Defending Social Media: Keep Up Or Fall Back
Today I want to talk about a book called The Cult of the Amateur: How Today’s Internet is Killing Our Culture by Andrew Keen.arguing

First, let me say, as someone who is currently writing a book about social media, I know what a massive undertaking it is and I admire anyone who puts his opinion out there for people like me to tear into it. That said, this book made me so angry, I actually yelled at the author in the margins, writing on nearly every page, and called my friends shouting, “can you believe this guy?”

So, here’s the scoop. Keen asserts that social media, particularly user-generated content, is responsible for the downfall of Western civilization. I’m not even exaggerating. He declares that social media is ruining our economy, our culture and our values. Allow me to explain.

Keen pines for the days of a “single source of truth” citing people like Cronkite and Murrow. He conveniently ignores the fact that Murrow himself used to say there is no such thing as absolute truth and one must examine every side of every story. Here’s a quote from Keen (page 83):

Before Web 2.0, our collective intellectual history has been driven by the careful aggregation of truth. But, with democratized media, we are creating a collective memory that is deeply flawed.

It’s as if Keen doesn’t understand that history and journalism and truth are created by humans and that humans are fallible and that truth itself changes with time. Truth is based in perspective. I’m sure a North American history book’s account of a singular event would be quite different than one from Eastern Europe or a history book’s account from India. I’m certain that newspaper reports of periods in history from the 1800s in this country would be considered false by today’s zeitgeist. So, this “careful aggregation of truth” is itself false.

Keen asserts that in social media, misinformation can spread with frightening speed causing permanent damage to reputations. While it’s true that rumors can easily spread through social media, this is certainly not attributable solely the Web. One need only recall Richard Jewell, a genuine hero who saved countless lives during the 1996 Olympic bombing in Atlanta and who was vilified in mainstream press who accused him of the crime. He wasn’t exonerated in the press until nearly a decade later when the real bomber was caught. (Sadly, Jewell died only a year after being finally heralded for the hero that he was.) Similarly, radio stations have been to blame for many rumors and misinformation campaigns, even as practical jokes. So, the idea that social media has launched some new concern over misinformation here is laughable.

Furthermore, Keen dismisses citizen journalists outright as having no impact on journalism today. Here, he conveniently forgets that bloggers are breaking many of the major stories media cover. It was bloggers who called out Lonely Girl and Sony’s PSP Flog. News of the Alberto Gonzales scandal and Rathergate, just to name a few, came from bloggers.

Keen claims that bloggers are not credible because their anonymity can hide an agenda. Let’s set aside the fact that most bloggers do identify themselves and their backgrounds. Again, he ignores the bias found in a lot of traditional media or people like Jeff Gannon pretending to be an objective White House corespondent who was actually on the GOP payroll. Or, David Manning, the fake movie critic made up by a major studio to fake positive reviews, or FEMA’s fake press conference.

Title (i.e. journalist or blogger) does not equal credibility; that comes from the content of one’s work.

Keen spends an awful lot of time talking about inferior work being made available for the masses. Of course, “inferior” is a subjective term. For example, he rants against Web 2.0 enabling self-publishing of authors. He says on page 55:

[these sites] enable anyone to publish anything, regardless of quality. Blurb and Lulu are where the untalented go to purchase the veneer of publication…with 40,000 new books published each year by major houses, do we really need to weed through the embarrassing efforts of hundreds of thousands of self-published novelists, historians and motorists? Do we really need to wade through the tidal wave of amateurish work of authors who have never been professionally selected for publication?

Let’s set aside the arrogance of his suggestion that all self-published work is embarrassing and amateurish- my question is where is the harm here? Publishing houses have not stated any financial impact because of self-publishing – a fact Keen himself notes. And, yet, he rails against the idea of user-generated content in terms of books. Point of fact, according a a friend of mine who works for a major house (who asked not to be named), “books are not selected based on how good or bad they are, it’s how well we can market them.”

Anyone who knows me knows I love the written word and I have read books from major houses that were not to my taste and others from indie houses or self-published authors that captivated me. Either way, I cannot possibly see how having more choices and more voices is a bad thing.

This is what most bothers me about Keen’s theory: the idea that the way it was always done is the only way it should be. It’s a horribly debilitating philosophy in business and in life.

Keen also rails against digital music, pining for his beloved Tower Records. And, yes, I loved hanging out at Turtles Records and Tapes in Atlanta as a kid. I did. But, I can tell you that I and millions of others are being introduced to more kinds of music from more places because of social media. Again, how is that a bad thing?

Now, Keen spends a lot of time talking about the cost of democratization in terms of job losses and business closing down. On page 27 he says:

Perhaps the biggest casualties of Web 2.0 are the read businesses with real products, real employees, and real shareholders. Every defunct record label or laid off newspaper reporter or bankrupt independent music store is a consequence of user-generated content.

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And, hey, he’s right. Absolutely. People are losing their jobs. Industries are changing. This is what happens with growth. I imagine wagon-wheel makers lost their jobs when cars came on the scene. Undertakers probably took a hit with penicillin, that doesn’t mean it was a bad thing. Any one can learn how to utilize social media and blogging, take for example HammerXL, the owner had been one of my clients who wanted to better promote his product, Hammer XL which advertises itself as the best male enhancement.

My industry, PR has been completely turned on its head with social media and user-generated content. But, those who embrace change survive and even thrive. We’ve already talked about how the Chicago Tribune has increased readership through social media while other papers are shutting their doors.

I know we all come face to face with Keen’s thinking quite often. Our clients may not be ready to embark on a social media campaign. Maybe our own companies are timid. But, as I’ve said here many times, technology changes the game. It always has and it always will. You have two options: keep up or fall back. Here’s hoping we all go for the former.

 

— my two cents