If your experience confined you to the virtual plains of the blogosphere, you could be forgiven for thinking that Andrew Keen was one of the most unpopular people on the planet. One blogger - on Keen's own Web site - recently described him as "a professional mental prostitute of the establishment." New media guru Jeff Jarvis has called him "a mastodon growling against the warm wind of change." Keen recently introduced himself on the BBC Radio's Today program as "the Antichrist of Silicon Valley." So what has he done?
He's written a book, The Cult of the Amateur, with the no-messing-about subtitle "How Today's Internet is Killing Our Culture and Assaulting Our Economy." It may sound like a technophobe's bible, but Keen himself is no Luddite. He has his own blog and his own podcast program, AfterTV.com. He was one of the pioneering entrepreneurs of the first Internet boom, with his own start-up, Audiocafe.com, and one of the first to go bust when the bubble burst (to hear him tell it, he actually went bust before the bubble burst). To Internet enthusiasts Keen isn't just a heretic; he's an apostate.
The Cult of the Amateur is a broadside attack on Web 2.0, a term we may hastily define here as that growing sector of the Internet which serves mainly as a platform for user-generated content, including sites such as MySpace, Facebook, Typepad, Blogger and YouTube. The main thrust of his argument is that all this homemade content - blogs, podcasts, amateur videos and music - is an inadequate replacement for mainstream media. It may be a harmless, even occasionally enriching addition, but we can't have both, because the former is swiftly killing off the latter. Thanks to Web 2.0, newspapers, record companies, movie studios and traditional publishers are on the verge of extinction, he says. Along the way he also finds time to bash Second Life, online gambling, copyright theft and porn.
His attack even encompasses one of the Web's more widely admired experiments - Wikipedia, the online encyclopedia written and edited by anyone who wants to have a go, on the principle that the crowd possesses an aggregate wisdom all of its own. "To my mind Wikipedia is not wise," says Keen. "It's dumb. Not necessarily because all its contributors are dumb, but because if you don't have an editor in charge, and you don't have singular voices, then the intellectual quality of what the crowd produces is very low."
Until recently the Wikipedia entry for Andrew Keen informed readers that, in addition to coming from Golders Green, London, having an academic background and being an outspoken critic of Web 2.0, he was also "a child actor who found fame in a series of soup commercials." This isn't true; the sentence was inserted deliberately by the host of a radio show prior to an appearance by Keen, to show how easily the accuracy of Wikipedia can be undermined. This bit of factual vandalism remained for 12 days before it was removed - 11 days longer than an emendation from June 5, which replaced the entire first paragraph with the words "Andrew Keen IS a dumb motherfucker."
So it goes with Keen and the people he sometimes calls "the denizens of the cyberswamp," he baits them and they rise. He belittles the contributions of Amazon reviewers, and they give his book one resentful star out of five. He compares bloggers to a million monkeys at a million typewriters, and they respond with reams of invective. He criticizes Wikipedia for its vulnerability, for its excessive faith in the wisdom of the crowd, and some anonymous user - as if to prove the point - defaces his entry.