Andrew Keen sounds a bit ticked off. It’s been twice already that citizen journalists have scheduled interviews to talk about his new book, “The Cult of the Amateur.” And twice they’ve canceled on him. This doesn’t bode well for citizen journalism, says the author and Internet executive who rails against social media.
“It probably reflects the inadequacy of amateur media,” he says over the phone on Wednesday – in the third attempt at the interview. “No excuses.”
Keen worries about amateur media – and its many monikers: blogging, citizen journalism, social media, Web 2.0 and user-generated content. The flood of blogging increases the likelihood that misinformation and poor quality will prevail on the Web, Keen says. The lack of editing and the dearth of expertise compound the problem.
His book, “The Cult of the Amateur: How Today’s Internet Is Killing Our Culture,” debuted in June and ranks 5,930 in sales on Amazon.com’s book list. In it, Keen writes that egalitarian media creation is “threatening the very future of our cultural institutions.” Amateurs can’t write whatever they want – especially on topics like Iraq – because their facts, expertise and judgment are suspect, he says.
“You can’t sit in your underpants in Indiana and blog about Iraq,” Keen says over the phone, noting that such efforts shouldn’t be taken seriously. “It’s not edited. That’s the other problem.”
Keen wasn’t always a skeptic. A self-described Internet entrepreneur who founded the short-lived Web venture AudioCafe.com in 1996, he dubs himself a Web 1.0 pioneer. He participated in what he calls a “Russian Revolution” of Internet media.
He writes in his book that he drank the participatory media Kool-Aid and started believing that a backlash against traditional news outlets and a democratization of media was essential.
But it was in 2004, at a media counterculture summit in California, that Keen realized participatory media was, as he says, “useless.” He worries that a rush of blogging is having deleterious effects on information consumption. But it’s not the tools, he maintains; it’s how people use them.
“I’m not against the technology… I’ve got nothing against blogging, in itself, but it’s always going to be second to professionals who get paid,” Keen says. “I don’t have a problem with people expressing themselves, but most of these are just electronic diaries.”
Does Keen have specific examples of sites that truly bother him?
* YouTube: “(It) reflects the confusion of advertising and content. I’m troubled that this is becoming one long commercial break (with content and advertising combined).”
* MySpace: “Adolescently sexualized chaos.”
* Wikipedia: “I’m troubled that I don’t know who the editors are. If they revealed their editorial board, I’d be much more sympathetic.”
Keen concedes he has criticism of the mainstream media, too.
“I acknowledge that the mainstream media is an ideal,” Keen says. He’s disturbed, he notes, by the shallower end of the pool, pointing to “American Idol” and other reality television shows.
The debate about mainstream media is one of the most crucial points in the book. In a follow-up paperback version of “The Cult of the Amateur,” due out in 2008, Keen will address the mainstream media more closely. He will also add a chapter on politics and re-work the introduction.
He’s a bit surprised by his book’s audience. He says he’s often pegged as a conservative but considers himself a liberal. And it’s mostly liberals older than 40 who subscribe to his views. The reaction to his work, he says, has been explosive and has “touched very raw nerves” of people who both agree and disagree with him.
Feedback to “The Cult of the Amateur” has been “extremely positive – remarkably positive.” He claims that “it’s having a massive impact around the world” and notes that teachers, parents and traditional media outlets have been most supportive.
But participatory journalism and blogging can be effective, Keen admits, particularly at the local level. He points to the role blogging and the citizenry played in unearthing the Duke lacrosse scandal. But it’s the stories larger in scope – he mentions Iraq and Walter Reed – that bloggers can’t tackle.
“They don’t have a good track record,” Keen says. “They don’t have the resources.”
But professionals have had their problems, too. Do recent scandals involving journalists – most notably Jason Blair and Dan Rather – underscore theories that mainstream pros can’t be trusted?
“One would find in any profession that there are always going to be corrupt individuals,” Keen says.
He offers an example: Barry Bonds may have used drugs, but that doesn’t mean that all baseball players are bad.
“I think the blogosphere is full of well-intentioned people… (but) the reality about the blogosphere is that no one is investigating it. If they did, they’d find (hundreds of) Jason Blairs,” he says, referring to the former New York Times reporter who fabricated articles. But, Keen says, “99.9 percent of New York Times journalists are very credible.”
Another big distinction is pay. Keen says citizen journalists should receive monetary compensation, if a media corporation is publishing their work.
“You should be paid for your labor,” he says. “I think the creative people should be selfish.”
He advises young, aspiring journalists to intern at established media companies or to attend journalism school rather than jump head-first into the blogosphere.
“What we’re seeing is challenges to traditional forms of authority,” Keen says. “The Internet is the first example of this playing out. You can’t blame the Internet. It’s just a mirror. When we look at it, we see ourselves.”