A couple of days ago I came across a review of Andrew Keen‘s book The Cult of the Amateur. As in Keen‘s (must read!) debate with Chris Anderson (podcast) he is making the point that today’s internet — Web 2.0 — is killing our culture because the traditional gatekeepers are being removed, opening cultural, economic, and political life up to amateurs. With a negative impact on quality, as the crowd would only be able to produce mediocrity. To quote Keen in his own words from his debate with Anderson:
“I still think that the wisdom that I value — the scarcity, to put it in economic terms — is not in the crowd, but in people with talent and experience, whether they exist in political life, in economic life or cultural life.”
To defend the pre-Web 2.0 state of affairs that Keen prefers two conditions would have to be true:
- The people in the gatekeeper positions are people with talent and experience, enabling them to discover all the other talent in an effective way and foster it efficiently
- The result of this process is output of high quality
Just focusing on publishing as one example of the cultural life this is clearly not the case (as previously discussed):
- the traditional process of screening new authors and estimating the sales is clearly neither effective nor efficient: a lot of talent goes undiscovered, as the process of discovery is not only based on talent and not all talent is getting through; a lot of other talent is overestimated (at least from a sales point of view), resulting in return rates of about 40% on average
- as everybody familiar with the bestseller lists can attest they are not really a beacon for literary excellence, since the publishing houses are not operating in an economical vacuum and therefore have to publish what sells — to the crowds, who are by Keen‘s terms responsible for mediocrity in the Web 2.0 environment; I argue that because economic rational dictates what gets published and what doesn’t today the same is already true in the pre-Web 2.0 world
These obvious shortcomings in today’s publishing are at the heart of what we are trying to solve with quilp — to be launched shortly — and what I believe the technologies around Web 2.0 are best suited to enable people to do. I therefore couldn’t disagree more with Keen‘s argument, neither with his underlying observation that the current process is effective and ensures quality nor with the assumption that quality has to suffer if this process is opened up to amateurs.
I believe that there is a tremendous amount of unused creative potential out there that we can tap into and open up to everybody by providing the right tools as an enabler for sharing and evaluating ideas without outdated bottlenecks.
Strangely enough, at the same time that Keene favors a few gatekeepers over selections by the crowds he cites an article from the Wall Street Journal to prove his point: of the 900,000 registered users at Digg.com, only 30 were responsible for submitting one-third of the postings on the home page. Isn’t this the selection by the few experts that he is so fond of? Or is it a question about the authority of being an expert? But who is better suited to determine who the expert is in a certain field — a few employees at a publisher or newspaper or a crowd of people especially interested in a specific topic?
I think what Keen really wants to stress with this quote is the room for manipulation he is seeing in amateurs vs. professionals, their hidden agendas. If I recall the events that lead to the current war in Iraq correctly, however, it is the professional media that has been mislead the most and the independent amateurs that were giving a voice to a more pluralistic debate. That the professional media should be immune to hidden agendas especially if they are owned by arms industry magnates like in France (Lagardere, Dassault) is highly questionable, as Jürgen Altwegg points out in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung (July 4th, 2007); the internet, as Altwegg — a professional journalist by Keene‘s standards — argues, gives more room for tough questions, putting more pressure on journalists in turn to address these issues.
As Surowiecki points it out in his excellent book The Wisdom of Crowds there are certain elements required to make a crowd’s decision wise. Arguing against or in favor of crowdsourcing in general terms therefore doesn’t make a lot of sense. The design of the tools enabling this process is crucial for the value it manages to provide.
P.S. Funny enough, I only came across the review of Keen‘s book debating the value of crowdsourcing through one of my favorite crowdsourcing tools: using the affinities with other readers which I discovered through my favorites on del.icio.us I can now quickly filter millions of documents, as other gatekeepers which I determined as being relevant to my interests are doing the filtering for me.
Update (July 7th, 2007):
There has been quite some coverage of this topic recently – some interesting links:
- Tech Nation interview with Andrew Keen (podcast) (June 14th, 2007)
- Does the Internet Undermine Culture? (podcast) (June 16th, 2007)
- Andrew Keen in a TechNow interview (video) (July 2nd, 2007)
- The internet is impurifying our precious bodily fluids, Mandrake (July 6th, 2007)
- KCRW radio debate (Keen, Jardin, Sanger, Shirky – podcast) (July 6th, 2007)
Update (July 10th, 2007):
“A Luddite argument is one in which some broadly useful technology is opposed on the grounds that it will discomfit the people who benefit from the inefficiency the technology destroys. An argument is especially Luddite if the discomfort of the newly challenged professionals is presented as a general social crisis, rather than as trouble for a special interest.” Clay Shirky in Andrew Keen: Rescuing ‘Luddite’ from the Luddites (July 9th, 2007)
And here another post by Clay Shirky, quoting Scott Bradner: “The Internet means you don’t have to convince anyone else that something is a good idea before trying it. The upshot is that the internet’s output is data, but its product is freedom.” (July 10th, 2007)
Update (July 20th, 2007):
The Good, the Bad, And the ‘Web 2.0’ (Andrew Keen and David Weinberger in Wall Street Journal; July 18th, 2007)