Technology

BOOK REVIEW: Why YouTube may be hazardous to our culture

He calls his new book "The Cult of the Amateur: How Today's Internet Is Killing Our Culture," and it is a full-out, on-the-one-hand polemic.

He rails against YouTube, the blogosphere and Wikipedia, among other current Internet darlings that, in his view, devalue professionalism to the point of endangerment.

Today's Web is an infinite number of monkeys typing, Andrew Keen contends, producing not Shakespeare but "an endless digital forest of mediocrity." These amateurs hard at work draw the attention of the "amateur audience" and so threaten the lifeblood -- advertising and ticket and CD sales -- of the established media culture that supports demonstrably skilled writers, musicians, and filmmakers.

Keen, a Brit who moved to California in the 1990s and tried his hand at a first-Internet-boom startup (audiocafe.com), sees the democratic ideal of Web 2.0 -- the current iteration, dominated by so-called "user-generated content" -- as a formula for dreck.

"Democratization, despite its lofty idealism, is undermining truth, souring civic discourse, and belittling expertise, experience and talent," he writes, and all the pro-Web cheerleading keeps us from seeing that.

WISDOM OF THE CROWD?

These are 200 thoroughly engaging, brightly written pages, and those of us in the ranks of threatened professionals, especially, cannot help but nod in frequent agreement, between trips to the memo board to check for notice of new staff reductions.

Indeed, the arguments will appeal to anyone who has wondered how "group-think" managed to morph into "the wisdom of the crowd."

But in the name of fashioning a provocative book -- "killing our culture"? really? -- the author is also guilty of over-extrapolating from one moment in time.

Yes, right now, we are celebrating the amateur to the point of absurdity -- the point at which "amateur" is itself a positive quality arguing in favor of a short film or a piece of writing.

YouTube can be delightful as a window into a collective consciousness. It can steal hours as users follow a daisy-chain leading from one video to another, all of them made more engaging by the idea that they were created by just plain folks.

But what happens the fourth time you visit? The charm falls off the bracelet, and you hit the stop button on videos the moment they start getting sloppy.

Kid lip-syncing in a comic fashion? Seen it. LonelyGirl15? She turns out to be a fake amateur and, as professionally crafted fiction, she is, let's face it, kind of a drip. But the Web video from "Saturday Night Live" or even a Will Ferrell working expressly for the Internet, on his funnyordie.com site, is many cuts above.

If you're honest with yourself, you admit that two hours spent with well-chosen professional television or film is a much more rewarding experience, that reading the Guardian online is a vastly more efficient use of one's news-seeking time than jumping among 20 blogs in search of nuggets of wisdom.

A LACK OF FAITH

Keen knows this, but he doesn't have enough faith in people to see the correction that is bound to come as the faddishness and group-think guiding Web 2.0 confront the reality of a limited talent pool. The pendulum will swing back, not to the old dominance of professionals, but to a logical middle point. The amateur will be knocked off his pedestal, tossed back into the more general competition for people's time and money.

Keen also undervalues the clout professionally made media still has. Most of the most popular sites are old-media companies, in one form or another. The once-amateur sites that thrive -- sharp-eyed story highlighter boingboing.net, for instance -- do so because they are impeccably well crafted.

Revenue from Internet advertising or digital music sales does not now seem able to replace their declining real-world equivalents. But that's what happens when any disruptive new medium comes on the scene. There is a painful shaking out; ask a radio actor.

Inevitably, current businesses will die, shrink or adapt. The weak and the unlucky will go away. The strong and the lucky will find a way to make the new ecosystem, including a democratized Internet culture, work for them, in many instances by working with some of the new talent the Internet uncovers.

What won't change is the human need for reliable information and for art that engages, and people will go to whatever source can provide that. In the meantime, Andrew Keen serves as a valuable reminder that we should be wary, when considering the current Net, of listening only to those waving pompoms.

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