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May 19 2010

15:30

Andrew Keen on why “the Internet is ideology”

Is the Internet technology or ideology? Is our media culture today really more meritocratic than it’s been in the past? And when we talk about the web fostering democracy, what kind of democracy, actually, are we talking about?

Worthy questions, I’d say. They’re ones that arose last night during a debate at the National Press Club — a debate sponsored by UVA’s Miller Center for Public Affairs, and centered on another question: Is democracy threatened by the unchecked nature of information on the Internet?

Taking the “no” position in the debate were the Personal Democracy Forum’s Micah Sifry and Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales. Taking the “yes” were Farhad Manjoo, the Slate technology columnist (and author of the homophily-focused True Enough: Learning to Live in a Post-Fact Society), and Andrew Keen, author of The Cult of the Amateur.

Unsurprisingly, given the topic, much of the discussion tread ground whose trail is, at this point, well defined. (As Sifry noted, “When I was asked to participate in this, I was astounded that there would be anybody who would defend the notion that democracy is threatened by the unchecked nature of information on the Internet.”) Also unsurprisingly, while the participants’ contributions were uniformly smart, the most provocative comments came courtesy of Keen — gadfly, polemicist, “antichrist of Silicon Valley,” and, in this case, the debater who questioned the premise of the debate in the first place. (“I think the resolution is a little dodgy,” the Brit put it, British-ly.)

In that, Keen transformed what could have been an eloquent-but-musty debate — echo chambers, but, then again, diversity! homophily, but, then again, intensity! — into a lively exchange. And whether you agree with his perspective or (vehemently) oppose it, the ideas Keen discussed last night are worth consideration, as a countervailing presence if nothing else, as we navigate between the mass democratization of the web and the insistent particularities of American democracy. With that in mind, here’s a sampling of his commentary.

On the notion that the web can harm democracy:

It depends, of course, what you mean by democracy. Jimmy [Wales]’s definition of democracy was an anti-federalist position, a sort of an idealized, direct-democracy rhetoric which suggests (and I’m quoting him now) that “It’s all about the people deciding.” But of course at the foundation this country is a representative democracy, not a direct democracy, in which the federalists won over the anti-federalists.

The premise of democracy is not about the people deciding; it’s about finding educated, high-quality political figures who will make wise decisions about the community. So I think Jimmy is falling into the old trap of appropriating democracy for his own ends.

On the notion that the Internet is, fundamentally, technology:

One of the mistakes we make about the Internet is that it’s technology. It isn’t; it’s ideology. The Internet was built by people who questioned authority. The Internet is bound up in a fundamental assault on the notion of expertise, on what Jimmy calls “the mainstream media,” which includes shows like this, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal. And the idea that representative democracy, experts — whether in media, in politics, in the arts, in legal affairs, in intellectual affairs — are unreliable and need to be replaced by what Jimmy calls “the people” is deeply dangerous.

What I most fear about the Internet — which…we all use; I’m as addicted as everybody else — is the way we take this technology, which has no center, is flattened, has done away with authority and expertise — we take this technology to prove the ideological, idealized theories of Jimmy Wales. The truth is, we need expertise, we need authority, we need to remind ourselves of the foundations of representative democracy.

On the web’s facilitation of a mass meritocracy:

I think it’s one of the fundamental illusions — or delusions — about this critique of mainstream media: that somehow, before the Internet, it was just the rich, the privileged, who controlled the media — that it was a racket. And then the Internet came along, and suddenly the people had a voice. And that’s simply nonsense. I mean, we’re all — the four of us are all — part of an Internet elite, which is no more or less of an elite than in traditional media. But I am very troubled with this idea of the Internet replacing a flawed meritocracy. It’s simply wrong.

On the Internet’s need of a new social contract:

Many people see the Internet as a right and not a responsibility. Jeff Jarvis, who I think we’re all friendly with, said the Internet is the next society. And he may be right. In the 18th century, when we were figuring out modern industrial society, we came up with social contract theory about rights and responsibilities. I think the same is true of the Internet. It’s a reality, for better or for worse. It is perhaps the central fact of social and political life in the 21st century. And it needs to be understood not only in terms of rights — of taking, of stealing, of getting it for free, and all the other problems associated with the Internet — but also one of responsibility.

On the distinction between democracy and an informed citizenry:

The core question, in my mind, about democracy is whether the Internet culture, this highly democratized media where everyone becomes and author, where we do away with the old structures of power, where we undermine the 20th century meritocracy and we replace it with this 21st century — what I would call, perhaps mob rule, and what you could call democracy — whether that would actually lend itself to the production of a better-informed citizen.

December 08 2009

14:44

What’s your problem with the internet? A crib sheet for news exec speeches

When media executives (and the occasional columnist on a deadline) talk about ‘the problem with the web’ they often revert to a series of recurring themes. In doing so they draw on a range of discourses that betray assumptions, institutional positions and ideological leanings. I thought I’d put together a list of some common memes of hatred directed towards the internet at various points by publishers and journalists, along with some critical context.

If you can think of any other common complaints, or responses to the ones below, post them in the comments and I’ll add them in.

Undemocratic and unrepresentative (The ‘Twitterati’)

The presumption here is that the media as a whole is more representative and democratic than users of the web. You know, geeks. The ‘Twitterati’ (a fantastic ideologically-loaded neologism that conjures up images of unelected elites). A variant of this is the position that sees any online-based protest as ‘organised’ and therefore illegitimate.

Of course the media is hardly representative or democratic on any level. In every general election in the UK during the twentieth century, for example, editorial opinion was to the right of electoral opinion (apart from 1997). In 1983, 1987 and 1992 press support exceeded by at least half the Conservative Party’s share of the vote. Similar stats can be found in US election coverage. The reasons are obvious: media owners are not representative or democratic: by definition they are part of a particular social class: wealthy proprietors or shareholders (although there are other factors such as advertiser influence and organisational efficiencies).

Journalists themselves are not representative either in terms of social classgender, or ethnicity – and have become less representative in recent decades.

But neither is the web a level playing field. Sadly, it has inherited most of the same barriers to entry that permeate the media: lack of literacy, lack of access and lack of time prevent a significant proportion of the population from having any voice at all online.

So any treatment of internet-based opinion should be done with caution. But just as not everyone has a voice online, even fewer people have a voice in print and broadcast. To accuse the web of being unrepresentative can be a smokescreen for the lack of representation in the mainstream media. When a journalist uses the unrepresentative nature of the web as a stick, ask how their news selection process presents a solution to that: is there a PR agency for the poor? Do they seek out a response from the elderly on every story?

And there is a key difference: while journalism becomes less representative, web access becomes more so, with governments in a number of countries moving towards providing universal broadband and access to computers through schools and libraries.

‘The death of common culture’

The internet, this argument runs, is preventing us from having a common culture we can all relate to. Because we are no longer restricted to a few terrestrial channels and a few newspapers – which all share similar editorial values – we are fragmented into a million niches and unable to relate to each other.

This is essentially an argument about culture and the public sphere. The literature here is copious, but one of the key planks is ‘Who defines the public sphere? Who decides what is shared culture?’ Commercial considerations and the needs of elite groups play a key role in both. And of course, what happens if you don’t buy into that shared culture? Alternative media has long attempted to reflect and create culture outside of that mainstream consensus.

You might also argue that new forms of common culture are being created – amateur YouTube videos that get millions of hits; BoingBoing posts; Lolcats; Twitter discussions around jokey hashtag memes – or that old forms of common culture are being given new life: how many people are watching The Apprentice or X Factor because of simultaneous chatter on Twitter?

The ‘echo chamber’/death of serendipity (homophily)

When we read the newspapers or watched TV news, this argument runs, we encountered information we wouldn’t otherwise know about. But when we go online, we are restricted to what we seek out – and we seek out views to reinforce our own (homophily or cyberbalkanisation).

Countering this, it is worth pointing out that in print people tended to buy a newspaper that also supported their own views, whereas online people switch from publication to publication with differing political orientations. It’s also worth pointing out that over 80% of people have come across a news article online while searching for something else entirely. Many websites have ‘related/popular articles/posts/videos’ features that introduce some serendipity. And finally, there is the role of social media in introducing stories we otherwise wouldn’t encounter (a good example here is the Iran elections – how many people would have skimmed over that in a publication or broadcast, but clicked through because someone was tweeting #cnnfail)

That’s not to say homophily doesn’t exist – there is evidence to suggest that people do seek out reinforcements for their own views online – but that doesn’t mean the same trend didn’t exist in print and broadcast, and it doesn’t make that true of everyone. I’d argue that the serendipity of print/broadcast depends on an editor’s news agenda and the serendipity of online depends on algorithms and social networks.

‘Google are parasites’

This argues that Google’s profits are based on other people’s content. I’ve tackled the Google argument previously: in short, Google is more like a map than a publication, and its profits are based on selling advertising very effectively against searches, rather than against content (which is the publisher’s model). It’s also worth pointing out that news content only forms around 0.01% of indexed content, and that news-related searches don’t tend to attract much advertising anyway. (If it was, Google would try to monetise Google News).

It’s often worth looking at the discourses underlying much of the Google-parasite meme. Often these revolve around it being ‘not fair’ that Google makes so much money; around ‘the value of our content’ as if that is set by publishers rather than what the market is willing to pay; and around ‘taking our content’ despite the fact that publishers invite Google to do just that through a) deciding not to use the Robots Exclusion Protocol (ACAP appears to be an attempt to dictate terms, although it’s not technically capable of doing so yet) and b) employing SEO practices.

Another useful experiment with these complaints is to look at what result publishers are really aiming for. Painting Google as a parasite can, variously, be used as an argument to relax ownership rules; to change copyright law to exclude fair comment; or to gain public subsidy (for instance, via a tax on Google or other online operators). In a nutshell, this argument is used to try to re-acquire the monopoly over distribution that publishers had in the physical world, and the consequent ability to set the price of advertising.

‘Bloggers are parasites’

A different argument to the one above, this one seeks to play down the role of bloggers by saying they are reliant on content from mainstream media.

Of course, you could equally point out that mainstream media is reliant on content from PR agencies, government departments, and, most of all, each other. The reliance of local broadcasters on local newspaper content is notorious; the lifting of quotes from other publications equally common. There’s nothing necessarily wrong with that – journalists often lift quotes for the same reasons as bloggers – to contextualise and analyse. The difference is that bloggers tend to link to the source.

Another point to make here is some blogs’ role as ‘Estate 4.5‘, monitoring the media in the same way that the media is supposed to monitor the powerful. “We can fact-check your ass!

‘You don’t know who you’re dealing with’

On the internet no one knows you're a dog

Identity is a complex thing. While it’s easy to be anonymous online, the assertions that people make online are generally judged by their identities, just as in the real world.

However, an identity is more than just a name – online, more than anything, it is about reputation. And while names can be faked, reputations are built over time. Forum communities, for example, are notorious for having a particularly high threshold when it comes to buying into contributions from anyone who has not been an active part of that community for some time. (It’s also worth noting that there’s a rich history of anonymous/pseudonymous writing in newspapers).

Users of the web rely on a range of cues and signals to verify identity and reputation, just as they do in the physical world. There’s a literacy to this, of course, which not everyone has at the same levels. But you might argue that it is in some ways easier to establish the background of a writer online than it was for their print or broadcast counterparts. On the radio, nobody knows you’re a dog.

Rumour and hearsay ‘magically become gospel’

They say “A lie is halfway round the world before the truth has got its boots on.” And it’s fair to say that there is more rumour and hearsay online for the simple reason that there is more content and communication online (and so there’s also more factual and accurate information online too). But of course myths aren’t restricted to one medium – think of the various ‘Winterval’ stories propagated by a range of newspapers that have gained such common currency. Or how about these classics:

Express cover: Migrants take all new jobs

The interactive nature of the web does make it easier for others to debunk hearsay through comments, responses on forums, linkbacks, hashtagged tweets and so on. But interactivity is a quality of use, not of the thing itself, so it depends on the critical and interactive nature of those browsing and publishing the content. Publishers who don’t read their comments, take note.

‘Unregulated’ lack of accountability

Accountability is a curious one. Often those making this assertion are used to particular, formal, forms of accountability: the Press Complaints Commission; Ofcom; the market; your boss. Online the forms of accountability are less formal, but can be quite savage. A ream of critical comments makes you accountable very quickly. Look at what happened to Robert Scoble when he posted something inaccurate; or to Jan Moir when she wrote something people felt was in bad taste. That accountability didn’t exist in the formal structures of mainstream media.

Related to this is the idea that the internet is ‘unregulated’. Of course it is regulated – you have (ironically, relatively unaccountable) organisations like the Internet Watch Foundation, and the law applies just as much online and in the physical world. Indeed, there is a particular problem with one country’s laws being used to pursue people abroad – see, for example, how Russian businessmen have sued American publishers in London for articles which were accessed a few times online. On the other hand, people can escape the attentions of lawyers by mirroring content in other jurisdictions, by simply being too small a target to be worth a lawyer’s time, or by being so many that it is impractical to pursue. These characteristics of the web can be used in the defence of freedoms (see Trafigura) as much as for attacks (hate literature).

Triviality

Trivial is defined as “of very little importance or value”. This is of course a subjective value judgement depending on what you feel is important or valuable. The objection to the perceived triviality of online content – particularly those of social networks and blogs – is another way to deprecate an upstart rival based on a normative ideal of the importance of journalism. And while there is plenty of ‘important’ information in the media, there is also plenty of ‘trivial’ material too, from the 3am girls to gift ideas and travel supplements.

The web has a similar mix. To focus on the trivial is to intentionally overlook the incredibly important. And it is also to ignore the importance of so much apparently ‘trivial’ information – what my friends are doing right now may be trivial to a journalist, but it’s useful ‘news’ or content to me. And in a conversational medium, the exchange of that information is important social glue.

To take journalists’ own news values: people within your social circle are ‘powerful’ within that circle, and therefore newsworthy, to those people, regardless of their power in the wider world.

‘Cult of the amateur’ undermining professionals

This argument has, for me, strange echoes of the arguments against universal suffrage at various points in history. Replace ‘bloggers’ with ‘women’ or ‘the masses’ and ‘professionals’ with ‘men’ or ‘the aristocracy’ in these arguments and you have some idea of the ideology underlying them. It’s the notion that only a select portion of the population are entitled to a voice in the exercise of power.

The discourse of ‘amateur’ is particularly curious. The implication is that amateur means poor quality, whereas it simply means not paid. The Olympics is built on amateurism, but you’d hardly question the quality of Olympic achievement throughout time. In the 19th century much scientific discovery was done by amateur scientists.

Professional, on the other hand, is equated with ‘good’. But professionalism has its own weaknesses: the pressures of deadlines, pressures of standardisation and efficiency, commercialism and market pressures, organisational culture.

That’s not to say that professionalism is bad, either, but that both amateurism and professionalism have different characteristics which can be positive or negative in different situations.

There’s an economic variant to this argument which suggests that people volunteering their efforts for nothing undermines the economic value of those who do the same as part of a paid job. This is superficially true, but some of the reasons for paying people to do work are because you can expect it to be finished within a particular timeframe to a particular quality – you cannot guarantee those with amateur labour (also, amateurs choose what they want to work on), so the threat is not so large as it is painted. The second point is that jobs may have to adapt to this supply of volunteer information. So instead of or as well as creating content the role is to verify it, contextualise it, link it, analyse it, filter it, or manage it. After all, we don’t complain about the ‘cult of the volunteer’ undermining charity work, do we?

Thanks to Nick Booth, Jon Bounds, Will Perrin, Alison Gow, Michele Mclellan, King Kaufman, Julie Posetti, Mark Pack, James Ball, Shane Richmond, Clare White, Sarah Hartley, Mary Hamilton, Matt Machell and Mark Coughlan for contributing ideas via Twitter under the #webhate tag.

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