On September 18, Andrew Keen gave the Incubate Innovation Lecture. Incubate is an annual independent culture festival in Tilburg. Keen is a well-known web entrepreneur and web critic. In 1995 he founded Audiocafe.com and built it into a popular first generation Internet music company. After a while, however, Keen realized the negative impact of the democratization of the Internet and the Web 2.0 hype. He is most (in)famous for his "Cult of the Amateur" book, in which he shows the downside of user generated content, peer production and other Web 2.0 related phenomena. These are often uncritically promoted as only having beneficial effects for society, if not being the cure for all its ills. Keen, however, builds an alternative case for why they, like any technology, can also be dangerous. Although at least partial counter-arguments to many of his claims can be made, he makes some very good points. Anybody interested in designing socio-technical systems and facilitating communities on the Internet, should at least seriously consider what he has to say. I took extensive notes of his talk and the ensuing discussion, and summarize the most salient points here, as food for critical thought.
Notes of the presentation by Andrew KeenThe hype
- There is a rebellion against the idea of authority.
- There is a shift from the organization to the individual: we're all increasingly working on our own.
- The old world of the creative artist was the organization, hierarchy. They needed, for instance, the studios for techology & distribution.
- The (Internet) technology that allows anybody to produce anything without large investment has upset this.
- "Technology has freed us, we are liberated". The (Web 2.0) idealists have sold us a dream, that we can all be creative, that we can all realize our potential.
There are several problems with this argument
The economic foundations of Web 2.0 don't work
- Copy-protection makes money. Almost nobody can make enough money out of free content. Advertising as an alternative source of income is not enough, it is very hard to sell advertising on the Internet.
Web 2.0 does away with the value of culture by abolishing the intermediary
- The Brave New World of the digital economy: "we are going to dis-intermediate". However, the middleman in culture is often the necessary one between the creative force and the audience. Yes, the old industrial economy in a sense is unfair, as it is dominated by gatekeepers able to say no. But so is talent, whereas the Internet is full of untalented people.
- There is a culture of self-expression, individual radical democratization of culture and identity. It may reflect the alienation of capitalism: as we get lonelier and more isolated, we feel the need to express ourselves in a narcissistic way. The Internet has become a "vast ocean of narcissism". We're not reading newspapers anymore. We don't want to know about the world out there anymore, but only what our social networks are doing.
- In hindsight, Keen thinks things may not be as catastrophic as painted in his book. Still, there are serious problems that need to be addressed.
- It is clear we can't have an old style copy economy anymore. However, some things haven't changed. There are still talented people who can appropriate the new digital technologies to create worthwhile commentary on the world.
- However, if you do away with the intermediaries, there is a challenge for the creative people: how to earn a living? How to become a talent?
- The good news: it is still possible. The bad news: the supporting organizations are gone.
- The tools are there to promote oneself and show off ideas. However, there is a reshaping of the cultural landscape. Artists now have to be the self-promoters and do their marketing as well as be a creative genius.
Alternative ways of thinking
- Optimistic: Things are not so bad. Creative people have to reveal themselves. It is not enough to be a "silent genius". The Internet has a wonderful marketing potential for creative people.
- Pessimistic: The people who are awarded are the self-promoters. There is a danger of talent not being realized. You can't just be creative, you can't be shy! Hitchcock was shy, a backroom man. In the Web 2.0 world, he wouldn't have stood a chance.
- Copy is dead. However, there is always value. Where's the new scarcity? It is the scarcity of (1) attention and (2) the physical.
- People crave the physical. Record companies selling digital content are in freefall, yet live concerts are booming. The role of the Internet is becoming that of a promotion vehicle. Don't invest in digital initiatives, invest in theaters, home readings, live concerts, etc!
- The future is not as bleak as we may imagine, but it does trouble many people.
- We are changing our ideas of community and identity. The most troubling problem: we still don't know how to rebuild community. We fragmented the old industrial age, now we are suffering from fragmentation, isolation, atomization. Our separateness is the biggest problem.
- Our world is not a digital village, but a billion digital hamlets, in which it is only confirmed what we already think. The longer the tail in cultural terms, the weaker the community.
- We need to somehow rebuild a sense of authority. The authority of professionals has been undermined beyond the acceptable.
- There is a lot of potential in Web 2.0, but we need to loosen the ideological baggage: hardcore Internet libertarianism is dangerous for culture!
Notes of the panel discussion
After Andrew's presentation, there was a lively discussion with a panel and the audience. Members of the panel: Andrew Keen, Konrad Boehmer (Buma Stemra), Amelia Andersdotter (Pirate Party), Hans Abbing (artist/sociologist), James Kirby (musician). My notes here are not comprehensive, and focus on Keen's statements. For full videos of the keynote and the discussion see Bijgespijkerd.
Con: the more knowledge available, the better for creativity, so, Web 2.0 will generate more, not less talentsKeen:
- The cult of the amateur becomes dangerous when wrongly summarizing political information, for instance. Somehow, notions of authority will have to be introduced.
- Another problem is that of the pressure of "real-time". Artists not only have to be self-promoters, but also to be very fast. Web 2.0 has only a very short attention span. What happens to those processes that require longer spans, for instance good, in-depth writing?
- There is now less time for things to develop, this is bad for innovation. Every form of innovation needs a lot of time to develop. Technology speeds up anything, but the human system doesn't. We need the development of a slow communications culture.
- Filtering is key, this is where the money is going to be.
Con: why/who is filtering? Industry, the political class with their vested interests?
- We have to fight against that kind of filtering, not against filtering in general.
- For example, (mass media) reviewers act as filters, but also as "cultural repositories". This gatekeeping role is not ideal, but you learn their own taste.
- These reviewers are accountable, whereas so many Internet filters are corrupt.
- Google is problematic. It is just a machine, it is "disintermediating human beings".
Con: old media are also corrupt
- You must never trust anybody, on the Internet or in the mass media. You need to be convinced by the intelligence of the argumentation. However, building good arguments costs time, thus money.
- There is, on the one hand, a "crisis of authority". Why is all authority so distrusted?
- There is, on the other hand, an obsession with friendship. We should seek opinions, not just "friends".
- "Digital feudalism" is on the move. Old media were relatively democratic. The new trust agents on the Internet are a tiny elite of A-list bloggers. This is a new cultural elite, but less accountable. There is also a huge problem with anonymity.
- Media literacy is all-important. We need to learn for ourselves who to trust.
- If nobody's paying your check, you need to be Jesus Christ to survive. However, art and creativity are not religion!
My own perspective
Keen's polemic views have drawn a lot of flak, see, for example, "A Bad Case of Nostalgia" for one of the more reasonable critical reviews. So, where do I stand? Web 2.0 is an essential technological infrastructure for enabling collaborative communities, which are my own professional focus. Of course, I wouldn't want to go back to the "old industrial" communications world in a million years. There is incredible potential in the new technologies, only a tiny fraction of which has actually been realized for empowering these and other communities. However, Keen may be forgiven for his, what some think, is a bad case of nostalgia, or worse, kind of style.
Keen is trying to make an important point. Web 2.0 is not a panacea. It's a very, very powerful technology. Still, like any technology, it can be used for both good and bad purposes. And even if the intentions are good, the implications may not be. Web 2.0 enables citizen journalism, but also indirectly leads to the loss of budgets for investigative journalism. The blogosphere has become a major force for the common good, allowing oppressed peoples to circumvene stifling government censorship. Still, it has also become a tool for the ultra-right(eous) to organize themselves.
I think many respond in such a visceral way to Keen because his arguments express something profound and deeply disturbing. It is my strong conviction that as the shapers of this new Web 2.0 world, we have to heed his call, and start thinking in a much more sophisticated, balanced way about not just the pros but also the cons, instead of being enamoured by the superficial glitz and feelings of false belonging engendered by many (but of course not all) of current Web 2.0 pseudo-communities.
From my point of view, one concrete way to balance the pros and cons of Web 2.0 are socio-technical patterns. These patterns circumscribe describe the goals, roles, workflows, and communicative norms of (collaborative) communities. Through these patterns that communities define themselves, they can combine the energy and drive of Web 2.0 with their own, evolving "authority by merit" structures. Have a look at my "From Inspiration to Activation: Making Online Collaborative Communities Work" presentation if you want to know more.