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The Death of All Things Professional, Sort of…

February 9, 2012

Unpopular Opinion by Kevin Keohane

New Media Society by Atara Frenkel-Faran

Reinventing the Luddite by Patrick Tucker

Andrew Keen wrote a book that depicts the Internet as the root of all evil.  I have never heard of Keen or his work before now, but based on the pair of scathing reviews I read critiquing the book I don’t think I’m missing much.  The reviews by Kevin Keohane and Atara Frenkel-Faran included several excerpts from Keen’s book where he systematically slandered the Internet and devalued the amateurs who have embraced it.

The recurring theme in Keen’s arguments is that the Internet signals the, “demise of expertise.”  That the web will usher in a new era of worthless user-generated content completely devoid of any value because much of it was created by everyday people. He describes the people responsible for all this new content as, “a pajama army of mostly anonymous, self-referential writers who exist not to report news but to spread gossip, sensationalize political scandal, display embarrassing photos of public figures, and link to stories on imaginative topics such as UFO sightings and 9/11 conspiracy figures.”  If this is amateurism, then tabloids and biased political figures are also amateurs, e.g. the National Inquirer and Rush Limbaugh, but are still allowed to profit from their work.  So why can’t regular people?

Keen also sees the Internet giants, Google, YouTube, Wikipedia, etc., as sources of corruption that, while technically impressive, add nothing to the culture of our time.  He says they are, “perpetuating the cycle of misinformation and ignorance” and that social media sites could lead to, “an infestation of anonymous sexual predators and pedophiles.”  While there are plenty of people who use these sites for that reason, they existed before the Internet came about.

Both reviews list plenty of these incredible exaggerations, and to be completely honest I’m not sure they are substantiated.  I mean I can understand someone being concerned about change, especially when it involves a transfer of mediums.  Although if the Internet is pure evil, I’m confused why he has his own Twitter account, blog and podcast then.  In the interview with Patrick Tucker, Keen said his reasoning for using these new services is for, “the economic incentive,” but that these things will, “never have intrinsic value.”  To be honest, if Keen is willing to sacrifice his morals to keep up with trends, particularly economic trends, then how can anyone take his, “advice,” seriously if even he doesn’t follow it?

As someone who is a part of the print journalism field, I understand being afraid of the changes the Internet has brought and the uncertainty that hangs over all print mediums, but I think Keen’s views are sensationalistic.  The terms he uses to describe the Internet are reminiscent of McCarthyism, with the amateurs of the Internet being the communists.  It’s a new era but the same story; if you’re with the Internet than you’re against professionals and academics.

One thing Keen said did resonate with my values and that was his take on the erosion of privacy because of the Internet.  He says, “In a culture with no concept of privacy, there wouldn’t be an inner life. Nothing would be kept to ourselves. We would livestream 24 hours a day.”  While again I don’t agree with his sensationalism, I do agree that privacy is rapidly disappearing.  Just look at Twitter and Facebook, two of the most popular social services available, that encourage constant communication with those around us.  Not profoundly life-changing thoughts, but just what’s on our minds at any given moment.  This constant stream of consciousness adds to the waves of amateur content that saturates the Internet, but these services have allowed for journalists to communicate with their audiences in new ways so they are not all bad.

I do agree that because of the simplicity of the Internet and the fact that it reaches the largest possible audience of any medium that an endless sea of user-generated content is inevitable.  It’s also true that not all of it will be useful or well done either, but that doesn’t mean the bad is enough to condemn the good.  I mean if his argument is that the content is terrible because it lacks a professional touch, then does that mean that all professional content is infallible?  I believe that Jayson Blair and Stephen Glass were highly respected professionals at one point and their work turned out to be pure fiction.

Like many people, I don’t know what the Internet means for journalism, but I can speculate.  I think that as technology continues to evolve and is made more accessible more people will begin producing content and the quality of that content will rise over time.  Rather than fear this information revolution, I think professionals and academics should focus on teaching citizen journalists what defines great content.  By doing so, professional journalists will receive more from their audience when they attempt to use them as sources.  There’s no telling what kind of collaborations could be possible if the resources of the trained media were put in the hands of the enthusiastic masses.  As I said, I can only speculate, but I do know that if we live in absolute terror of what is to come, as Keen would advise us all to do, we will never know.


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