Bloggers at the Gates

Article excerpt

[The Cult of the Amateur: How Today's Internet is Killing Our Culture, Andrew Keen, Currency, 240 pages]

Bloggers at the Gates

By Clark Stooksbury

ALMOST OVERNIGHT, the World Wide Web has been transformed, as millions of people have become not just consumers and viewers but participants. This phenomenon, called "Web 2.0" in the peculiar argot of the computer nerd, is exemplified by sites such as YouTube, where anyone can post videos, and MySpace, a social-networking site that allows millions to post pictures, video, and diaries.

Andrew Keen's jeremiad against the rise of Web 2.0, The Cult of the Amateur: How Today's Internet is Killing Our Culture, makes some valid arguments, but his few nuggets of wisdom get lost in an avalanche of overheated rhetoric. Keen, a Silicon Valley entrepreneur, is worried that the burgeoning online do-it-yourself culture is killing off the topdown model of professional news gathering, the artistic creations of professional musicians and writers, and the criticism and direction of cultural mandarins.

Should Keen's nightmare vision actually materialize-a world in which blogs replace newspapers and TV news and all entertainment is reduced to the work of teenagers with digital camcorders-I will happily join him on the barricades in defense of the professionals against the "noble amateurs" he denounces. Fortunately, we are not at that juncture, and Keen doesn't make a convincing case that we will be in the near future.

When his concerns are legitimate, Keen often ignores the extent to which these problems predate the growth of the Web. He laments at length the decline of newspapers, but they have been losing circulation and downsizing for decades due to competition from radio and television. The Washington Star and the New York Herald Tribune-not to mention the New York Herald and the New York Tribune-didn't die by blog. The gravest threats facing print media today are not just blogs but sites like Craigslist.org, which offer free online classifieds and thus cost newspapers revenue even when they don't lose subscribers.

The barriers-to-entry to the blogosphere are virtually nonexistent. One can set up a free blog (as I did) in just a few minutes. This promotes new talent, but it also gives voice to an endless array of witless cranks. Some bloggers, such as Hugh Hewitt, think of the blogosphere as a replacement for the news media, but sensible people don't.

Keen flails wildly when he accuses bloggers on the scene during Hurricane Katrina of inflating the body count and making erroneous reports of activities at the Superdome. He doesn't cite specific examples, and it is hard to credit his version of events, since New Orleans was without power and bloggers would have had great difficulties filing firsthand reports. In those early days after New Orleans was flooded, elements of the mainstream media were all too often the ones responsible for spreading wild rumors.

He also makes the occasional howler in defense of the "old media," such as when he states that in "professionally edited newspapers and magazines ... political slant ... is restricted to the op-ed page," but "the majority of blogs make radical, sweeping statements without evidence or substantiation." At the very least, he should acknowledge that the neutrality of newspapers and magazines is a hotly debated topic. Ironically, the second claim is a radical, sweeping statement made without evidence or substantiation.

One doesn't learn from Keen that numerous blogs are maintained by professional journalists such as Matthew Yglesias and Andrew Sullivan, both of The Atlantic Monthly. He cites polling data indicating that 34 percent of bloggers consider themselves journalists. That seems a bit high, but the far more significant statistic would be the number of readers who consider blogs their primary source for news. The most ambitious attempt at blog journalism to date is PajamasMedia. …