Review: The Cult of the Amateur

Andrew Keen’s new book, “The Cult of the Amateur: How Today’s Internet is Killing our Culture” is a self-described polemic, a controversial argument against the read-write Web and the notion of Web 2.0.

Keen, who founded a Web startup named AudioCafe during the dot com boom of the nineties, Keen describes himself as “an insider now on the outside who has poured out his cup of Kool-Aid and resigned his membership in the cult.”

That viewpoint rings loudly through the entirety of the book. Throughout the work, Keen attacks the new Web with the same vigor of someone trying to debunk a cult, even using many of the same tactics.

However, the message of the book ultimately falls flat. Though many of the questions Keen raises are valid, the book, in the end, falls victim to the exact same sins it accuses the new Web of, including poor analysis, misleading information and overt bias.

The book becomes no better, though no worse, than the bloggers and wiki editors it criticizes.

A Real Horrorshow

Most of Keen’s 200-page polemic reads as much like an afterschool special as it does an argument. The book bounces, almost rapid fire, from topic to topic laying out the most horrible statistics and telling the worst-case stories. The entire work, it appears, is designed to answer the question “What’s the worst that can happen?” in vivid color.

Furthermore, none of the sacred cows on the Web are safe. Wikipedia, blogging, Myspace and Creative Commons are all major targets, but the book also explores the perils of Internet pornography, online gambling and identity theft.

Though many of the topics at hand are not new or unique to Web 2.0, they are lumped in regardless. You learn how online gaming drove a college class president to rob a bank, how online dating can destroy your life and search engines can violate your privacy.

Indeed, much of the book reads like a diatribe against technology and the Web itself. Keen talks about the theft of laptops with data on them, about an identity theft that may or may not have taken place over the Web, the closing of small record stores and the downfall of newspapers and mainstream media. Yet, at every turn he blames the Internet and the new Web, ignoring other, often glaring factors that contributed to these events.

It seems the only time Keen speaks positively is when he is talking about the halcyon days of the mainstream media, days that were, quite literally, decades ago.

Those Were the Good Ol’ Days

Throughout the book, Keen stresses that without editors, professional journalists and large news organizations, that we can not expect to get deep, effective and analytical reporting. According to Keen, we will have no idea what is true without this expert guidance.

As someone from a journalism background, I agree that there is much to be said for journalism education and, especially, journalism ethics. However, when referencing the power of the mainstream media, Keen does not pull his idols from today’s crop of journalists or even the recent past, but rather, from the Kronkite era of the sixties and seventies.

Though, at the end of his book, Keen says that he is “neither antitechnology nor antiprogress” and that he is “the last person to romanticize a past in which we wrote letters by candlelight and had them delivered by pony express,” Keen does indeed seem to romanticize the past a great deal, at least the past that he feels best illustrates the qualities in journalism he admired.

As he continues to look back, Keen talks at great length about the wonderful music the mainstream media has brought us. Along the way, he heavily references bands like Pink Floyd and the Beatles, and blaming the Internet for making it more difficult for such albums to be created today. However, much like Kronkite, these bands were from the sixties and seventies, an era that died long before the Internet.

Still, to Keen, the Internet is almost solely to blame for this downfall in our culture. He says so flatly when he states, “Thanks to the rampant digital piracy spawned by file-sharing technology, sales of recorded music dropped over 20 percent between 2000 and 2006”.

However, much of this decline music, movies and journalism, especially with newspapers, can be attributed to other factors and, in almost all cases, began well before the Internet, especially broadband Internet, became widespread.

Though Keen may not be one to romanticize the past, he certainly comes across as such in this book. However, his greatest error is not his rosy view of decades long gone, but rather, his mistakes about the present and the future.


The book, even to a casual reader, is filled with errors. Many of the errors have been addressed by professor Lawrence Lessig, a frequent target in the book, on his Wiki and others are being brought up one at a time elsewhere.

A few of the errors I noted reading through the book:

  1. Wildly inflated piracy statistics, many times higher than even what the RIAA predicts.
  2. Accusing, at least on the sly, Professor Lessig and Creative Commons of trying to do away with copyright and supporting the communal ownership of intellectual property.
  3. Exaggerating privacy concerns saying, for example, that one might be able to hack a site like PostSecret and obtain names and addresses for submitters, though, on Post Secret, the secrets are mailed anonymously on postcards (hence the name).
  4. Attacking Google as a “parasite” while acknowledging that Google makes it possible to find the information we are looking for.
  5. Accusing sites such as Digg and Reddit of “limiting” our access to “fair and balanced information” without noting that mainstream media does the same thing through its traditional editors.

However, the greatest crime Keen commits is not being inaccurate, but being hypocritical. Throughout the book he accuses the Web, with its absence of editors and professional journalists, of being biased an inaccurate. Yet, his book, published through the mainstream media he cherishes, is both.

This has led professor Lessig to proclaim that “Keen is our generation’s greatest self-parodist,” and that “Keen’s obvious point is to show those with a blind faith in the traditional system that it can be just as bad as the worst of the Internet.”

Indeed, there is an argument to be made for that, but it is at least possible that Keen’s rebuke of the mainstream media was entirely accidental. That he gave in to his own bias and that his publisher, Doubleday, did not catch his errors.

Still, Keen’s book raises some difficult questions, ones that are not easily answered and do not go away simply because the book has problems with it.

Tough Questions

Throughout Keen’s book, there are several questions that are valid and remain as such even after the last page is turned.

Keen asks how are we to trust any information from this new amateur media? How are we to determine truth from lies and/or promotion? And how will this new media do the job of the old media should it take its place fully?

These are tough questions without easy answers. They are valid and deserve to be addressed. However, they would be better served by a balanced, academic review of the subject rather than a one-sided polemic that, in places, plays loose with the truth.

Keen’s book raises the tough questions but, outside of pointing to a handful of sites he feels are working on meshing the new media with the old and the expert with the amateur, he does little to move the debate forward. Instead, nearly all of the book is dedicated to pointing out the worst that can happen, scaring the Web 2.0 crowd with horror stories and attacking the “cult of amateur” with an almost blind rage.

In the end, it feels as if nothing is accomplished.


At $23, the book feels expensive, at 200 breezy pages, it is a quick read and the rapid-fire nature of much of the book makes it even more so. A slow reader myself, I got through the book in under ten hours.

However, what makes the book feel like a bad buy is that it doesn’t have as much meat as one would think. The book is virulent attack, that much is certain, and there are many statistics and anecdotes, but Keen’s analysis, something he says is missing from the new Web, is lacking.

But even with that in mind, the book is almost required reading. Though I found its peek into online plagiarism wholly unsatisfying, barely touching on spam blogs and focusing more on academic plagiarism than content theft, it still raises issues every blogger, journalist, Web 2.0 lover, artist and Internet user need to be aware of.

Though it is an unbalanced attack to say the least, by dealing with the attacks and questions, we can make the new Web better and by acknowledging the points he does have, such as the shifting attitudes regarding plagiarism, we can refine our efforts and improve ourselves.

Despite its flaws, Keen’s book should give users of the new Web a reason to pause and think. Sadly, this kind of critical analysis is something that has not been done very much in Web 2.0.

We all need to take a moment from time to time to pause and ask ourselves the tough questions. This kind of self-evaluation is critical, especially whenever we are working toward what we see as a revolution. Keen does that for us, albeit with a very angry tone.

My hope is that, following this book, more serious and more balanced debate about these questions will come about. Fortunately, that seems to already be happening.

It will be interesting to see where the debate this book creates takes us and how it will improve the Web.

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