14 January 2011

Pretty sure this wasn’t what Andrew Keen had in mind

Andrew Keen doesn’t like amateurs. You can tell from the subtitle of his anti-dilettante jeremiad The Cult of the Amateur (2008): ‘How blogs, MySpace, YouTube and the rest of today’s user-generated media are killing our culture and economy’. Doesn’t mince words, does Mr Keen. Referencing T. H. Huxley’s theory that infinite monkeys bashing away on infinite typewriters will eventually produce a literary masterpiece, Keen has this to say about blogs:

At the heart of this infinite monkey experiment in self-publishing is the Internet diary, the ubiquitous blog. Blogging has become such a mania that a new blog is being created every second of every minute of every hour of every day. We are blogging with monkeylike shamelessness about our private lives, our sex lives, our dream lives, our lack of lives, our Second Lives. At the time of writing there are fifty-three million blogs on the Internet, and this number is doubling every six months. In the time it took you to read this paragraph, ten new blogs were launched.

If we keep up this pace, there will be over five hundred million blogs by 2010, collectively corrupting and confusing popular opinion about everything from politics, to commerce, to arts and culture. Blogs have become so dizzyingly infinite that they’ve undermined our sense of what is true and what is false, what is real and what is imaginary. These days, kids can’t tell the difference between credible news by objective professional journalists and what they read on joeshmoe.blogspot.com. For these Generation Y utopians, every posting is just another person’s version of the truth; every fiction is just another person’s version of the facts.

Given his denunciation of monkeylike bloggers and their online effusions, one gets the impression that Keen would love to see the reduction of blogs infecting the interwebz. Or the introduction of strict laws that determine who is allowed to write a blog in the first place. Which means Keen may give Saudi Arabia the thumbs up.

That desert realm of unfettered personal freedom and immoderately liberal sentiment (let me know if the sarcasm isn’t translating well in text) has recently passed a slew of new blogging laws. Effectively silencing dissent, the new regulations include the requirement for news bloggers to register for government licenses if they want to maintain a news blog. In addition, all Saudi news blogs must promote Islam and abide by sharia law. There’s also a list of forbidden topics that bloggers write on at the risk of legal action, even imprisonment. Non-citizens are barred from writing news blogs, but may write non-news ones. But since all blogs – citizen and non-citizen – now fall under the purview of the Saudi Press and Publications Law, equally restrictive rules will still apply to the Saudi equivalent of joeshmoe.blogspot.com.

Tariq al-Homayed, editor-in-chief of the pan-Arab newspaper aSharq al-Awsat (which is owned by a member of the Saudi royal family), appears to share Andrew Keen’s animosity towards unscrupulous upstarts who challenge their betters. Tariq wrote the following words of support to the Saudi government in an op-ed:

Thanks to the Minister of Information, because this game has now been exposed, and anybody who wants to challenge the media is welcome to do so, so long as they do this under their real name, address, and place of business. We will not accept anybody who simply wants to settle scores or broadcast rumors.

Yes, you are most welcome to challenge the government’s mouthpiece. But since the authorities will have your personal details on file, it would be advisable that you do not piss them off by, say, criticising their puppet’s one-sided reporting, or refuting their ‘facts’. Like Keen said, these days people “can’t tell the difference between credible news by objective professional journalists” and what they read on a blog written by a rabble-rousing amateur with an axe to grind. Best to trust the experts. Especially when they can call on their government backers to throw your rabble-rousing, score-settling, rumour-mongering arse in the clink.

So, does this put the Saudi government in Keen’s good books? Maybe if they removed the ‘compulsory proselytising of Islam’ clause. And the bit about jailing recalcitrant bloggers.

Perhaps Keen wouldn’t be so hostile towards the proliferation of blogs if he reflected for a moment on the precious civil liberties that allow the cult of the amateur to arise. We may blog with monkeylike shamelessness. But at least we’re free monkeys, and uncaged.



  1. His opinion kind of strikes me as "How dare public opinion attempt to shape itself without my input".
    And as for "objective professional journalists", is he serious? I'm honestly not sure I've ever identified one of those..

  2. I think Keen makes some valid points regarding the lack of accountability of amateur bloggers and the incorrect info that often passes for gospel in the blogosphere. Also, let's be honest; alot, if not most, of the stuff out there in pop culture is mediocre at best and stupifyingly vulgar at worst. On these points I agree with Keen.

    But unless we discard our culture's liberal values and adopt the sort of repressive blogging laws that Saudi Arabia now has, I don't see how we can prevent people from expressing themselves via social media, however poorly or crudely.

    In a liberal, democratic and pluralistic society, the proper way to combat ignorance, misinformation and bad taste is to create, support and promote knowledge, accurate information and classy cultural products. Social media like blogs and YouTube are simply neutral tools. It's up to their users to generate good quality content that enriches, not impoverishes, the culture.

    As for "objective professional journalists", yes, no one's immune from personal bias, for a variety of reasons. But good journos are able to bring an adequate amount of objectivity to their work. And they don't necessarily need to be professionals.