Amateur hour

“Is it always like this?” A business acquaintance who I chatted with briefly at the Berkeley Cybersalon earlier this evening asked me as the panel discussion — titled “New Media Wars: Amateur versus Auteur” — wound down.

“Quite often, actually,” I answered him.

I assumed he was referring to the heated back-and-forth between the attendees and the panelists — and, occasionally, among the panelists themselves (Dan Gillmor, Katie Hafner, Robert Scoble and Andrew Keen). The event’s hook was Keen’s new book, “The Cult of the Amateur.” Keen’s self-described “polemic” is not yet available, and I haven’t read it, so I won’t comment directly on it. But the book’s subtitle tells you where Keen’s coming from: “How today’s Internet is killing our culture.”

Keen said his book was “designed as a grenade,” but this wasn’t really an explosive discussion — partly because, hey, nobody except the people on the panel had had a chance to read his book, but even more because the whole discussion was fragmented into the many shards of today’s complex debate over “old vs. new media.” There is no one argument — instead, many cross-conversations. And they were all represented tonight.

There’s “What’s wrong with the professional media”: Many people still get much of their information from the pros, but they feel more and more that the professional media either (a) doesn’t portray the world the way they see it (Kaliya Hamlin said she was at the Seattle WTO protests in 1999, and what she saw isn’t what the New York Times reported); or (b) gets too much factual stuff wrong to deserve its pedestal. Blogging, Dave Winer told the journalists in the room, is simply “your sources going around the blockage.”

There’s “what’s wrong with blogging”: Bloggers typically work alone, they don’t have travel budgets and editors, they lack both the institutional framework and the professional tradition to support the creation of a full report on the events of the world. Keen’s critique goes further; he says bloggers are “either irreverent, narcissistic or pornographic.” (I think he probably meant “irrelevant” but was typing too fast. Or maybe, in Keen’s world — he advocates a grand restoration of elite authority — “irreverent” is a put-down.)

There’s “how do we rescue journalism now that the business model is falling apart” — complete with mentions of newsroom layoffs, arguments about Craigslist’s impact on classified ad revenue, and laments about the importance of rescuing in-depth journalism from the wreckage of the newspaper business.

These conversations are happening almost exclusively among media people and media obsessives. Meanwhile there’s a wider conversation taking place on the Net among bloggers and participants in Web communities that has very little to do with journalism at all; it’s basically people talking to one another. At several points in the discussion tonight people got up to make this point, including one woman (I didn’t catch her name; she talked about participating in the community of mother-bloggers) who said, “I don’t know what Internet you guys are on” — and wondered how what she was doing could be considered narcissistic when so much of it involved paying attention to other people’s stories.

These conversations are all taking place orthogonally, and progress is limited. Indeed, the discussion tonight dribbled off into a consensus embrace of the notion of “media literacy”: the media have degenerated, so now, it seems, the consumers of media had better shape up!

Of course, the smarter people are at evaluating what they read, the better. But saying the answer to the crisis in journalism today is “better media literacy” is like saying the answer to the crisis in education is “better learning skills.”

Keen has lobbed his bombs before — and in the same place, yet — but I find it hard to take them seriously. (I should mention that he did a podcast interview with me about my book — and he’s charming when he’s not lobbing grenades and building stockades around the ancien regime.) I don’t think he honestly believes that, as his book’s subtitle has it, “The Internet is killing our culture.” Ironically, of course, Keen himself used his own blog as a launch pad for his ideas. He admitted tonight that he is, himself, an “amateur writer.” He claims to be motivated by a desire to “annoy libertarians of the left and libertarians of the right.”

Something tells me he might win a little less attention but a lot more credibility if he stopped trying so hard to annoy. There must be some valuable criticism lodged among all the bluster. When I read “The Cult of the Amateur” I’ll let you know what I find. But I can tell you right now that a book I have read — David Weinberger’s Everything is Miscellaneous — offers persuasive (and entertaining!) counter-arguments to those of Keen’s blunderbuss Internet put-downs that I’ve already heard.

UPDATE: I’d forgotten that Winer posted a review of Keen’s book way back in February:

His book, while based on an important and valuable premise, that Silicon Valley is too-much admired for the good of all of us, including the tech industry, fails to enlighten while he props up the egos of obsolete people and businesses. Each of his arguments is easily refuted, too easily.

FURTHER UPDATE: The blogger who asked “what Internet you guys are on” (and who made what I thought was one of the most valuable contributions of the evening) is Grace Davis.

OTHER REPORTS: Dan Farber; Robert Scoble; Renee Blodget.

[tags]berkeley cybersalon, andrew keen, blogging, cult of the amateur[/tags]

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  1. Bloggers don’t have the travel budget, but we don’t need it, because we’re already there.

    Reporters think we’re trying to be what they are, but this is wrong, false, incorrect.

    We’re the sources.

    I wrote about this first, interestingly, in response to a Salon press release saying you guys were sending a reporter to Bosnia (I think). I said, we’re already there.

    It’s an important perspective-shift, that was what was wrong in most of the comment on the panel last night, they saw things from the point of view of reporters, even Scoble does this these days. Bloggers are not reporters. Not not not.

  2. Dan Twardzick

    Umm, that “Winer review” you point to was nothing of the sort. Come on, now. Even in this incredibly dumbed down era, a few lines of poorly constructed prose does not substitute for a review. That’s fact. And my opinion is that Winer’s a lightweight. His tired critiques of the establishment press seem fired by some deep sense of hurt (from his earlier experience as a Apple developer?) that he can’t get over


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