proliferation of pop culture entries and the way the general public can chop and change entries. I think Wikipedia is one of the best general knowledge resources to have emerged on the web.

His book, if the numerous media reports on it are accurate, is a rant about all the bad things on the web: the obsession with the trivial, the lack of objective and coherent debate in the blogosphere, the attempts by advertisers to mimic this amateurish culture to their own ends. Then there's the dark side of the web, the fraudsters, the paedophiles on MySpace posing as teenager girls, the terrorists posting videos of themselves hacking off the heads of their victims.

All of this stuff troubles me as well but, let's face it, we're in the early stages of this radical digital transformation. The web still has a "wild west" element to it. But things will settle down. What has novelty value now won't necessarily hold the same lure in a couple of years' time. In short, we'll mature as a web audience and as a community but, most importantly of all, the web will always remain a fertile testing ground for new ideas.

Anyone working in the culture industry, in movies or TV, newspapers or radio, knows that the richest stories, the best talent come not from within the camp but the shadows surrounding it. The internet has become the world's talent quest.

Keen on the other hand is essentially telling people that their attempts to express themselves are irrelevant. And what of all the good things about the web? Keen seems to forget the progressive things - the Gutenberg Project, Google, greater transparency in the mechanics of Government and business, good blogs, more democratic processes, iTunes, the ability for people to work more efficiently from wherever they are in the world.

What Keen is really venting about, is not the internet's impact on culture, but his dissatisfaction with modern culture in general. His argument has been applied to everything from literature to movies to art, many times over. His concerns may be genuine but the target of his disgust, the internet, isn't the villain. It's a mirror of society.

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