Sunday, October 21, 2007

The Cult of the Amateur

Yes, I'm finally getting around to reviewing this book, two weeks after I finished it.

Remember how I said a couple of weeks ago that I had not been tempted to throw the book across the room while reading the first 20 pages? Well, the book-throwing impulse kicked in between pages 27 and 69, which I read while stuffed into a center airplane seat between two people who, I suspect, were not interested in hearing me rant about the book. So instead I sat there and scribbled angry things in a little notebook so I could blog them when I got back.

Surprisingly, the part of the book that aggravated me the most was that Keen just fundamentally does not understand economics. (The part that I had expected to find the most aggravating—Keen's insistence that people who are not trained journalists/columnists/critics cannot possibly produce good and useful work—ran a distant second.) Despite his protestations that he is not anti-progress, Keen is indeed a Luddite in the historical sense of that term—someone who recognizes that economic progress is about to make his job obsolete and who wishes to halt that particular aspect of economic progress. Keen recognizes, correctly, that mainstream media's old economic model isn't working in the Web 2.0 world, because the mainstream media has been undercut on price by bloggers who are willing to produce a comparable product (note that I said comparable, not equivalent) for less money (in this case, generally free). “[P]erhaps the biggest casualties of the Web 2.0 revolution are real businesses with real products, real employees, and real shareholders,” Keen writes on page 27. “Every defunct record label, or laid-off newspaper reporter, or bankrupt independent bookstore is a consequence of 'free' user-generated Internet content.” On page 62 he discusses a contest that Frity-Lay ran in which amateurs created commercials for Doritos. He calculates that this contest cost Frito-Lay $331,000 less than it would have cost them to pay for a professionally-created spot. “That's $331,000 that wasn't paid to professional filmmakers, scriptwriters, actors, and marketing companies—$331,000 sucked out of the economy.”

Except that that money wasn't sucked out of the economy. Frito-Lay did not take that money out back and burn it; they spent it on something else—something else that, in their professional judgment, was more valuable than a professionally-created advertisement. Listen carefully, because this is important: it is pretty much always and everywhere a good thing when people and corporations can meet the same needs while spending fewer resources, because that frees up resources that can be used to meet needs that weren't getting met before. One of my favorite econ blogs tipped me off to a great statistic today: There are more World of Warcraft players than farmers in the U.S. today. Something like 2% of the U.S. population today are farmers, compared to around 33% 100 years ago and 90% 200 years ago. Yes, it must have been scary to be a farmer during the early days of the Industrial Revolution, or to be an automotive assembly line worker or a journalist today—but the net result of jobs in these industries being destroyed isn't eternal suffering, it's freeing people up to do things that weren't being done before. If it still took 90% of the population just to grow the crops we needed to feed and clothe ourselves, there wouldn't be nearly enough people left over to produce all of the luxuries that we take for granted today. Anecdotally, living in Detroit, I've heard that a lot of the auto workers who are taking buyouts from the Big Three are going back to school to train for jobs in health care. Who would have wound up taking care of all of the aging baby boomers if progress hadn't made so many automotive jobs obsolete? I don't know what the journalists, columnists and critics who are being displaced by bloggers are going to wind up doing in the future, but I'm sure that somebody will come up with something more productive for them to do, and afterwards we'll wonder how we ever could have lived without having people doing that thing.

Look, nobody is holding any guns to anybody's heads anywhere in this process. I'm sure that the amateurs who submitted commercials to the Frito-Lay contest had a blast making them. People write blogs because they enjoy writing them; people read the blogs that they read because they enjoy reading them. If people want to pay Keen (or anybody else) to keep writing, nobody is saying that they can't. If newspapers can come up with a business model that allows them to bring in enough advertising revenue to continue publishing, more power to them. But if people feel that their information/entertainment needs are being met by free user-created content, then more power to them, too—I'm sure that they can find other things to spend their hard-earned money on that will bring them more utility than paying for content.

After the third chapter, the book began to suffer from the malady that is so common to popular non-fiction books: the author has enough material to write an excellent long-form essay (think a New York Times magazine cover story, or the extended pieces carried by Atlantic Monthly and the New Yorker), but prefers the larger paycheck that comes with writing a book and not a magazine article. So, they pad what would have been a very excellent essay (and as much as I'm shredding some of Keen's arguments here, he is an excellent writer with some good points and I do think that there's an excellent essay to be made out of the first three chapters) with a lot of not-entirely-relevant filling to make it book-length. Identity theft (Chapter 7) and online gambling (Chapter 6) are both very bad things that have been facilitated by the Internet, but their connection to the "cult of the amateur" that Keen is decrying is awfully tenuous. Similarly the problem of music piracy (Chapters 4 and 5). Keen's cult of the amateur theory—in a nutshell, that people are turning away from traditionally produced and vetted culture in favor of unregulated dross—is actually disproved in a certain sense by the music industry. Despite the fact that there are thousands of unsigned bands running around posting their music free for the taking on MySpace, people by and large still prefer music created by professional musicians acting within the traditional label system. The fact that they prefer to steal it rather than buy it is a problem, but it's not a problem that's particularly tightly tied to the Web 2.0/Cult of the Amateur phenomenon.

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