Andrew Keen – The cult of the amateur – Book review by Tony Fish

By Tony Fish

Tony fish, co-author of Mobile Web 2.0

Source: Tony Fish on etribes

Andrew Keen – The cult of the amateur – how today’s internet is killing our culture and assaulting our economy.

This is a great read as it is the counter balance to the O’Reilly message and excitement over social networking and user generated content, and if for that reason alone – read it.

I suffer with the assumptions, the logic and overall lack of deep coherent strategic thinking. Given the recognition of change – to address the change from one direction (traditional media) without the suggestion that other (tech, telecom, web and mobile) could be the benefactor of the change is naive. It is an ivory tower defence of his own industry and suggests that this should survive above all others.

There is a premise that an amateur is an amateur and will always be an amateur in every context. The book does not recognise a specialist or expert. An expert in one field should not cross the divide and try to move into media. I am not sure when an amateur becomes an expert, where does the ability come from to make a judgement of taste vs talent? Why is a director or editor so good – because he amateur consumers read it and like it – voting with cash. But they are only good or an expert why there is money to be made – this argument is never put forward.

Whilst there is an abundance of criticism of the ‘free business model’ and user generated content from an ‘amateur’ there is no suggestion of a better model. The question you are left with is so what. This is a defence of the existing job and own career and not positioned to punch through to the next level.

There is an underlying belief that all amateur content is rubbish and that the professionals are the only ones who can produce results – there is no difference between news and opinion. Keen never brings out a case where the amateur has caused, to the mainstream medias’ embarrassment, revelations that what they promoted as fact was a lie. WhiteWashGate

Keen ignores the fact that cost saved in one business area is either passed on as profit and increasing wealth to shareholders or diverted into some other budget. Whilst a travesty that adverting lost out on one model, Google gained on the other – there is a need for a balance, especially when my pension fund is at stake.

On page 69, Keen is right to point out that amateur claims are dangerous, but the belief that two governors, four congressmen, three former white house officials and two special counsels are more trust worthy or without bias. If they were (trustworthy) the news industry would be dead! The question is about motivation, not trust!

Perhaps the reason that most of the UGC is rubbish is that we have all read too much mainstream media, watched too much TV ? Where is the responsibility for the education level. Further the book assumes that the news reporters are of a higher moral standing than everyone else. Why then sensational headlines? What sells?

Another assumption is because it works (media) keep it. I am so glade we stuck at the steam train!

I am not sure that surveillance is the issue, capture, sharing and analysis are. People have always watched other people, it is just there is now a mechanism for perfect recall. Everyone Knows.

My favourite bits

Page 7

It’s hardly surprising that the increasingly tasteless nature of such self-advertisements has led to an infestation of anonymous sexual predators and paedophiles

Page 9

Old media is facing extinction. But if so, what will take its place? Apparently, it will be Silicon Valley’s hot new search engines, social media sites, and video portal. Every new page on MySpace, every new blog post, every new YouTube video adds up to another potential source of advertising revenue lost to the main stream media

Page 14

Audience and author had become one, and we were transforming culture into cacophony (discord, disharmony)

Page 17

Truth, to paraphrase Tom Friedman, is being “flattened”, as we create an on-demand, personalised version that reflects our individual myopia. One person’s truth becomes as “true” as anyone else’s. Today’s media is shattering the world into a billion personalized truths, each seemingly equally valid and worthwhile.

Page 20

Truth and trust are the whipping boys of the web 2.0 revolution

Page 21

As Marshall Poe observed in the September 2006 issue of the Atlantic “ We tend to think of truth as something that resides in the world. The fact that two plus two equals four is written in the stars…. But wikkipedia suggests a different theory of truth. Just think about the way we learn what words mean… the community decides that two plus two equals four the same way it decides what an apple is, by consensus. Yes, that means that it the community changes its mind and decides that two plus two equals five, then two plus two does equal five. The community isn’t likely to do such an absurd or useless thing, but it has the ability”

Page 23

Our attitudes about “authorship,” too, are undergoing a radical change as a result of today’s demorcratized Internet culture, In a world in which audience and author are increasingly indistinguishable, and where authenticity is almost impossible to verify, the idea of original authorship and intellectual property has been seriously compromised.

Page 23

This nebulous definition of ownership, compounded by the ease in which we can cut and paste other people’s work to make it appear as if it’s ours, has resulted in a troubling new permissiveness about intellectual property.

Page 25

The liquid version of a book

Page 27

This blurring of liners between the audience and the author, between fact and fiction, between invention and reality further obscures objectivity. The cult of the amateur has made it increasingly difficult to determine the difference between reader and writer, between artist and spin doctor, between art and advertisement, between amateur and expert. The result? The decline of the quality and reliability of the information we receive, thereby distorting, if not outrightly corrupting, our national civic conversation.

Page 28

Our culture is essentially cannibalizing its young, destroying the very sources of the content they crave.

Page 28

You the consumer as the creator

Page 29

But while there may be infinite typewriters, there is a scarcity of talent, expertise, experience, and mastery in any given field. Finding and nurturing true talent is a sea of amateurs may the real challenge in today’s Web 2.0 world.

Page 32

The real challenge in Anderson’s long tail market of infinite shelf space is finding what to read, listen to, or watch. If you think the choice in your local record store is daunting, then just wait till the long tail uncoils it infinite length. Trawling through the blogshere, or the millions of bands on MySpace, or the tens of millions of videos on YouTube for the one or two blogs or songs or video with real value isn’t viable for those of us with a life or a full time job. The one resource that is challenged all the more by this long tail of amateur content is out time – the most limited and precious resource of all.

Page 34

In a cartoon that appeared in the New Yorker in 1993, two dogs sit beside a computer. One has his paw on the keyboard; the other is looking at him quizzically. “On the Internet,” the dog using the keyboard reassures his canine friend, “nobody knows you’re a Dog” That is more true than ever, On today’s self-publicising internet, nobody knows if you’re a dog, a monkey, or the Easter bunny. That’s because everyone lese is too busy ego-casting, too immersed int eh Darwinian struggle for mind-share, to listen to anyone else

Page 48

Citizen journalists simply don’t have the resources to bring us reliable news. They lack not only expertise and training, but connections and access to information.

Page 49

“In America, bloggers don’t go to jail for their work” That’s the difference between professionals and amateurs”

Page 51

Gillmore’s answer reflected the self-absorption of the typical amateur journalist. He told be that the real value of citizen journalism was it’s ability to address niche markets otherwise ignored by mainstream media.

When I asked him for an example, he replied, Hybrid Cars.

Page 52

Unfortunately, the internet is bloated with the hot air of the amateur journalists, Despite the size of their readership[, even the A-list bloggers have no formal journalist training. And, in fact, much of the real news their blogs contain has been lifted from (or aggregated from) the very news organisations they aim to replace

Page 55

“.. the only conversations we want to hear are those with ourselves and those like us.”

Page 59

The popular Toronto band Bearnecked Ladies recently launched a “remix” contest, allowing fans to download songs from their latest album and re-mix and re-edit them into new versions, the best of which will eventually be released on CD. It’s rather like an expert chef who, instead of cooking a fine meal, provides the raw ingredients for the dinner. Or the surgeon who, instead of performing the surgery, leaves the amateur in the operating chamber with some surgical instruments and a brief pep talk

Page 62

$331,000 sucked out of the economy

Page 74

The owners of traditional newspapers and news networks are help legally accountable for the statements of their reporters, anchors and columnists encouraging them to uphold a certain standard of truth in the content they allow in their paper or on air. Web site owners, on the other hand, are not liable for what is posted by a third party.

Page 75

Before the Web 2.0, our collective intellectual history has been driven by the careful aggregation of truth, through professionally edited books and reference material, newspapers, and radio and television. But as all the information becomes digitalized and democratized and is made universally and permanently available, the media record becomes and Internet on which misinformation never goes away.

Page 79

All this points to a fundamental flaw with our user-driven content. We’re never sure if what we read ir see is what it seems. The user-run internet not only allows, but encourages, the invention of false identity. Yet no one questions why so many of use are determined to hide who we are or what our affiliation is.

Page 82

In contract. On YouTube, one can watch thousands of short videos of grieving Lebanese men and women in the ruins of Beirut, holding dead babies in their arms. On a web site with no filters, no ethics codes, no accountability or disciplinary consequences, one has no way of knowing how many of these films were doctored.

Page 83

..where we can be sure that the prevailing sentiment matches our own.

Page 88

This blurring of lines between advertising and content is partly due to our growing mistrust in marketers and adverting.

Page 89

Web 2.0 consumers “are embracing new technologies that empower them with more control over how and when they are marketed to.”

Page 91

What Hurley is really suggesting is that on YouTube advertising and content can be successfully collapsed; that advertising is entertainment and entertainment is advertising.

Page 92

But there is a fundamental difference between advertising and user-generated content – on is a paid message carefully calibrated to entice people to buy a product, while the other is an expression of information, creativity, or art.

Page 94

UGC – user generated corruption

Page 95

The most disturbing thing of all about social news sites is that many influencers are gaming the engines to promote their own agendas

Page 96

Web 2.0, the madness is about the crowd falling in lover with itself.

Page 105

But what online stores don’t have is the deeply knowledgeable Tower clerk to act as the cultural tastemaker. Instead, our buying choices depend upon the anonymous reviews ( who recommended this book for me!) a very poor substitute for the bodily encounters that Tower once offered

Page 107

As a free ‘come-on’ to sell other stuff. Rather than a utility like electricity or water, music in the web2.0 revolution may become equivalent to the plastic toy found at the bottom of the cornflake box.

Page 108

Given that only one in forty digital songs are being paid for, digital music is, like it or not, essentially free.

Page 113

“I’m personally against web 2.0 in the same way as I’m personally against my own death”

Page 117

Kelly argues that in the future, instead of making money on the sale of books, authors can “sell performances, access to the creator, personalisation, add-on information, sponsorship, periodic subscriptions – in short, all the many values that cannot be copied

Even Kelly admits that the protection of the physical copy has ‘enabled millions of people to earn a living directly from the sale of their art to the audience” and that is has “produced the greatest flowering of human achievement the world has ever seen” Isn’t this a model worth preserving.

Page 126

Radio is in the midst of its own identity crisis. Teenagers, historically radios biggest and most devoted audience, simply aren’t listening to radio anymore

Page 130

Some will argue that seismic economic change always results in downsizing in one sector but the creation of jobs in another. The problem is, the web2.0 economy is not creating jobs to replace those it destroys.

Page 132

Of course, the demise of newspapers cannot all be blamed on the Internet. The rise of cable news, too, has contributed to the newpapers’ waning profit margins. And many newspapers are cannibalizing themselves by migrating to the web

Page 134

Should mainstream newspapers and television fold, where will online news sites get their content.

Page 142

The Judeo-Christian ethic of respecting others’ property that has been central to our society since the country’s founding is being tossed into the delete file of our desktop computers. The pasting, remixing, mashing, borrowing, copying – the stealing of intellectual property has become the single most pervasive activity on the internet.

Page 143

Web 2.0 technology is confusing the very concept of ownership, creating a generation of plagiarists and copyright thieves with little respect for intellectual property.

Page 165

She trusted he search engine absolutely… broadcast knowledge without permission.. welcome to 1984 version 2.0.

Page 185

Our challenge, instead, is to protect the legacy of our mainstream media ad two hundred years of copyright protections within the context of 21 century digital technology … we need to find a way to balance the best of the digital future without destroying the institution of the past

Page 186

He (Sanger) learned that fully democratic open-source networks inevitably get corrupted by loonies

Page 188

Maintain the all-important division between content creators and content consumers.

Page 189

We can- and must resist the siren song of the noble amateur and use Web 2.0 to put trust in our experts again


  1. Bob Geller says:

    Counterbalance is nice, but you get the sense that the arguments being made are intended to be provocative and irreverent, i.e. to get attention: he shows some of the same shrillness that is being attributed to the blogosphere.
    I rebut some of the points in an analysis of a review of the book on Flack’s Revenge blog.

  2. tony fish says:

    thanks for the comment – read through Flack’s Revenge blog. I feel from reading the book that Mr Keen is angry with web 2.0 people. We (web 2.0 people) are taking away jobs from the media industry and he doesn’t like it or the change that comes with it. I read it more as a cry for help and stop; than provocative – but this is my view.

  3. Ron says:

    I have to give Keene credit for trying to raise the alarm. This technology-media ( You tube) (My space) (Blogs),ect. is relatively new. He sees the negative for sure… and he also acknowledges some positive. Still, technology such as this is very much in its infancy and one can only imagine what it might look like in 20 years time. Perhaps a balance will be struck – specific genres and categories will develop and become common to us all who use this source of information – perhaps our only source of information.

  4. Ajit Jaokar says:

    Thanks Ron. I agree we are livig in times of great change and the rate of change is becoming faster .. so a balance will be achieved some time in the future. We already see this with major sites like CNN revamping to incorporate user generated content

  5. Stephen Mayes says:

    I haven’t read Andrew Keen’s book, but Tony Fish’s “review” demonstrates many negative aspects of web2.0: 2500 words tell me little about the subject under review nor anything new about the reviewer’s perspective other than “I don’t like it”. Furthermore it took twice as long to read as it should have done because it’s illiterate – poor punctuation, spelling and grammar make it a struggle to understand. If ever there were an argument for professional editing this is it. Maybe there is an outcome – I am now sufficiently interested to read Andrew Keen’s book to find out what he’s really saying.

  6. tony fish says:

    Stephen, delighted to sell you my copy :) You will enjoy the book.
    The review was short. I did provide a few quotes.
    Posts “a cry for help” is probably the best summary