digital reporter

'Amateur' hour upon us, but no need for alarm

Take heart, Hollywood: Andrew Keen feels your pain. He has even gone through the trouble of writing you a 200-page sympathy card in the form of his new book, "The Cult of the Amateur: How Today's Internet Is Killing Our Culture" (Currency/Doubleday), that will be released in June.

Keen, a former dot-com entrepreneur, argues that the phenomenon of user-generated content, particularly blogs and YouTube videos, is overpowering established media players. Consequently, he believes the notion of quality content will be eradicated as the playing field tilts in favor of consumers churning out substandard and erroneous content.

"The monkeys take over," Keen says. "Say goodbye to today's experts and cultural gatekeepers — our reporters, news anchors, editors, music companies and Hollywood movie studios."

"Cult" is a thought-provoking read that couldn't be more timely. The ascension of the Internet has been so dizzying, it barely affords a moment to consider its consequences. But the book also is an alarmist rant akin to Chicken Little running around with his head cut off.

"Cult" casts the Internet as the bogeyman by reeling off a laundry list of its shortcomings. Keen's favorite targets include Wikipedia for disseminating lies, pro-corporate bloggers, silly video sensations like Lonelygirl15 and MySpace-based perverts.

But not only does "Cult" fail to cite a single example of any of the Web's redeeming qualities, it also exhibits a willful naivete — or amnesia — about the TV, movies and music that weren't all exactly Norman Rockwell paintings, either.

Keen finds blogs to be nefarious by nature for warping the truth or shilling for Wal-Mart, and yet he never gets around to mentioning the time Dan Rather's erroneous report on President Bush's military record was corrected in the blogosphere or how local news is awash in paid publicity masquerading as "video news releases."

"Cult" seizes on the Internet as if it represents some kind of quantum leap in cultural degradation, but all the book is really doing is applying a fresh coat of paint to the same hobbyhorses media critics have been riding for decades.

Keen likes to offer scary statistics, like his projection that there will be 500 million blogs by 2010. But what does that mean if 499 million of them will not have significant traffic? And is it possible that a good portion of the remaining blogs that do have an actual audience will be worthwhile?

Keen sees media as a zero-sum world; if viewers are consuming A, the time spent doing that comes at the expense of B. But history has taught us media consumption is much more elastic than that. New mediums are additive: TV didn't kill radio or film; there's enough room for everyone.

What's more, Keen doesn't seem to understand that mainstream media and user-generated content are enjoying a symbiotic existence. Bloggers and amateur videographers spend so much energy reacting to traditional staples of pop culture that they wouldn't have much to do if they didn't exist. Even if mainstream media is dying, Webheads will feed off its bloated carcass for the foreseeable future.

The Viacoms and Time Warners of the world likely will cede some ground to amateur creators. But there is another way professionals and amateurs will co-exist: The best of those amateurs will simply be co-opted by the pros. It isn't quite the either-or equation Keen imagines it to be.

"Cult" applies a blind faith to the media powers that be without ever considering that this creative Internet subculture he rejects is getting traction precisely because the studios, networks, etc., aren't quite perfect, either.