The blog-dimmed tide is loosed!

The backlash against Web 2.0 in all its manifestations — blogging, Wikipedia, “user-generated content,” citizen journalism and so on — seems to be hitting full tilt.

At the front of this parade, debating anyone he can persuade to share a podium, is Andrew Keen, author of The Cult of the Amateur. Keen’s critique has already raised mountains of ire, from people including Dan Gillmor, Dave Winer, and Terry Heaton (who calls it “a whining, outrageous and defensive fantasy based on sweeping generalizations, falsehoods, paranoia and a form of condescension so pissy that it blinds the author to anything resembling reality”). I’m still planning to read the book soon and I’ll let you know whether I agree.

Next comes Nick Carr, who’s got a new book heading our way titled The Big Switch: Our New Digital Destiny. Carr is a contrarian by nature who often takes a cynical view of Web 2.0 phenomena a la Keen, but from what I can tell his book intends a more high-altitude portrait of the transformation of computing from a desktop-centric world to the Web-based universe.

Then there is Michael Gorman, the American Library Association honcho known for his broadsides against “the Blog People.” Gorman turns up this week in a “Web 2.0 Forum” organized by the Encyclopedia Britannica, which has been wrestling with the challenges it faces — intellectual, financial and institutional — in the wake of Wikipedia’s success. Gorman sees the rise of Web 2.0-style interaction ushering in a new dark ages, a “Sleep of Reason” –which, Goya fans know, “begets monsters.”

Keen and Carr are both participating in this forum as well. It couldn’t be that Britannica is stacking its expert deck, now, could it? Perhaps they should invite Kevin Kelly, whose civil but devastating retorts to Keen in this dialogue deserve wider currency. (Clay Shirky is in there, at any rate, handily dismantling Gorman’s self-contradictions.)

In any case, this is an important debate, worth mulling over — however crude some of the original contributions may be — and it’s not going to end any time soon. Early next year, for instance, we’ll get a new book on a similar theme from my Salon colleague Farhad Manjoo (now blogging as Salon’s Machinist). Farhad’s book examines similar questions of authority, trust and credibility in new media as Keen, but he does so less as a culture critic than through the lens of social science and psychology. (I’ve had the pleasure of reading an early manuscript, and though I don’t agree with everything in it, it’s a wonderful read, full of insight and valuable nuggets of research.)

Regardless of how you feel about all these issues, it’s hard to miss one meta-elephant in the room: The members of this phalanx of Web 2.0 cynics have all chosen to deliver their critiques via the very form that their rhetoric detests. Keen promotes his book from his blog. Carr weaves his ideas on his blog. Gorman explains what’s wrong with the “Blog People,” where? On a blog hosted by Britannica.

What’s the thinking here: First join them, then beat them?

However dangerous to the polity the tools of Web 2.0 may be, it seems that they are perfectly well-suited to providing a platform for assaults upon themselves. Which tells me that they may be considerably more resilient, and socially salutary, than their critics allow.
[tags]web 2.0, andrew keen, cult of the amateur, nicholas carr, michael gorman, encyclopedia britannica[/tags]

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  1. The members of this phalanx of Web 2.0 cynics have all chosen to deliver their critiques via the very form that their rhetoric detests.

    …which leads, for me, to a larger question. Let’s say that Britannica has indeed stacked the deck. What does that accomplish? If the people on the dais “prove” that Web 2.0 is somehow invalid or inadequate, does Google Maps stop working? Isn’t this sort of the equivalent of the guys on ESPN arguing before the game about who’s going to win? If Tom Jackson is more persuasive in his arguments that the Broncos will win that afternoon, but then they lose anway, what exactly has he accomplished?

  2. Joel Norvell

    My Grandfather used to say “If you don’t have anything nice to say about someone, then don’t say it.” But with the inimitable Rageboy, it’s an art form unto itself (contains adult language).

    My Grandfather also used to say “You can catch more flies with honey than you can with vinegar.” If he were still alive, I’d have ask him why would you want to catch flies anyway?

  3. Nick: Glad to hear it. A phalanx is a disciplined, tight formation, so maybe it wasn’t the best image here. Then again, perhaps this is an emergent, Web 2.0-ish phalanx…

    Joel: And then wasn’t it Dorothy Parker who said, “if you can’t say something nice, come over and sit by me”?

  4. Morgan wrote:

    Let’s say that Britannica has indeed stacked the deck. What does that accomplish?

    Well, absolutely nothing. Which is why we’ve invited people who don’t agree with Gorman, like Shirky and for that matter Nick Carr.

    And please read Matthew Battles’ piece if you think we’re being phalanx-centric. I can’t believe the guy’s not famous. Or is he and I just don’t know it?

  5. Then again, perhaps this is an emergent, Web 2.0-ish phalanx…

    Yes, a swarm phalanx. Or, as I like to say, a swarmlanx.

    Is available?

  6. I saw Keen in a similar debate at Personal Democracy Forum 2007: On one side was Scobble and Craig Newmark. On the other, Keen and ridding the waves between the two was Clay Shirkey.

    I have to give credit to Keen. In a room filled with web 2.0 evangelists — he stood his ground. I was waiting for people to throw rotten fruit at him.

    But the whole debate seemed like a Red Herring to me. For one, Keen was out to sell books via provoking. More important Keen is an extremist (at least, that’s how he came off to me). I think there are valid concerns and issues that he brings up. But “how the amateur is killing our culture and our economy.” — seems a bit dramatic.

    Granted: I’m bias in the other direction — having been involved in a project that banked completely on user generated content and currently helping to research a book on “crowdsourcing.” But at least I recognize my extremities.


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