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ESSAY QUESTION: Andrew Keen argues that participatory media and user-generated content is creating a “cult of the amateur” that is damaging our culture and economy. Discuss. -------Introduction The emergence since the early 2000s of what is known variously as ‘Web 2.0’, ‘user-generated content’ or ‘collaborative creation’ has attracted passionate derision and praise in equal measure from all corners of the Internet, with everyone from citizen journalists, ‘Mum and Dad’ media consumers to media critics and theorists wading in to the debate. Believers espouse that the democratisation of content production on sites such as Wikipedia, YouTube and blogs gives everyone a powerful voice, thereby removing monopolistic media ownership and one-dimensional types of content. Critics argue that the end of quality content and even whole industries is nigh. This type of debate over new forms of media is cyclical, constantly refreshed with the successful adoption of new media forms – the emergence of photography prompted French painter Paul Delaroche to proclaim “From today, painting is dead!” (in Batchen, 1997: 207) and some naysayers feared that the invention of the printing press would spell the death of the spoken word. The debate regarding user-generated content is simply the most recent example, attracting input from high profile media commentators including Wired magazine editor Chris Anderson, Harvard law professor and author Lawrence Lessig and web entrepreneur Andrew Keen. The arguments contained within the latter’s incendiary 2007 book The Cult of the Amateur are the focus for this paper, which will conclude that however essential the debate about the value and implication of user generated content is, Keen’s choice of sensationalist language, supporting evidence and the foundation of his argument all serve to undermine his message rather than support it. These elements will be examined in detail with appropriate case studies used to demonstrate the value of projects which would be deemed ‘amateur’ using Keen’s approach. Rather than making a comparison of Cult of the Amateur to opposing works, such as Clay Shirky’s Here Comes Everybody, this paper will focus on the merits, or lack thereof, of Keen’s work. Three years have passed since the book was published – the benefit of the passing of time means that there have been key developments and emergent business models in different industries to indicate that the allegations Keen levels at user-generated content as a destructive force have been grossly overstated.

Allison Jones 310268141 ARIN6903 Exploring Digital Cultures - Final Essay


Technological determinism The foundation of Keen’s argument is inherently deterministic; technological determinism attributes technology as either the sole cause or one of a set of causes of necessary conditions which result in radical transformation over society, in the process negating human agency (Chandler, 2006). Keen writes that: “From hypersexed teenagers, to identity thieves, to compulsive gamblers…the moral fabric of our society is being unravelled by Web 2.0…it seduces us into acting on our most deviant instincts…it is corroding …the values we share as a nation.” (Keen, 2007: 163)

Such determinist arguments are criticised on the basis that media are not wholly autonomous entities with ‘purpose’, yet perform functions (Chandler, 2006). Chris Anderson writes that “Technology is nothing other than an enabler of individual power. The tools once reserved for professionals are now in the hands of everybody.” (Anderson, 2006).

Keen participates in an age-old argument that may be categorised as ‘end-ism’, a term coined by computer scientist John Seely to describe breathless assertions that “new technology presages the termination of some revered practice, not to mention the end of civilization as we know it” (Naughton, 2010).

Keen’s scope and his definition of ‘amateurs’ The scope of Keen’s book is vast – covering areas such as publishing, the music and film industries, gambling, pornography, piracy and security threats amongst others. This paper will specifically focus on the cultural and economic implications of amateur content detailed in the book. Keen pits Internet ‘amateurs’, who he likens to the monkeys of T.H. Huxley’s ‘Monkey Theorem’, in direct opposition to the established ‘old media’ that he consistently idealises throughout the book. The ‘Monkey Theorem’ holds that if infinite monkeys are provided with typewriters, a monkey somewhere will eventually create a masterpiece (Keen, 2007). Today’s monkeys, Keen argues, engage in narcissism on a grand scale, publishing self-interested blogs, creating and uploading inane videos to YouTube and mindlessly indulging in political commentary and “embarassingly amateurish music” (2007: 3). The resulting environment of the Internet is “an endless digital forest of mediocrity.” (Keen, 2007: 3)

Allison Jones 310268141 ARIN6903 Exploring Digital Cultures - Final Essay


This ambitious scope results in superficiality in the examination of different industries and a damaging selectivity in the application of statistics, rather than an exhaustive and reasoned argument which is what informed debate should be based on. The subject matter of the book jumps from subject to subject, lacking cohesion and making it difficult for the reader to maintain focus on one particular area – a cynic may suggest this is a tactic to distract from the flaws in the book.

The importance of amateurs Keen’s definition of amateurs is quite a narrow one, leaving no room for fluidity to acknowledge the different levels of talent and value within the communities of amateurs. Unfortunately, Keen also fails to clearly define the key terms involved. It appears that anything produced by an entity or individual other than major corporations is deemed ‘amateurish’, including any media produced independently, regardless of the qualifications of those involved. Whilst he is correct in asserting that the quality of many amateur works published on the Internet is questionable or even damaging, he makes no attempt at a balanced view that appreciates the evolution that all media forms experience. In doing so, he categorically dismisses anything under the tag of ‘amateur’ rather than seeing the diamonds in the rough. A rich history of amateur contributions to society complements and informs the contributions made by amateurs in today’s digital media environment. In the 18th century, amateur critics were granted an audience in coffee houses, known as ‘Penny Universities’ and regarded this as a way of developing critical faculties in a “democratic, cultural free-for-all” (Thorpe, 2010). The Internet with its population of amateurs expounding on all manner of topics, should be viewed as a modern day ‘Penny University’, albeit with a larger potential audience and wider scope of content. The case studies included in this essay will further demonstrate the value of amateurs.

Bloggers and the publishing industry In reference to Keen’s criticism of bloggers and citizen journalists as the source of malicious gossip, information theft and uninformed opinion, with the inference that there is a corresponding negative impact on traditional media, a basic search for credible research on consumer preferences yields informative insights. According to a US survey of 2,259 adult media consumers by PRC and PEW, consumers still rely on established gatekeepers to filter content for them, with the majority overwhelmingly selecting established outlets over ‘amateurish’ bloggers:

Allison Jones 310268141 ARIN6903 Exploring Digital Cultures - Final Essay


(Source: PRC-Project for Excellence in Journalism and PRC-Internet & American Life Project Online News, 2010)

Keen laments that profits and circulation are down at major US publications, with TIME magazine retrenching 300 staff in 2007. Whilst Keen contends that the online arms of newspapers’ have cannibalised their print circulation, giving some explanation other than bloggers for falling circulation, he fails to extend the exploration to other possible reasons. Asking the question of why the newspapers provided consumers with free online access, with advertising as the only source of revenue, to what they would previously have paid for in printed form, is one exploration he could have made. This outcome is not the fault of the consumer but the businesses themselves. Media tsar Rupert Murdoch’s new experiment with paywalls on selected publications will be a very important test in seeing if the expectation of free content can be reversed without damage to the bottom line of those publications. Interestingly, new data from the UK also suggests that the cannibalisation of old media by digital media is in fact not occurring (see Appendix A). In 2007, the same year that The Cult of the Amateur was published, Adam Thierer published an article outlining the exponential growth in media outlets in the United States, observing that “we live in a world of unprecedented media abundance that once would have been the stuff of science-fiction novels.” (Thierer, 2007)

Allison Jones 310268141 ARIN6903 Exploring Digital Cultures - Final Essay


Thierer includes detailed statistics on the growth of media outlets which would have been available for Keen to use if he desired balance in his argument: “… America boasts close to 14,000 radio stations today, double the number that existed in 1970. Satellite radio—an industry that didn’t even exist before 2001— claimed roughly 13 million subscribers nationwide by 2007….There were 18,267 magazines produced in 2005, up from 14,302 in 1993. The only declining media sector is the newspaper business, which has seen circulation erode for many years now. But that’s largely a result of the competition that it faces from other outlets.” (Thierer, 2007). This data suggests that the suffering bottom lines of major publications cannot be blamed solely on the influence of amateurs publishing on the Internet. When marrying this abstract data to the findings from the PEJ and PEW survey, a more comprehensive picture emerges about changing consumer patterns: “… Americans have become news grazers. On a typical day, nearly half of Americans now get news from four to six different platforms, including online, TV and print.”
(Source: PRC-Project for Excellence in Journalism and PRC-Internet & American Life Project Online News, 2010)

It is not too great a leap to suggest that the combined influence between all these media platforms, and the proliferation of individual outlets, is a major factor in the diminishing returns of established media companies. The book also has a problem with basic logic, linking university student plagiarism to diminishing royalties for the writers whose work is used in their assignments - in fact, students are not required to pay any royalties to authors, but are required to properly cite work. This type of incoherent and inaccurate connection is frequent in Keen’s writing. There is no suggestion in Keen’s book of the possibility that perhaps the two types of media, amateur and professional, are complementary, serving very different purposes. Keen views the two as diametrically opposed elements, invoking the “displacive fallacy” (Cole, 1989), which holds that with the introduction of one new media, the older media will be ‘conquered’. If Keen had conducted or even consulted any research into the audience that consumes amateur and professional media, he may have discovered this possibility. Innovative publishers have in fact discovered that fostering bloggers within their established fold is a successful strategy in maintaining relevance in a competitive market – for example, emerging fashion blogger The Sartorialist has extended his reach by working alongside prestigious title French Vogue on numerous projects (The Sartorialist, 2008). Indeed, those in the dominant, professional position often recognise the talents of ‘amateurs’ even if critics such as Keen do not.
Allison Jones 310268141 ARIN6903 Exploring Digital Cultures - Final Essay


The evidence detailed above serves to emphasise the main flaws in Keen’s argument - specifically his failure to consult credible research, the selective application of statistics and a simplistic dichotomous view of new versus old media.

The music industry Keen makes many direct causal links throughout the book, connecting Internet functions (both legal and illegal) to negative outcomes, specifically in regards to the music industry which he believes will For example, he states that “there are now 25 percent fewer music stores in America than there were in 2003” (2007: 107) and that “in the first half of 2006, shipments of CDs and other physical formats in America were down 15.7 percent from the first half of 2005” (2007: 108). These effects are linked directly to illegal music file-sharing as the cause, rather than Keen conducting a deeper examination which may find that the proliferation of niche digital radio stations, subscription streaming services, the success of Apple’s iTunes and changing consumer desires are also contributing factors. The second statistic is also missing detail from the reference, meaning that the reader will find it very difficult to locate and assess the original report this data came from. Keen only touches on some of the different reveneue streams within the music industry, however there are many more. Newer revenue streams exist in the form of merchanidising, live events, streaming music services, and greater levels of song licensing in other media. Keen also fails to critically examine the business decisions made by these industries – their lack of innovation meant that even years after the emergence of illegal service Napster, a suitable alternative had not been formed by any of the record companies with the breadth of content required to compete. It was not until Apple, a computer manufacturer, not a music company, had set up iTunes, that a legal alternative with this breadth of content existed. It is this type of innovation which has propelled Apple forward – it has a strangehold on the global mp3 market and is currently on track to become the largest public company in the United States (Arthur, 2010).

Problems with the ’old media’ Many of the evils that Keen associates with the Internet have been in existence for decades, in fact emerging from the very ‘old media’ he so cherishes. Keen is unable to consider that these evils have since extended to become problems on the Internet, which is not the actual source of the problem, but just one outlet in which these evils may propagate. Visual art and literary frauds abounded in the days before the Internet; similarly, problems with accuracy and bias have been around since humankind could communicate.
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Keen views the filters of old media as one of its most valuable features, however he fails to acknowledge flaws: established filters may have no room to see outside their world to deliver compelling and unique content to their audience. Examples are many when it comes to identifying famous authors or musicians who were regularly rejected by professional talent scouts – author J.K. Rowling of Harry Potter fame had her original manuscript rejected by twelve publishing houses before finally signing a contract with Bloomsbury (McGinty, 2003).

Commercial case studies: Threadless, Etsy and Supermarket Revisiting the analogy of diamonds in the rough, selected case studies illustrate both the cultural and dollar value of amateur content and products. In operation since 2000, Threadless is an online t-shirt retailer that uses a mostly participatory business model - both professionals and amateurs are able to submit designs that are voted on by the public to form a top 100 and are then filtered by Threadless staff for production. Winning designers receive $US2000 and almost all the t-shirts sell out. By injecting an amateur element in their business model, Threadless benefit aspiring designers and their revenues, with some designers achieving fame and Threadless generating millions in profits. Notable designer, and now a production manager at Threadless, Ross Zeitz, started submitting designs whilst still an undergraduate student (Wilson, 2008). Although Threadless has changed some elements of crowd-voting mechanic, to allow previous winning designers to select some of the new designs produced, Threadless can still be viewed as a modern day, informal, apprenticeship with amateurs progressing to ‘professional’ status, receiving crowd-sourced validation directly from their market in their journey to professional status. This is indicative of new types of filtering methods emerging; the filters that Keen is concerned about losing may not be disappearing after all. Etsy and Supermarket are other notable success stories in the amateur/professional co-existence. These sites allow users to sell their wares, mostly handmade clothes and accessories, directly to consumers by paying a small fee to the site. The sites provide the infrastructure to make it possible and act as curators; Etsy with an editorial team profiling sellers and extending their offering to run “Design Labs“ to further the skills of amateurs.The sellers build trust with an online reputation system similar to that used succesfully by eBay. Again, there are still filters in place in these models, rather than a lack of filters. Clearly, the public have responded favourably to this type of production.These case studies may be illustrative of a bigger move away from mass-produced products to unique works, mostly by amateurs or hobbyists, reflective of trends desired by the audience – since the products are produced by those with similar sensibilities to their consumers. For all the successful Internet userAllison Jones 310268141 ARIN6903 Exploring Digital Cultures - Final Essay 7

creation business models, there are probably thousands of failed ones, yet no different to the success rate found in the traditional ‘bricks and mortar’ world.

Community case study: Open Street Map and Ushahidi in the Haiti earthquake relief effort Open Street Map is a not-for-profit collaborative initiative to build editable maps worldwide based on audience tagging, using those with local knowledge to provide context and meaning. When Haiti was struck by the devastating earthquake in January 2010, OSM came into its own, playing an invaluable role in assisting relief agencies such as the Red Cross to determine where the constantly changing areas of most need were located. At the time of the earthquake, the map was almost bare of information; the Google Maps version was only marginally better. In the days after the earthquake, satellite companies provided detailed maps free of charge that contained street names and other high level information. These maps were then further populated by 2,000 local OSM volunteers or amateurs, adding new layers of information which allowed the relief agencies to download real-time maps for their GPS units with which to navigate between and within the rubble strewn urban areas and the airport where supplies were delivered. The volunteer updates were key since the disaster situation was changing on a daily, if not hourly, basis. This would not have been possible without the contribution of the volunteers, amateurs with only local knowledge and no skills in mapping (BBC, 2010). Another crowdsourcing information site, Ushahidi, was critical in providing information in Haiti as it was in Kenya in the aftermath of the violent 2008 elections which spurred its creation. Ushahidi collected text messages from those trapped, which were then translated online by the Haitian diaspora from Creole to English to allow the exact location of eyewitness reports to be mapped (Clark, 2010). These examples are hardly mediocre as Keen alleges of amateur content.

Allison Jones 310268141 ARIN6903 Exploring Digital Cultures - Final Essay


Figure 1. A destroyed building after the earthquake. Source: AFP

Figure 2. The OSM map at the time of the earthqaue, only showing major roads, no street names and no details of public buildings. Source: Open Street Map

Figure 3. The same map as in Figure 3, pictured after contributions from the public. Source: Open Street Map

Allison Jones 310268141 ARIN6903 Exploring Digital Cultures - Final Essay


Figure 4. Populated OSM map being used on the ground by a relief worker. Source: Open Street Map

Allison Jones 310268141 ARIN6903 Exploring Digital Cultures - Final Essay


Changes in consumption and organisational patterns These examples from Haiti are one example of the type of successful mass collaboration projects occurring in a diverse range of fields, detailed by Canadian academic Don Tapscott and Anthony D. Williams in the 2010 book Macrowikinomics. The authors identify a profound shift away from an industrial economy to networked intelligence, illustrated by examples such as microlending and a citizen science project mapping the universe amongst others. Tapscott and Williams are critical of ‘old guard’ media organisations, identifying a distinct lack of innovation in the digital age as a key reason for their poor recent performance and the growing popularity of media outside the mainstream models, identifying that the job title of ‘blogger’ has now emerged as a credible one with many bloggers generating vast sums of revenue from their sites. Tapscott praises publishers who produce quality material, believing that quality insures to an extent against failure in the digital age. Citing The Economist as an example of quality material that convinces consumers to pay for a subscription, he also praises The Guardian newspaper for adopting collaborative practices which remove the “us and them” barrier between professional journalists and amateur contributors (Tapscott and Williams, 2010).

Conclusion Whilst Keen does raise some salient points and attempts to make constructive criticism in the final chapter, the book is essentially akin to a tabloid with the important facts shrouded in hyperbole and inaccuracy rather than a book of serious critical worth. The book may have achieved infamy and profit for its author, and is perhaps responsible for elevating the debate to wider public awareness, its wider impact is dimmed by its fatal flaws. The debate requires the combined efforts of government agencies, industry thinktanks, dedicated research projects (short term and longitudinal), education initiatives and revised legislation where relevant. Dedicated research and insights from industry thinktanks can provide the solid foundation to inform the government agencies involved in setting education curriculums and revising legislation. It is too soon in the life of the Internet to make such sweeping, dramatic statements, however investigation and debate must take place continually. In his rush to make bold statements, Keen fails to observe that all technologies evolve alongside humans. Issues are resolved with new media forms, new issues present themselves, and the cycle continues.

Allison Jones 310268141 ARIN6903 Exploring Digital Cultures - Final Essay


APPENDIX A Reporting on new research, Peter Preston writes in The Guardian that the research “looks in detail at the success of newspaper websites and attempts to find statistical correlations with sliding print copy sales” (2010). The comprehensive research looks at the micro level of online versus print for individual titles; the macro level, comparing overall online performance versus total circulation figures; and also goes back to 1995, before Internet newspapers had really started, to make historical circulation comparisons. The study found that there is no direct correlation between increasing online traffic to newspapers and the reported falling circulation of printed newspapers. The researcher concludes that “understandably worried traditional journalists should know that the internet is not a threat" (Preston: 2010) and makes recommendations for the industry itself to take responsibility for dropping circulation by focussing on investment and innovation (Preston, 2010). Whilst this research does not strictly relate to amateur content, it does demonstrate that the debate about digital content versus print content cannot be reduced to a simple dichotomy which is the approach taken by Keen in viewing digital versus print, and amateur versus professional.

Allison Jones 310268141 ARIN6903 Exploring Digital Cultures - Final Essay


REFERENCES Arthur, C. (2010) ‘Apple poised to become largest public company in America’, Accessed from: Last accessed: 18/10/10 Batchen, G. (1997) ‘Epitaph’ in Burning with desire: The conception of photography, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, pp. 206-216 BBC (2010) ‘Volunteer mappers who helped Haiti’, Accessed from: Last accessed: 17/10/10 Chandler, D. (2006) ‘Engagement with media: Shaping and being shaped’, in Computer-Mediated Communication Magazine, February 1996. Cole, J.Y. (ed)(1989) The Republic of Letters: Librarian of Congress Daniel J. Boorstin on Books, Reading, and Libraries, 1975-1987, Accessed from: Last accessed: 21/10/10 Clark, A. (2010) ‘Author Don Tapscott on the growing influence of public participation’, Accessed from: Last accessed: 17/10/10 ‘Debate 2.0 / Weighing the merits of the new Webocracy’ in SF Gate, Accessed from: Last accessed: 19/10/10 Keen, A. (2007) The Cult of the Amateur: How today’s Internet is Killing our Culture, Doubleday: New York McGinty, S. (2003) ‘The JK Rowling story’, Accessed from: Last accessed: 18/10/10 Naughton, J. (2010) ‘Good journalism will thrive, whatever the format’, Accessed from: Last accessed: 19/10/10 Open Street Map (n.d.) ‘Open Street Map’, Accessed from: Last accessed: 19/10/10 Preston, P. (2010) ‘We thought the internet was killing print. But it isn't’, Accessed from: Last accessed: 18/10/10

Allison Jones 310268141 ARIN6903 Exploring Digital Cultures - Final Essay


Project For Excellence In Journalism and the Pew Internet & American Life Project (2010) ‘Online – Audience Behaviour’ Accessed from: Last accessed 18/10/10 The Sartorialist (2008) ‘The Sartorialist for Paris Vogue’, Accessed at: Last accessed: 18/10/10 Thierer, A. (2007) ‘The Media Cornucopia’ in City Journal, Spring 2007 Accessed from: Last accessed: 17/10/10 Thorpe, V. (2010) ‘If even Andrew Lloyd Webber fears bloggers, is it curtains for the critics?’, Accessed from: Last accessed: 18/10/10 Walker, R. (2007) ‘Mass Appeal’, Accessed from: Last accessed: 17/10/10 Wilson, B. (2008) ‘Threadless puts arts before Ts’, in WWD: Women's Wear Daily, Vol. 194 Issue 133, p9-9

Allison Jones 310268141 ARIN6903 Exploring Digital Cultures - Final Essay