Democratisation or death? 

9 March 2008

It’s been suggested that ‘Web 2.0’ applications – from blogs to Wikipedia to MySpace and YouTube – are ‘democratising’ the Internet and allowing everyone to have a voice. Chris Anderson’s ‘Long Tail’ argument suggests that the Net allows you to reach a market for even the most specialist product. But what price democratisation if you can’t trust the accuracy of a word you read, and almost everything you hear is crap? Does Web 2.0 mean the end of culture as we know it? Richard Elen contemplates a most modern dilemma.

I’m in the process of reading Andrew Keen’s book The Cult of the Amateur, in which he argues that not only our media but our entire culture is being eroded by ‘Web 2.0’ applications like blogging, Wikipedia, social networking sites and YouTube. These systems, he believes, glorify amateur, non-reviewed, ‘non-expert’ contributions against those by people who know what they are talking about.

The result, according to Keen, is an environment in which you can’t trust a Wikipedia article because it’s probably either been written by people who know little or by those who have an axe to grind; amateur or paid-amateur bloggers are undermining traditional journalism; you can’t tell whether a piece of video on YouTube is real, imaginary or a commercial; and the music industry is being destroyed by a combination of acres of crap in which locating a decent piece of music is like searching for a needle in a haystack, and the fact that if it’s any good it’s being illegally downloaded and nobody makes any money. Chris Anderson’s Long Tail theory, in which the Internet guarantees a market for even the most nichey of niche products, is just plain wrong, according to Keen.

In fact, I find Keen a lot more frustrating than Anderson. Keen makes some good points, but then he ruins them with fallacious argument. He complains about the disappearance of his favourite Tower Records store, where the staff were always helpful and they stocked “deep catalogue”, yet admits that the helpful staff were largely underpaid student music enthusiasts who wanted to be near the records. He is unhappy that today you get your discs from and the only people to help you are the amateurs who give biased views on the catalogue pages. But isn’t Amazon where the “deep catalogue” is now, and aren’t those reviewers the same music enthusiasts who used to hang out in the stores? I can tell you, I can find stuff every day online that even my favourite Tower Records store – the one that used to be on Sunset Boulevard in Los Angeles – in its heyday would not have had on its shelves.

Keen is pissed off that everybody is doing illegal file sharing and the record companies aren’t making any money – but he blithely believes their figures as if they were accurate. Never, for a start, believe anyone who tells you they lost this much money because people were able to do that – they simply don’t know what people would buy if they couldn’t get it for free. And don’t forget that many people sell direct through their website or whatever today, and it never touches a record company of the traditional sort, so it’s not in their numbers: as a result, of course conventional sales are plummeting – musicians can finally escape the clutches of the record company mogul, thank God.

Kirsty Hawkshaw, noted dance hitmistress, just released her new album, Ice Castle, with Magnatune (motto: “We Are Not Evil”), where it immediately became the most popular download. You get to choose your price, share the download with up to three friends, and Kirsty gets half the money. And the results are way better for her than a regular record company deal, while the buyer doesn’t get music they can’t use for most of the things they want to do with it. And – whoops! – a UK hit artist has dropped off the record company radar, and does not exist in their reporting of sales: Kirsty’s success is actually billed as a failure by the record companies and blamed on file sharing. How wrong can you be?

But where Keen really gets my goat is his touching faith in professional journalists, whether on the air or in print. Does the average journalist on Fox News deliver a more balanced view than a rabid right-wing blogger? I don’t think so. In fact that’s where they get a lot of their material. Does the typical Wall Street Journal technology reporter – in a rush to write a story on deadline, dipping in to a subject to see what someone else told them to check out, bash out a quick few paras and on to the next topic – really have the depth of knowledge on any subject that an enthusiast might enjoy? Or, heaven forfend, that a professional in that field (who doesn’t happen to be a professional journalist) might know?

Keen records the story of the Reuters Lebanese photographer who was caught setting up his shots and was suitably pilloried by his employers and his profession, and notes that this doesn’t happen in the Blogosphere or on YouTube, where anyone can concoct any kind of image and people will believe it – but of course, as Keen knows (because he mentions it), it took a blogger to spot that image-laundering in Lebanon.

Meanwhile, media hysteria about child-molesting and pædophilia has resulted in 90% of US resources being angled at protecting children from strangers, where the fact is that only 5% of molested children are attacked by strangers: if a child is not molested at home by their parents or close family members, they probably won’t get molested at all. British tabloid media are little better. This and other disasters are the starting point for Steve Salerno’s long but important article in eSkeptic.

Yes, of course, Keen is right that we should not have a situation where one of the world’s leading authorities on climate change, writing up the current state of scientific research, is banned from Wikipedia for having a “Point Of View” on the subject and has his work redacted. Of course we have to be aware that the YouYube video we are enjoying is often an advertising vehicle.

But in many cases I would trust an amateur enthusiast a great deal more than a ‘professional’ journalist, up against a deadline, without the time or knowledge to research a technical topic properly, or with a media-owner’s political axe to grind in writing a story. But, please God, if only they had editors!

There is a place for traditional media values, whether or not they are expressed through traditional media formats – this is one reason the current discussion of trust in broadcasters is important – and there is certainly a danger that the lack of editors and standards means that much of the information on the Net cannot be trusted and you need a second opinion.

But there remaining a place for traditional media values relies on them actually being there, and not merely existing in a fantasy world where only professional journalists and producers can tell a good story, and where the professionals actually manage to meet their own standards most or even some of the time.

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