April 19, 2007
With pros like this, who needs amateurs?

Good grief, if this is from "the leading contemporary critic of citizen media" as the bio would have us believe, then old media is truly in trouble. Not from citizen media, just from lack of quality. It's almost as if Keen - by blog posting this - is intent on proving his own point about blogs and wrongheaded ideosyncrasies.

The piece gets off to a good start by identifying Dan Gillmor as a "radical utopian". Clearly, Andrew Keen has never met the soft spoken and cautious Gillmor. In my understanding, utopias are fictional places and a utopian should therefore be somebody lost in some future pipe dream - but Gillmor mostly talks about some very real phenomena that are already here and are already transforming online culture - and maybe just culture in general.

Before I describe why Keen's post is wrong, let's talk about the only thing he maybe gets right: Sure, some of what's happening aligns well with a certain sunshiny, Californian "Let's all get along and do great things"-sensibility. But, as witnessed by the widespread response to Tim O'Reilly's recent suggestion for a shared Code of Conduct, citizen media escaped from that niche a long time ago.
What Keen gets wrong is mainly two things: First of all, a "level playing field" does not produce flat results. There are winners and losers just as in the old media, and talent still floats. Whether the talent that floats is one of writing, know how or "just" marketing and likeability is another matter - but that was true for the old media as well. The consequences of citizen media is not that you can't be good and grow a large audience (and possibly live off that audience). The new thing is that you don't have to win to play or even to play to win. You get to play for whatever reason you like with whatever success you can produce. In the old model, distribution had such a threshold cost that only the winners could afford to pay it. In the new model, everyone can afford to play. At a deeper level one wants to ask: "How do you think we got the old media in the first place". Once upon a time, they looked more like citizens media and they were an alternative to even earlier power structures. As the cost of playing, and consequently the advantages of winning big grew, we got the old media we have now. This by the way could very easily happen again. At the edges, you can already hear the noises from those who feel they are late to the party and that "A-list status" is some kind of entrenched advantage. I think they're still wrong but the voices are already there.
The second major flaw in Keen's post is a confusion of causes and effects. The age of the amateur did not come about to topple the New York Times. It came about, because the New York Times didn't write about, care about or even know about the subjects that interested the bloggers. Old media was loosing its footing before the explosion in citizen media at the start of this century. Decline in newspaper readership is an old story. If there's an interesting story here it is that citizen media has been able to connect millions of people with writing again, not that citizen media has transformed paper buyers to blog readers. It's more of a classic Innovator's Dilemma story - blogs start out adressing audiences that are simply not being served by old media and only gradually invade the turf of the old media.
Which leads directly to the elephant in the room: How good was the old stuff anyway? As for the news - where I live it is at least blatantly clear that we are not being served with journalism that is quantum leaps from what anybody with a microphone in front of partisan spokespeople could do.

(The Publishers Weekly review - as quoted on Amazon - sounds like the book isn't much better than the superficial blog post)

Posted by Claus at April 19, 2007 01:33 PM | TrackBack (0)
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