The Dark Side of Web 2.0

On: September 15, 2007
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About Laura van der Vlies
Laura van der Vlies is currently a New Media master student at the University of Amsterdam. After finishing the New Media bachelor program and finishing the propedeuse year CMD at the Willem de Kooning Academie in Rotterdam, this is the year to finally really learn the inside of new media today. This summer I participated in the Digital Methods Initiative. This really made me learn to use knowledge in a different way. With interests in the topic of journalism on the web and certain forms of censorship I hope to make valuable contributions to this blog.


Andrew Keen wrote the in 2007 published book ‘The cult of the Amateur’. Keen, who founded a rough ten years ago, went from digital pioneer to digital skeptic. Living in Silicon Valley during the dot-com bubble and being a ‘Friend of O’Reilly’ [Foo for intimae] brought him back into the real world. In the first chapter of his book he writes about being at a camp side with a couple of hundred Silicon Valley utopians. Most of these people were very hostile towards traditional media and entertainment. Everything should be democratized, THE word of the new web. But according to Keen ‘democratization is undermining truth, souring civic discourse and belittling expertise, experience and talent’. This is the starting point for a book about the dark side of the web 2.0. Seen from different kinds of media like books, music and movies, Keen looks at all the implications that the new revolution brought with it. He definitely wrote this book with an eye on the big masses. It’s easy to read and at some points hard to stop reading.

According to all the comparisons that have been made about the users of web 2.0, Keen’s reference to the ‘ancient’ infinite monkey theory from T.H Huxley is so far the best. Imagine all the monkeys in the world having typewriters. Huxley’s theory is that one of those monkeys is going to write a masterpiece, in what form whatsoever. Now the link to web 2.0 is not easy to miss. Can all the bloggers these days be compared with Huxley’s monkeys? Keen isn’t very keen about the whole revolution that is taking place. What happens if the monkeys take over?

The first question we should ask ourselves is if the ‘monkeys’ are really just amateurs posting things on the web. In some cases big companies are behind films on Youtube or entries on Wikipedia. Is the web becoming a place where advertising isn’t even noticed anymore? An example of this is a movie that was posted online a couple of years ago by Marc Ecko. In the movie the Airforce One is tagged. The movie became really popular, only to find out after a few weeks that it was all fake and a commercial for Ecko’s clothing company. But not only companies take advantage of the new medium. Also public persons use the web to become better of it. Dutch royalties Friso and Mabel, who changed the information on the Wikipedia entry written about them their selves, to make it less critical.
But according to this, the meaning of authorship is changing too. Who owns the video’s that are on Youtube? And if someone mixes two works of a professional, can he call it his own? Or worse, can a company like Google legally use the data on our surf-behavior to make money out of it? Keen poses these questions and many more and answers them from a viewpoint that isn’t easy on the innovations side.

When reading about the decline of newspapers, unpaid writers and infinite free music I began to feel bad about being a very regular user of everything that Web 2.0 has to offer. Am I contributing to chaos while commenting something on Digg? Do I need to buy more newspapers instead of reading my daily news online? Keen is making the reader aware of all the issues evolving around web 2.0 and the digital revolution. But does he really need to make the reader feel this bad? Isn’t this just evolution and development just as much as television eventually won its watchers over after much skepticism?
According to Keen, democratization is a threat to cultural institutions. Amateurs take over and truth disappears. We should all know this and do something about it otherwise there will be nothing left of our culture. He makes this point clear several times, but not always with a right solution on what to do about it.

The only negative point about this book is the last chapter; the final solutions Keen has come up with. After being very critical about the whole situation I expected some mind-blowing solutions for the whole ‘problem’ Keen created. But instead of real solutions, Keen only gives us some expectations and foreseeings that already exist in a way. Like the shift into a more mixed web. Amateurs and experts should work together so the strength of trusted sources is being combined with participatory energy. An example of this is Citizendium. Sanger, the founder of Wikipedia, didn’t believe in the collective ‘wisdom’ of the amateur anymore. So he founded a new site, which he describes as ‘ an experimental new wiki project that combines public participation with gentle expert guidance’. Having the best of both worlds.
The second solution has to do with newspapers. They should not reject the new medium and only see it as a threat. Newspapers should go online too, and bring more experts online. Quality writing online instead of in the newspaper.
And what about the music industry? What can they do to prevent from going under because of piracy? One solution Keen gives us is Emusic. Consumers can download mp3’s that are transportable to different platforms. But his best solution is just making the production process of cd’s and dvd’s less valuable and start some healthy competition.
Of course these conclusions are acceptable, but somewhat of an open door. Especially his last final point about morals. Parents should just pay more attention to their kids online behavior. Of course. Not really a mind-blowing solution.
But apart from the somewhat disappointing end, I would strongly recommend people to read this book. Even though Keen can be very skeptic and at some point too pessimistic, he let’s the reader think about issues that evolve in this new era and posses some valuable questions. Don’t expect hard scientific findings and theories. Just read it and let your mind go its own way.
‘Let’s use technology in a way that encourages innovation, open communication and progress, while simultaneously preserving professional standards of truth, decency and creativity’.

Further reading: [Keens blog]

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