Andrew Keen is a grumpy old man. The strapline to his new book is: "How Today's Internet Is Killing Our Culture And Assaulting Our Economy". His general thesis is that bloggers, Wikipedia, YouTube and social networking sites are lowering the tone of our news, cultural interests and even our economy.
He alleges that the so-called democratisation of the internet is, at best, "a dictatorship of idiots" and, at worst, an outright con. For example, he quotes a Wall Street Journal analysis of over 25,000 recommendations on social sites such as Digg and Netscape.com. On Digg, which had 900,000 users (at the time), a "tiny coterie" of just 30 users were responsible for a full third of front page stories. In other words, a company can easily manipulate these "democratic" websites.
He reserves special contempt for bloggers who regard themselves as "journalists". "Amateur Journalism trivialises and corrupts serious debate," he writes. "It is... the degeneration of democracy into the rule of the mob and the rumour mill."
Such rumour peddling can lead to a serious distortion of major events. As an example, Keen cites the Hurricane Katrina disaster. Bloggers circulated 'stories' of gang vioence and rapes inside the Superdome, which were later debunked by the traditional media.
Ironically, he writes, it is this rank amateurism among bloggers that often saves them from the rigours of real-world journalism. "Bloggers are rarely sued or prosecuted because the government and corporations don't seem to really care what they write," he says. "As a result, they aren't held responsible for their 'work' the way real reporters are. In contrast, professional journalism matters. Companies sue newspapers and reporters get sent to jail. Professional journalism is hardball. It counts... for all of us."
He also quotes Al Saracevic, deputy business editor of the San Francisco Chronicle, one of the heavyweight newspapers of Silicon Valley. Saracevic regards the blogosphere as a "sideshow, all eyeballs and no real relevance, a poker game played with fake chips".
"It's as if libel law has taken a brief vacation so that citizen journalists can get their feet wet, while trashinig the mainstream media for not speaking truth to power," Saracevic told Keen.
The book is a good, and easy, read. Keen makes some valid points: there are definitely those who are gullible and may believe anything they read online. But there's definitely a tone of 'those silly youngsters' throughout the book, as he trashes Wikipedia and lauds Britannica. 'Know the lessons our betters teach us,' he may as well say.
The Cult Of The Amateur costs about €15 on Amazon.