Levy: Invasion of the Web Amateurs

Andrew keen is not surprised at the latest twist in the ongoing saga of Wikipedia. In his view, the entire Internet movement involving "collective intelligence," "citizen journalism" and "the wisdom of crowds" is a cultural meltdown, an instance of barbarians at civilization's gates. He considers Wikipedia, the popular Internet-based encyclopedia written and vetted by anyone who cares to contribute, as no more reliable than the output of a million monkeys banging away at their typewriters, and says as much in his upcoming poison-pen letter to Web 2.0, "The Cult of the Amateur" (due from Currency/Doubleday in June).

So imagine Keen's delight in learning about an adjustment to last summer's New Yorker article about Wikipedia. The article's author prominently cited a person identified as "Essjay," described as "a tenured professor of religion ... who holds a Phd in theology and a degree in canon law." Essjay had contributed to more than 16,000 Wikipedia entries, and often invoked his credentials to argue for changes in various articles. But as The New Yorker abashedly informed its readers some months after the story appeared, Essjay was not a religion professor but a 24-year-old college dropout. What's more, Wikipedia's cofounder Jimmy Wales said, "I don't really have a problem with it." (Wales subsequently recognized that fraudulent misrepresentation is not a great idea, and removed Essjay from his position of trust at Wikipedia.)

The Essjay incident fits Keen's critique of the democratization of the digital world so neatly that "he could have been invented by me," says the former entrepreneur turned polemicist. In Keen's view, sites like Wikipedia, along with blogs, YouTube and iTunes, are rapidly eroding our legacy of expert guidance in favor of a "dictatorship of idiots." Reliable sources of information (like Encyclopaedia Britannica, your local newspaper and even your beloved NEWSWEEKly magazine) are under siege from an explosion of self-appointed writers, broadcasters and filmmakers whose collective output, charges Keen, is garbage. What's more, he notes, in the war for eyeballs and ad revenues, the amateurs are winning.

Some of Keen's points are well taken: I certainly agree that the survival of professional journalists is essential, both to society and to my mortgage payments. But much of his argument seems to blame the Internet for allowing freedom to flourish. Just as the printing press was disruptive in its time, the ubiquity of the Net and the cheap tools that give voice to anyone—whether talented or not—has kicked off a period of creative ferment. The optimists among us believe that the cream will rise to the top; Keen speaks for the pessimists who believe that the bloviators will drive out the investigative journalists, craigslist will shoot down the newspapers and an army of half-witted YouTubers may block the ascent of the next Alfred Hitchcock.

I disagree. If we are to lose the beneficial halo generated by professionals, experts and geniuses, it won't be because of ankle-biting bloggers, callow Wikipedia authors and mediocre folk singers riding the long tail. It will be because the audience at large thinks that the truly good stuff isn't worth paying for. If all goes well, new business models will make it easier for excellence to be rewarded. In any case, we will ultimately get the media that we deserve.

In the meantime, what's the problem in helping millions to reach potentially huge audiences via low-cost or no-cost Internet outlets? Even Andrew Keen, avowed foe of citizen journalism, has a blog and a podcast. And guess what? Taking on the rabble won't hurt his Google ratings.