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June 06, 2007

More Idiotic Panic About the Online World

I read this article today on some fellow named Andrew Keen, whose book The Cult of the Amateur: How today's Internet is killing our culture takes the position that, well, the internet is killing culture, apparently because it lets anyone say anything, and then anyone can listen to them, instead of listening to the experts (provided to us, presumably, by a gracious and disinterested traditional media, which seeks only truth and knowledge).

I haven't read the book, so I can't comment on it directly, but this Keen fellow has wrung his hands about the Internet before, most notably in this essay for the Weekly Standard, in which he compared the Web 2.0 with Marxism, which must have given all those Silicon Valley millionaires and billionaires a nice hearty chuckle as they lounged in their hot tubs filled with hookers and blow (indeed, anyone who buys this "Web 2.0 = Marxism" nonsense is invited to scope out FanLib, which is the ne plus ultra of the worker alienated from her labor).

Keen has since written other tub thumpers against the Web; one assumes this book is a continuation of that gravy train. It's nice work for him if he can get it, although Publishers Weekly, at least, is less than impressed with the book, noting "his jeremiad about the death of 'our cultural standards and moral values' heads swiftly downhill." That darn traditional media!

Anyway, based on what I have read of this Keen fellow, despite his own tech history and savvy (he's even got his own site!), he's got his head well up his ass for a lot of reasons, and I'd like to point out two of them.

1. The Internet is not nearly as "amateur" as he asserts. The issue is not how many people there are on the Web but who is listened to, and if one bothers to cruise, say, the most popular blogs on the Internet, as ranked by Technorati, one notes -- or should note -- that nearly all of them are professional blogs, written by people who are experts in their fields and/or are professional journalists and/or owned by multinational media corporations.

Anecdotally, even regarding personal blogs, it's been my experience that the most popular personal blogs and sites are the ones written and maintained by people who are experts in one field or another, and very often were so before they began to write online -- which makes sense because the online medium is still relatively new. Much of the arrogance of folks in other media regarding the online world is steeped in the misapprehension that by definition, no one writing online, particularly independently or on a personal blog, has any formal expertise on any subject -- and that online readers make no discrimination between someone without formal knowledge opining on a subject, and someone with experience doing the same. Among many other things, this shows rather a lot of ignorance regarding who is blogging, and shows contempt toward readers.

Look, I'm an example of this, aren't I? Yes, I'm amusing, and it brings people in. But the fact that I can speak knowledgeably on any number of subjects because I am a paid, professional expert on them -- science fiction, film, writing, the online world -- is a major reason why people keep coming back, and why I get 25K visitors on a daily basis. People seek out expertise when they can; they may not know a science fiction writer or a film critic in their social circle, but they feel like they know me (or at least, know me as much as it is possible to know anyone online), and thus when they have a question that involved these areas of expertise, they feel they can ask. I know it works this way because this is what I've been doing here for years and what I see quite a few other bloggers doing. That I and they will also discuss other subjects (or put up pictures of cats, or whatever) is neither here nor there to this.

2. As telegraphed by the assertion that Web 2.0 is akin to Marxism, I suspect Keen is actually rather less concerned about culture than he is about economics. More to the point, I suspect his shirt-rending over culture is a stalking horse for his apparent fetish for 20th Century western capitalism. Thus, moaning about the online denaturing of the culture of "Mozart, Van Gogh and Hitchcock" is pretty amusing considering the Mozart lived in a time in which artists had almost no enforcable IP protections, Van Gogh famously sold almost nothing in his life and owes his fame to the transmission of his art via the public domain, and Hitchcock worked in an industry whose founding fathers moved their work to California to avoid Thomas Edison's monopoly on film, and who were called pirates in their day. This is to say that culture functions just fine regardless of the economic system in which it happens to be.

The major economic problem with old-line media and culture outlets is not the online world allows people to democratize the culture but that the old-line media were simply caught flat-footed when the economic river jumped its banks and left their business models high and dry. The example given of Wikipedia and Encyclopedia Britannica in that first linked article is actually a good one for this: The reason Wikipedia is pre-eminent encyclopedia online is not because the public has a democratic fetish when it comes to encyclopedias; it's that Britannica -- which had been caught flat-footed business-wise several times in the last 15 years, and which is basically a model example of how not to work with technology -- opted to offer its product to the public using a business model -- a paid subscription service -- that doesn't work. I say this as someone who has had a subscription to Britannica for years, incidentally.

If the Britannica people had any brains at this point, what they would do is open up their main content (not just the skimpy free articles they have up) and then plaster context-sensitive ads down the margin, make their money that way and then ramp up the ancillary product lines. This is an economic model that seems to work online, and I suspect rather strongly that it would work for them; shirt-rending aside, people do still want expert information, and there is a profit to be made off it, albeit in a manner different from what Britannica is used to.

And this is the point, of course: The market has changed, but it is still a market. Quality information (and culture) will still extract a premium. But how that premium is extracted, and from whom, is what is truly at issue here. I'm sad for Keen that his favorite economic model is getting its ass kicked online, but his inability to see that this is a fairly straightforward business problem should not be equated to the end of culture as we know it.*

Speaking of paranoid Marxist fantasies, here's a fun quote regarding Keen: "He is not against technology: he just wants to see a bit more control." Really. Control by whom? The government? Roving bands of technocratic bureaucrats, straight out of the spittle-flinging finale of Things to Come? Talk about a lack of faith in the free market and in the free market of ideas. Panicked hand-fluttering aside, we are not in the grip of some informational corollary of Gresham's Law, in which bad information drives out the good. Information is not a plug nickel. In a free market of ideas, bad information devalues itself and creates value for good information -- no one likes to be fed crap forever.

Finally, if Keen wants to wail that hoi polloi does not know how to differentiate between good and bad information, then he ought to ask why. If he doesn't find himself pointing an accusatory finger at the same "culture" he now strives to defend against the Big Bad Web, he's an even shallower thinker than I suspect he is.

(*On the subject of Wikipedia, I do find myself in agreement with Keen that at least some Wikipedia admins appear to be actively hostile to experts in the field coming in and making edits to articles in topics they feel territorial about. This is one of the many reasons I don't believe anything I read in Wikipedia until I read from another source I know I can generally trust. Now you know why I keep my Britannica subscription.)

Posted by john at June 6, 2007 04:19 PM

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JC | June 6, 2007 04:44 PM

APM's Future Tense podcast devoted two segments to an interview with him. (I think that's about 6-7 minutes of interview.)

The impression that I got from listening to him speak is that he doesn't seem very knowledgeable about the Internet. He spent a lot of time hammering home that he doesn't like blogs and that we need professional journalists. He seemed to think those two are linked, but I missed the bit where he made the connection. I mean, what's to stop us from having both blogs and professional journalists. Isn't that what we have now?

John Scalzi | June 6, 2007 04:45 PM

Well, I'm a blogger and a professional journalist (I've got a recent magazine paycheck to prove that point), so, yes. Yes, that's what we have now.

Ron Hogan | June 6, 2007 04:51 PM

6-7 minutes of interview? Pish tosh! I've got a whole hour of conversation with him about how blogs affect publishing for you to download. Warning: The MP3 contains certain words.

Chang, for rizzle. | June 6, 2007 04:56 PM

Yeah, this is whinging alng the liens of what you were commenting on earlier with the whole BEA thing about the Innernets killing our bookzes.

Sven Birkerts came through town to speak at Waterstone's in Boston about 12 years ago to complain about how type was being killed by digital technologies and the impending digitization of everything by the world wide web. A friend of mine, Jay Kirk, got all weepy about the death of books. I consoled him with some chocolate and told him Berkerts was wrong.

Can I proclaim my victory now?

Captain Button | June 6, 2007 05:00 PM

(I'm commenting on the general "The Internet will doom us all" viewpoint, not on Mr. Keen's work.)

My snarky take on all this is that people who control the traditional chokepoints of information are angry and scared at the danger that their just prey may escape them.

There's probably a good metaphor in there about lions and waterholes, but I can't come up with it right now.

There have been many attempts to try and create chokepoints on the Internet with "portals" and such, but have any have been really successful (except for Google)?

Part of the problem is that they often seem to be designed like box traps, where you lure prey in with bait and then grab them. But the prey in this case tend to be extremely slippery and elusive.

Todd Stull | June 6, 2007 05:15 PM

The problem with Keen's argument is that personal blogs don't have much of an effect on culture and big ideas. Most of the personal blogs I see are crap. I visit them once, and then bounce them out of my browser. So to the extent that the web is amateur, it makes nary a ripple on culture.

John Scalzi | June 6, 2007 05:19 PM

Todd Stull:

I do suspect he's trying to encompass more than blogs, but, yes.

Steve Buchheit | June 6, 2007 05:20 PM

Chang, for rizzle, actually, type was killed by the desktop revolution. As someone who was trained in design before (well, right at the turn) I can state with full conviction, that type these days, while filled with a plethora of fonts, is a sad mirror of pre-desktop. That has a lot to do with the advent of the "non-professional" in the business. There are still those of us who can and do, we're a vanishing breed for those that do faster. But this has more to do with the commoditization of design than anything else.

The interweebie thing, though, does reward professionals in communications (those that adapted) in a way opposite of how Desktop drug us all down in to price wars.

Steve Buchheit | June 6, 2007 05:36 PM

I should also say, I certainly like working with type a whole lot more on the computer than doing paste-up.

Christian | June 6, 2007 05:37 PM

When I see the words "internet" and "amateur" coupled together, I start bouncing up and down in my seat and get a warm, tingly feeling inside.

We now return you to your regularly scheduled (and non-sexual) discussion...

Seth Breidbart | June 6, 2007 05:55 PM

Who is more of an expert on, say, security: Bruce Schneier on his blog, or whichever NY Times reporter wrote an article about it this week? (Sure, the Times reporter interviewed Bruce, and probably didn't understand what Bruce told him.)

What I see here is an example of people who are mediocre to incompetent at what they are paid for being very afraid of people who are better at it, and objecting to the medium that makes the comparison available and obvious.

Erika | June 6, 2007 06:01 PM

The "amateurs are flooding the market with a free, albeit sub-standard product" argument is stupid, of course. (I can stand on a street corner and [try to] give away cans of store-brand cola all day long, and it still won't make a dent in Coke's profits.)

That doesn't stop various cranks and coots from making the argument, though, does it? But come on. Why bother discussing things in a reasonable, rational, intelligent fashion? It's WAY more fun to blame a scapegoat.

Yeah, internet amateurs! They're to blame! THEY RUIN EVERYTHING.

PixelFish | June 6, 2007 06:22 PM

I would say in some circumstances, the web has lead to more quality rising to the top....not less. Of course, you can't account for popularity, but people are being exposed to vast quantities of ideas and the iterations of those ideas. They don't have to take the local iteration as the Best.

And that's where I'd say your assertion on this being about economics and controlling the economics comes in. The market he perceives as no longer benefitting him. But since we're still speaking economically, we're have a large influx of resources, ideas, and competition.....and generally speaking, all that competition breeds growth and more knowledge. He's upset because he felt he was part of a group that had a monopoly on that particular product called Authority. He got to be an Authority, and...this is important, when you are Authority, you have the power to declare who else is Authority. The internet disrupts that because people get to actually use the unseen hand of Capitalism to determine where Authority lies. As the internet lets other people establish themselves as Authority, he feels a dilution of his Authority. He feel it becomes worth less, and thus he rants about the mechanism that broached his monopoly.

That's how I'd read it anyway.

PixelFish | June 6, 2007 06:26 PM

Steve: I think type is going to scrape through and be fine as an art form, but I may be biased because I went to school with one of the Typophile guys and I know he's passionate about his type creations. Sure, you have the horrible free fonts and the rip-offs of the classic foundries, but the thing is....there will be designers that specialise and know the difference. (Plus, you know some of us designers like being legal when we work.) The good stuff still eventually rises to the top where it matters. And the designers will also benefit and rise by using the cream of the fonts....it's a sort of ecosystem with mutual symbiotic benefits.

cheshiregrins | June 6, 2007 06:32 PM

Heard the Future Tense interview on MPR this morning. Stopped taking him seriously when he unleashed his particular revulsion for amateurs working in their underwear. Apparently they are ever so much more so untrustworthy and disreputable.

Theresa | June 6, 2007 07:05 PM

On a purely philisophical level, amateurs have rights to access to cutting edge information, too. (and the benefits that come with it) I mean, what makes Keen think the "monkeys (amateurs)" unworthy of the same internet priviledges as a modern citizens have? The last time I checked, advance of techonology was made possible by scientists and private and government funding throughout history. Claming a right to monopoly of the endeavors of countless of people in history? Keen's argument is flawed. He reminds me of a certain historical figures who claimed monopoly on similarly valued commodity--oil. And his views smell like those found in Allan Bloom's book "Closing of American Mind" which argued that multiculturalism is contributing to the death of good culture, of European art, philosophy, logical thinking. His views are now widely regarded as passe/wrong. One has to consider the corresponding sociological aspects of an issue, and clearly, the idea of a right to the commodity of information based on "professional merit", sounds just midguided.

PixelFish: I agree that the best and the most skilled will eventually rise to the top in the internet that magnifies the competition aspect of it all.

Ron Hogan | June 6, 2007 07:41 PM

Here's my favorite bit from that Times article, admittedly not Keen's own expression of his position:

"In a world without newspapers, publishing houses, film studios, radio and TV stations there’ll be nobody to discover and--no less important--to nurture talent. The result could be no less catastrophic than Pol Pot’s decision to eliminate talent and expertise in Cambodia by mass execution."

That's right, folks: The blogosphere is right up there with Pol Pot!

Chang, for rizzle. | June 6, 2007 08:23 PM

Steve Buccheit: Chang, for rizzle, actually, type was killed by the desktop revolution.

Oh, yeah, word. My uncle was in a printing business and that much was clear to me when the business up and died. I know there are a few stalwarts out there (Bruce Licher) but not enough to make a dent. It's all Desktop Publishing. Can't help but think I've put a few of the nails in the coffin.

Kate | June 6, 2007 08:33 PM

Well, I really want to go into 'dismantle and conquer' mode in regards to the piece of journalistic trash that called attention to a completely one sided argument, but I'll spare you the long version. Here are a few points:

1.) Isn't Keen guilty of the same thing he's preaching about? Just using a different medium? Aren't you entitled to disagree with his so called 'expert' opinion?

2.) Yes, my personal blog may be 'crap' filled with amateurish writing, music and pictures of my kids, but you know what, it's my amateurish crap and music and my kids. None of which I'm trying to sell.

Why do I put it out there for other people to read/listen/smile at? Because in a lot of ways, it gives me the motivation to get better and oh yeah, it happens to be tons of fun.

3.) As far as the music business is concerned, if I didn't have to pay 20.00 for a traditional CD, 18 dollars of which goes to line the pockets of the record industry while the original artist starves, perhaps I wouldn't look to online alternatives. (Yes, I pay for all my music.)

Whining about things will only get these industries so far back into the black. Record labels, publishers, news outlets, movie studios, and whomever may be threatened by the online mediocrity and readily available transfer of information, should take the steps to usher themselves into the digital age, instead of crying in their cornflakes and waging a lawsuit war on a beast they will one day be unable to control.

4.) As far as wikipedia, the historical assignment I did for John's AOL blog (By the Way) last weekend, I used wikipedia, but also went out searching for more accurate information from other sources.

The one thing I was taught back in the good ole days of highschool was that only a fool trusts only one source of information. If getting accurate and right information is important to your quest in becoming an intelligent being on this planet, the hunt for truth itself should be a first priority.

Patrick, The Space Lord | June 6, 2007 08:35 PM

I come here for the funny pictures, but I suppose we could call you an expert on that, right? Ooh, and the witty banter. Is there a test you had to take to become an expert in witty banter? Do you hold a witty banter certification?

Patrick, The Space Lord | June 6, 2007 08:44 PM

"There's probably a good metaphor in there about lions and waterholes, but I can't come up with it right now." -- Captain Button

It's like they are lions guarding their waterholes and fast moving flying saucers are blasting them with super-charged, hot, streaking, green, laser beams and one by one they go 'ploomp' into a furry ball of blue flame, 'cause lions burn bright blue when zapped by aliens.

TransDutch | June 6, 2007 08:57 PM

Well, back in the 1800s Victor Hugo wrote about how the Printing Press destroyed Architecture (Notre Dame de Paris). And now the architecture (of the internet) is destroying the printing press...so it's clearly just a cycle, like weather patterns. No need to get worried.

The internet (or more precisely email) has pretty much eliminated letter writing. Which is of some legitimate concern to historians. Not too many people save their emails. However, personal blogs are a somewhat modern equivalent of letters. And archive.org is maintaining copies of a lot of them. And there's Usenet's archives too. So some similar historical documents are being preserved.

For pretty much anything important that is potentially threatened you can find equivalents that are being created.

Matt McIrvin | June 6, 2007 09:22 PM

I do think that individual online fora do tend eventually to deteriorate in a Gresham's Law-like manner--once the spammers, rage addicts and shit-stirrers take over, it drives out the people one might actually want to read. I don't know of any long-lasting solution to this. It happened to most of Usenet years ago; it happens to a lot of web fora. It may be happening in a strange second-order way to Wikipedia, as the very rules established to keep the whole thing from degenerating into mush are too often abused for petty control games.

But nothing lasts forever, on the Internet or off. Letters columns and pre-Internet fandoms show the same life cycle. The great thing about the web, and especially about things like blogging tools, is that they let you generate new fora with very little up-front investment; as long as this is possible, barring some technological collapse and if your country's government or some other controlling entity isn't cracking down too hard (which can be a big if), you can start the cycle anew.

Kirsty | June 6, 2007 09:24 PM

"In a world without newspapers, publishing houses, film studios, radio and TV stations there’ll be nobody to discover and--no less important--to nurture talent. The result could be no less catastrophic than Pol Pot’s decision to eliminate talent and expertise in Cambodia by mass execution."

Bullshit. Clearly this person has been paying no attention to how things currently work online. I'm involved with The Here Gallery, a small non-profit artist-run gallery in Bristol, England. We show some local artists but we also show artists from abroad, who we invariably discover through their blogs and websites. Despite having no public funding we've been able to show lots of artists who've never shown in Britain before. Sometimes they're fairly well known in their own country but often they're young artists who are just starting out. Without the web we simply would not have known those artists existed and they wouldn't have had the opportunity to show in a different country at a time in their careers when they've not yet been picked up by the mainstream art press and the big galleries. They have talent, we nurture their talent - everyone's happy.

Similarly, I've bought music by people who don't have mainstream distribution because I've heard it on podcasts. I've donated to artists who are drawing and sharing amazing cartoons and comic book art online. I've heard about books that I wouldn't otherwise have known about. On YouTube I've seen TV clips from programmes shown in other countries. Most importantly I've been exposed to people from all around the world whom I would otherwise have no way of connecting with. Just this week I've been talking to a couple of Russian users of Livejournal about their political climate.

But despite being very wired (4 people, 4 computers), my household still engages daily with non-net culture. We get a daily newspaper, subscribe to various magazines, watch TV, go to see films, visit museums and art galleries, hire DVDs, use the library, listen to the radio and buy books and CD's. If someone is interested in culture then they'll engage with culture whether they're online or not. If anything I engage with more culture now than I used to - certainly my music listening and buying has increased drastically since I got a mac with itunes installed on it.

Certain people are just running scared because their monopoly has been broken. But really, they're just being stupidly short-sighted because we're still going to need experts. We can't all do everything - there isn't time and we don't all have the skill. I can do little bits of selective research on my blog but I certainly couldn't go off and research stories in a war zone, nor would I want to. Nor am I ever going to be a film maker, an actor, a dancer or a musician - I don't have the time, talent or inclination.

So we're still going to have authors, poets, musicians, artists, film makers, animators, photographers, theatre directors, dancers, graphic designers and a host of other creative people. We'll also still have the people who help to organise the cultural sphere - gallery owners, curators, museum staff, music promoters, concert organisers, publishers, newspaper editors. Although some of those support people may need to revise their business models.

All that computers have done is free up the means of production so that it's available to more people. Now smart kids can make films in their bedrooms. But you know what, the really smart creative kids have always found a way to do that, computers just made it a little bit easier. And even then computers and the web are not a guarantee that 'everyone will become an artist'. Taking the gatekeepers away does not mean that we will drown in a sea of crap because it still takes a hell of an effort to make any kind of art and frankly, most people won't bother.

Also, people filter what they see online - I don't look at every single photo in flickr, read every single blog post on the web or listen to every single podcast. I make choices - sometimes random, sometimes informed. But I don't engage with every single piece of culture that happens offline either. It would be impossible to do so, there's too much. My filtering behaviour online is similar to my behaviour offline - I rely on word of mouth and reviews from sources whose judgement I value.

MWT | June 6, 2007 09:28 PM

"In a world without newspapers, publishing houses, film studios, radio and TV stations there’ll be nobody to discover and--no less important--to nurture talent."

... but the world no longer needs someone to do the discovering and nurturing of the talent. In a world where finding / showcasing talent is no longer an expensive endeavor, that "someone" is a middleman that can often be eliminated.

Steve Buchheit | June 6, 2007 10:27 PM

PixelFish, I see it in the business everywhere these days. Working for a commercial printer (printing is alive and well, thank you all very much, but it is a very different industry than when I started and there are a lot fewer of us) and having been in studio, some of the stuff that comes through these days is incredible. But that's about 5% of the work. Most of what I see (and sometimes am forced to do) I would have been embarassed to admit it was my work back when I started. Now, it's common place. And what some people accept as "good quality" to me is barely acceptable.

Forget custom kerning of type outside of headlines and logotypes, and if columns of type are tracked properly, it's unique. Book publishing is about the last place where I see excellent type work of this kind.

Commercial photography, I don't even want to think about what the digital point and shoot cameras have done to that field.

About the only pieces of photography that I really like anymore are some stuff we're doing with a wallpaper client. We're talking about color corrections to the point of thinking, "you know, if the humidity is off when we print this, you're not going to see the changes we're making." And thinking about, "can we discuss color temperatures (subject, lighting, imaging process) with your photographer at the begining." I mean, we see and use professional photography all the time, but it just isn't to the same standards we used to have (or I had, maybe). The high end of the stuff we do now was the low to medium end before.

Part of my side/home business involves redrawing logos for a marketing specialty business. One of my recent jobs was converting a "logotype" from Word to vector art. I kerned some of the type ("Ta" and "Pa" in the logo, in Arial -yick), and then I was forced to go back to the original because the client had no clue that there shouldn't be all that space. Uggos. When correct type looks wrong, something is rotten in Denmark.

Yeah, I'm a typophile, too. In almost all my design classes we had to hand letter and/or draw type. Show me a well designed face (even much of the "new" stuff, or Chank's stuff) and I love it. Take me to a restaurant and I no longer make my disgust known (my wife cured me of that), but you can bet I'm critiquing the design, layout, execution, and print quality in my head.

Evan | June 7, 2007 01:42 AM

There's only one field where the amateurs of the Internet are flooding out the professionals, driving the value of their work to near-free. That's the field of Punditry.

No wonder this guy is scared out of his mind.

Jon H | June 7, 2007 02:48 AM

John writes: "If the Britannica people had any brains at this point, what they would do is open up their main content (not just the skimpy free articles they have up) and then plaster context-sensitive ads down the margin, make their money that way and then ramp up the ancillary product lines"

Uh, yeah, they tried that for a few years around the turn of the century. Had topical articles, they ran a column annotating the crap Dennis Miller said on Monday Night Football, all that good stuff. Plus the full content of the encyclopedia.

Then one day they got the traffic-metrics stuff working. Called everyone to a meeting. Threw the graph up on the screen. All that ancillary material was getting virtually *no* traffic, compared to the core encyclopedia content. You could practically hear the groans from all the editorial staff who produced the non-core content.

I got laid off a couple of rounds of layoffs later, in March of '01, after they gave up on the free, ad-driven business model that wasn't working and reverted to a subscription model.

I just noticed recently that the Britannica website seems to be creeping a little more to the way it used to be, with free topical content. Only now it's mostly via a blog.

John Scalzi | June 7, 2007 02:58 AM

"Uh, yeah, they tried that for a few years around the turn of the century."

I don't recall them ever giving free access to the main content of the encylopedia (as opposed to access to mini-encyclopedia articles, which they do even now); at the very least I know I've had my Britannica subscription since I worked at AOL, which was 10 years back (I know this because my account information lists my address as my old AOL office space in Vienna, which we moved out of in 1996).

In any event, the online ad market of 2007 is emphatically not the online ad market of 2000; I'd be surprised if they had the same lack of success.

I should also note that when I talk of ancillary products I mean non-Internet stuff that mines the content of the encyclopedia, not just more online text and blogs, etc.

Kelsey | June 7, 2007 05:11 AM

Speaking of politcs and Wikipedia...

I'm in China and there's no Wikipedia. Why? The Chinese government was pissed because the entry said something about them being communists. So, they added the site to the long list of banned sites. Good luck finding much info about China while in China.

Jon H | June 7, 2007 10:07 AM

"I don't recall them ever giving free access to the main content of the encylopedia (as opposed to access to mini-encyclopedia articles, which they do even now); at the very least I know I've had my Britannica subscription since I worked at AOL, which was 10 years back "

I believe they had subscription- and non-subscription access, but I'm not sure what extra the subscription offered. Probably no ads.

The free ones were definitely full length, however.

Tim Keating | June 7, 2007 10:56 AM

You know, it never occurred to me, when I read this, but there's a parallel there between the evolution of technology and the Protestant Reformation. We no longer have to rely on the high priests interpreting the good book for us . . .

Tim Keating | June 7, 2007 10:57 AM

DOH! That should have said "until I read this," of course.

PixelFish | June 7, 2007 12:08 PM

Steve: I know what you mean about critiquing the menus. Hell, I'm rabid about dot gain, and after my package design job two jobs back, I've been known to look at a red, that normal people see as red, and rant about there being too much blue in it, while folks blink in wonder. I used to hand-kern more, but I shamefully admit to letting that slide in times of crunch.

Paul | June 7, 2007 01:11 PM

Everything dies or gets killed. In fifty years there will be some change away from the someday traditional social networking, free exchange of ideas, total connectivity, and lack of privacy, which is currently in its infancy. At that time people will bemoan the loss of 'culture'. Let it go, embrace change.


Laurie Mann | June 7, 2007 01:15 PM

I remember Britannica giving you a free trial month, but, after a month, you had to pay.

However, it's often possible to get the CD for the previous year for $5-$10. And that's what buy when I can find it.

I'm not as much of a Wikipedia fan these days because some of the people "in charge" (or who think they are in charge) think nothing of tagging content pejoratively if they simply don't like it. Accuracy doesn't seem to be as important to them as some bizarre flavor of political correctness.

Chris | June 7, 2007 01:18 PM

But, we are destroying the culture. We want to destroy the culture...don't we?

Us blogging types seem to spend a lot of time complaining about the general quality we get from Big Media/Big Business/Big Academia/Big Just About Anything and we complain about them burying stories and ignoring Us. We should want to destroy that culture, right?

The big problem is one word: Truth. No one has a Monopoly on that.

Bloggers and WebTypes are no more free from personal/professional bias than Fox News, AL-Jezera or any other outlet. We all have our baggage and opinions and we're able to show them off much easier in WebSpace. The Big Media will do whatever makes money, and that's fine; a comany gotta eat. Bloggers have the luxury of ignoring whatever they don't feel like talking about, often excluding anything that casts a positive light on things they don't appreciate (ie. Pres Buch, or in my case, The Los Angeles Clippers) and that's perfectly fine too. But, the New Way is no better than the Old Way. Yes it gives a voice to the formerly voiceless, but it also lacks resources to really get at the Truth, whcih Big Media sometimes manages to do because they've got the ability to go deeper. Look at 9-11. There are wonderfully entertaining and enthralling sites on 9-11 Conspiracies, and they're wonderfully amusing even if they're far-fetched, but the Media presentations of similiar though more-moderate, theories is far more interesting because they managed to get deeper into the story and give realistic coverage. Channel 2 out here did a great piece like that about 6 months ago that really kept me up far more than anything I'd read on the net.

The ability for anyone to say anything is fine, as long as we understand what we're doing. We should be destroying the culture, but at the same time we shouldn't complain when Big Media fights back because we attacked them first.
Who actually gave a shout-out to eMule on Live TV.

Theresa | June 7, 2007 02:06 PM

I stumbled across a good counter-argument for Keen's argument. I'd like to share it.

A Yale Law Professor Yochai Benkler's book, "The Wealth of Natworks: How Social Production Transforms Markets and Freedom" is available on wikipedia for download.


His four major are in which his commetary is focused on:
1.Enhanced Autonomy
2.The Networked Public Sphere
3. Justice and Human Development
4. A Critical Culture and Networked Social Relations

I still have to download it and read it for myself (I only downloaded a few chapters so far, will download the rest as soon as summer break begins) but I find myself fascinated with Benkler's argument that "the new emergence of new stage in information economy is both an opportunity and a challenge." Personally, I am fascinated with the part where Benkler argues that free access to information will improve the equality of opportunity for those who are the worst off. Culture wise, he thinks the new shift renders culture far more transparent and more malleable. (Notice the lack of the word "devaluation"? Gee, I like him so much better than the chopping-master Keen.)

Anonymous | June 7, 2007 02:25 PM

Evan wrote:

"There's only one field where the amateurs of the Internet are flooding out the professionals, driving the value of their work to near-free. That's the field of Punditry.

No wonder this guy is scared out of his mind. "


There are two things at work here.

First the quality of punditry is really, really bad. The folks in the beltway value their access so much that they have forgotten that they are writing for us. Instead they simply regurgitate the talking points of the government. People are not stupid and they notice these things.

Secondly there are folks (on both sides of the political spectrum) who don't accept the conventional wisdom and who write about. Some are ignorant blowhards; they are probably ignored.

Others are not and whether they get paid for their internet writing or not, they get listened to.

What this means for the reasonably tech-savvy reader, is that we no longer have to listen to these pundits and we no longer trust these pundits.


Jon H | June 7, 2007 09:58 PM

From Wired back in 2001: "The company launched Britannica.com as a free site in October 1999 —-as an alternative to the mostly subscription-based Encyclopedia Britannica Online -- but it was forced to shut the site down after attracting more traffic than it could handle. A month later, the site relaunched, only to be tripped up again in May 2000, when the company cut its overseas staff and postponed its plans to develop specialized regional sites.
"Britannica seems to come out with a new business model, a new approach to content, or a new pricing policy every month or two," said Daniel O'Brien, an analyst with Forrester Research. "Maybe their problem is they don't stick with any of these things long enough to see if they work, but I have to admire them for really coming back to the well and trying new ideas."
Indeed, in its efforts to reposition itself as an "edutainment" destination on the Web, the company overextended itself and was recently forced to trim its editorial staff. This spring, the site is scheduled for a revision that will bring the focus back to its core application: reference searches, which remain the key attraction for 85 percent of Britannica.com's users.
"In the past we really did try to be all things to all people, but we've found that it doesn't make sense for us to be a broad general-interest site," Turpin said. "We're refocusing on what we do best: knowledge, learning and reference. The challenge is to make searching fun, interesting and relevant to people's daily lives.""

I buy the new Britannica DVD just about every year. I see value in it, and in Wikipedia. Wikipedia is particularly good for pop culture and highly technical information. Britannica is probably better for historical stuff.

David Chunn | June 8, 2007 03:25 PM

I loves me some Wikipedia and haven't had any problems with it. I rarely fact-check it anymore, but then the info I need doesn't have to be exact and usually involves history, often ancient. (The nice thing about writing non-historical fantasy is that you just need ideas and basics.) The only version of Britannica I use is the 1911 edition.

I have found "errors" in the more recent Britannica before, and certainly you run the risk of one person's views on a particular topic crushing varying positions. The problem isn't restricted to Wikipedia by any means. The version war that happened when they changed Britannica back in, I think, 1916 and then reverted to the 1911 again is a good example.

Btw, this guy just sounds like he's afraid of his way of making money going away. Or he just wants to sell books by being an ass. Experts will rise to the top, otherwise, they must not be experts. Bad info will out eventually.

Chris Onymous | June 8, 2007 05:42 PM

  1. Were it not for blogs - this very blog, to be specific - I, for one, might never have been exposed to Mr. Keen's opinions (which might be an entirely acceptable result, though I wonder if Mr. Keen would agree). So, ironically, the technology which he opines will be our undoing is what enables me to consider his arguments!
    (Whoops, another load of scrap irony just came in...)
  2. For some twisted reason, the ongoing debate concerning freedom of information and the desirability of (controlling | gating | enforcing standards for its quality and distribution) brings a fragment of The Prisoner title sequence to mind - with a curious role reversal:
    • No. 6 (as Big Meedja): What do you want?
    • No. 2 (as The Rest of Us): Information.
    • No. 6: You won't get it.
    • No. 2: By hook or by crook, we will.

Martin Wisse | June 10, 2007 06:45 AM

Keen's fallacy is an old one:

1) discover the sudden truth of Sturgeon's claim that "ninety percent of everything is crud".
2) notice unrelated development X
3) Blame 1) on 2)
4) Book deal
5) ....
6) Profits!

Agreed that 99% of the internet sucks, but... | June 11, 2007 03:08 PM

Roving bands of technocratic bureaucrats, straight out of the spittle-flinging finale of Things to Come?

Great line.

(I got it on VHS.)

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