Thursday, June 21, 2007

The Great Internet Debate: Professionals vs. Amateurs...

Andrew Keen's new book, The Cult of the Amateur: How Today's Internet is Killing Our Culture, has been taking a lot of flak for arguing that, among other things, the rise of Web 2.0 has given too much authority to amateur bloggers and content creators at the expense of actual professionals. This, he claims, is watering down our culture.

This is a terrific debate worthy of genuine attention. Is our culture better off with amateurs (a.k.a. normal people) over-saturating the amount of material that's out there on every subject, or would our culture be better off with mostly trained professionals adhering to established standards creating the bulk of available content?

Tony Long has commented that Keen is right about "what he calls the 'cut and paste' ethic... [which] trivializes scholarship and professional ability, implying that anybody with a little pluck and the right technology can do just as well". However, others like Lawrence Lessig have harshly criticized the book, claiming it is "shot through with sloppiness, error and ignorance".

This has the ingredients for a fantastic debate because both sides have very legitimate viewpoints. It is true that the years of training and desire to keep one's job are reasons why professionals more reliably create better and more factually accurate material - after all, there's a reason why they get paid. However, "more reliably better" is not always better, and as the brief history of the blogosphere has already demonstrated, the professional media outlets sometimes fail in meeting their own purported high standards, as proven by recent cases of sloppy and outright false news reporting (see CBS and Dan Rather). Additionally, the rise of amateurs may be partially attributed to the failure of the professional media to satisfy market demands, particularly in certain niches.

So both sides can make a great case, but perhaps what's most intriguing is not whether we're better off with amateurs or professionals leading our culture, but the simple fact that the two have already learned to co-exist... and that this detente has definitely enhanced our culture. Think about it. Most rational people know that CNN or the NY Times will produce better news coverage than some anonymous 8th grader's blog; most of us have enough common sense to recognize the difference and, in this way, the professionals still have an extremely viable role to play in our society (maybe even more so than before). Meanwhile, the simple fact that that anonymous 8th grader is able to publish his analysis of the news coverage is valuable in its own right - perhaps offering a perspective, say, on the state of the educational system, that only an insider can provide, and which previously would not have found an outlet to share.

Centuries ago, John Stuart Mill espoused his belief in "a marketplace of ideas", arguing that society is better off when everyone can express their ideas and opinions openly and that the best ones will rise to the top based, not on their author, but on their merit. This is the basis for the First Amendment and free speech in America, and is central to all post-Enlightenment political thought.

So I'm taking the middle road on this debate, which I normally hate to do, but it's an honest response. The NY Times is still what I read first in the morning to know what's going on in the world, but afterwards I typically seek analysis on those topics in the blogosphere (and also maybe for coverage of a few news stories which the traditional media did not deem worthy of reporting on, but I do). Clearly, it must be stated that it's essential not to limit this debate to coverage of the news. Keep in mind that the majority of Web 2.0 content consists of music, videos, photos, and much more. Ultimately, Keen is wrong to argue that amateurs water down our culture - only the misguided judgment of those reading and consuming the content, and bestowing upon it false authority, can do that. Both amateurs and professionals play a vital role in this cyber space, and our culture is definitively enhanced by including both of them.

Mill would be smiling with delight at the amateur-professional eclecticism of the internet of today. And rightfully so.


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