An Apology for Andrew Keen

Note: The link to Wikiscanner has been fixed.

I’ve been hard on Andrew Keen, though not as hard as some out there have been, who feel the Web world to be under assault by Keen’s book, The Cult of the Amateur, and feel an overwhelming need to take Keen to the mattresses.

That said, I do think his argument, at least the parts of it that aren’t fabricated, misread, misrepresented and misinterpreted… Okay, maybe his argument isn’t sound at all, but the concerns he raises and the questions he asks us to think about are extremely valuable.

David Weinberger, author of Everything is Miscellaneous, seems to think so too. Because of the subject of his book, the value of miscellaneous information and the new way of ordering it in the Web 2.0 world, Weinberger has been established as the Internet’s hero, Hector to Keen’s arrogant Achilles.

Of course, the two are not opponents, not really. No two academics are really opponents (unless one purposely destroys the other’s research in an act of jealousy and opportunism, leading the first scientist down the long and cold path of bittersweet revenge, a goal that will be realized only years later, when the scheming cheat is at the height of his ill-gotted success, too late for the revenger to realize he has destroyed both two lives in his relentless crusade for some distant ideal of justice…but that hardly ever happens).

Weinberger realizes this non-competition in an article he wrote for the Huffington Post, in which he lines out Keen’s argument point-by-point and then takes issue with it point-by-point.

This is how scholarship works, by presenting the best version of the argument you wish to analyze and then doing so. It’s the same thing I taught my freshman composition students to do in their papers; and every time I taught it, I told those freshmen not to think of it as a debate or argument with an “opponent.”

Simplification like that can close off valuable insights that might come during the writing process. Instead of looking objectively and fairly at the subject, the author attempt to defeat the enemy.

So, when Weinberger writes:

“Keen is so eager to show that the Internet is killing our culture that he dredges up every Net problem he can. After he’s thrown against the wall most of the known varieties of pasta, from elbow macaroni to spinach linguini, we’re left with a big soggy pile on the floor, and just a few bits have stuck.”

I don’t feel like he is treating Keen unfairly because Weinberger has spent the time and effort to present me with Keen’s best argument and then showed me why it doesn’t work. If the author wants to toss in a colorful metaphor to show off his writing skill, it only enriches my experience.

But I digress. Back to the value of Keen’s questions: Keen wants those of us who are enamored of the Web and its democratic potential (a concept older than the Web itself) to remember, essentially, that “with great power comes great responsibility.” Web 2.0 applications may give any user a voice, but that voice may not be as talented and polished as a veteran wordsmith.

Does that mean we should condemn the Internet, as Keen does? No, but it does mean we can’t always expect the best from a free system, at least not at the beginning.

For example, blogs have existed for years, since before the development of platforms like WordPress and MoveableType, but now software has made the process accessible. Anyone and everyone can and does post to a blog; and when the amount of material is growing so quickly, it’s likely most of it will be crap.

But look at sites like 9Rules and Technorati, which have become bastions of self-regulation it he blogosphere, allowing users to separate the wheat from the crap.

Software like WikiScanner will do the same for the Wikipedia, sooner or later.

Time will mature the Web 2.0. Have faith, but until that time, remember Keen’s over-the-top polemic, we should temper that faith with skepticism.


One thought on “An Apology for Andrew Keen

  1. Heh, I popped here from the very person you’re discussing, after reading your comment. Your opinion pretty much meshes with mine, so I wouldn’t have any real reason to comment (although congratulatory posts are acceptable I suppose) except:

    The wikiscanner link, you forget to include “http://” at the start of the address, so it’s been parsed as an internal link, which means it doesn’t actually work.

    Oddly, it’s the only link with this problem, and also the only link I bothered to click on.

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