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Rory Cellan-Jones

Is the web's amateur hour over?

  • Rory Cellan-Jones
  • 5 Jun 09, 09:48 GMT

The Antichrist of Silicon Valley has been in London this week.

At least, that's the title that Andrew Keen, a strident critic of web utopianism, revels in. Mr Keen is a British-born entrepreneur who made his fortune in Silicon Valley and then decided, with all the zeal of a reformed smoker or lapsed Catholic, that everything the web 2.0 evangelists stood for was evil. What really gets his goat is the idea that the web liberates everyone to become a journalist, film-maker, musician - or encyclopedia author - thereby devaluing the work of professionals.

His book The Cult Of The Amateur is an enjoyable rant against web orthodoxy which sometimes descends into bathos as he describes how seasoned professionals are being put out of work by amateurs with a YouTube account or a penchant for editing Wikipedia entries. It would take a heart of stone, for instance, not to weep for the advertising professionals whose careers he sees threatened by kids making viral ads with a handycam and sticking them on YouTube.

At a dinner in London, Andrew Keen challenged an assembly of web worthies - entrepreneurs, thinkers, even a few grubby technology journalists - to explain why they were so enamoured of the amateurs. Why, he wanted to know, was there such reverence for the citizen journalists and bloggers and musicians who were eating our lunch? He seemed particularly offended by Wikipedia, expressing incredulity at the idea that the whole project depended on people who worked for nothing.

But whether or not you agree with Mr Keen's analysis that "Web 2.0" is a threat to our culture, his analysis is now beginning to look a little dated. Amateur hour on the web may be drawing to a close. True, new technology is lowering the barrier to entry in all sorts of professions. In my own business, journalism, it's never been easier or cheaper to write, record and film reports for the world to share.

I was asked this week by the BBC's School Report website to give my top ten tips for aspiring young technology journalists, and was keen to stress that it was very easy these days for anyone to get involved without first being part of a mainstream media organisation.

But what is now becoming clear is that it's much harder for amateurs to get an audience. Who, for instance, are the most successful bloggers? Well, many of them are actually old-fashioned professional journalists working for mainstream media organisations which pay them to blog.

lily_allen226pa.jpgAnd whatever we were told a couple of years back about unsigned bands making it big on MySpace and new film-makers breaking into the big time on YouTube, I've yet to spot the new band or movie which has made a major impact without the help of a record label or a studio. The professionals have woken up to the power of Web 2.0 - and are moving in to colonise it.

There was a long discussion at the dinner with Andrew Keen about the difference between an amateur and a professional, but to me it seems pretty obvious - professionals get paid, amateurs do it for love.

That's not to say that people in all walks of life - writers, musicians, politicians, perhaps even bankers - don't start off driven by creative or idealistic passions rather than by the need to make a living. But many of the amateurs will either fade away, discouraged by their failure to command an audience, or will turn professional.

Certainly, many of the Web 2.0 companies - from Facebook to YouTube to Twitter - seemingly started off with hardly a thought as to how they might profit from their activities. Now harsh economic times are forcing them to look down at the bottom line rather than up at the stars.

Andrew Keen may be right that we have an excessively romantic view of the amateur. But he shouldn't worry too much. His success is proof that there is still a good living to be made as a professional writer and provocateur.

Comments

  • Comment number 1.

    I agree absolutely that it's harder for the amateur to get heard so I'm creating a bloggers circle with Matthew Taylor @ the RSA to enable small bloggers to make a bigger impact. Amateur bloggers can join in here: http://blog.matthewcain.co.uk/would-you-join-a-blogging-collective/

  • Comment number 2.

    If people are genuinely blogging/making films/creating music etc out of love for their art, they won't be put off by the crude economic dynamic espoused by Mr Keen. If I choose to spend time editing Wikipedia, for example, it's to correct misinformation; if I post a review of a restaurant, it's to help people who may want a second opinion, and to share my experiences. Many people get pleasure from creating content without ever thinking of financial reward. If I'm following "web orthodoxy", all I can say is how refreshing that such utopian ideals have come to dominate any sphere. Looking at other areas of society (if you'll forgive the word), I can't see how capitalist economics have been better at fostering creativity. I also doubt any recession will kill off the free exchange of ideas we see in Web 2.0.

  • Comment number 3.

    Surely there has always been a place for both amateur and professional. In any field, examples can be easily found of the painstaking work (for the sheer joy of it) by enthusiastic amateurs that later becomes, at least in part, the basis for the work of professionals. This in turn feeds the interest of further amateurs...

    So where's the argument?

  • Comment number 4.

    "professionals get paid, amateurs do it for love."

    Another definition may be that professionals can (but not always) turn out something worthwhile i.e. work that is not done in an 'amateurish' fashion.

    I'm sure many professionals do have passion (a love of) about what they do, many amateurs may have passion also, but what work they do is just a part time interest and may not be their main way of supporting themselves.

    There is a counter argument too to Keen by Charles Leadbeater, regarding the importance of shared ideas:
    http://www.irishtimes.com/newspaper/finance/2008/0804/1217628484851.html

  • Comment number 5.

    The best web sites out there pre-date the blogging craze of the last few years, with the need to give an opinion, instead of just providing something useful. They were the home pages created by dedicated individuals about subjects they were passionate about. Whether it was their favourite recipes or their favourite film, TV series or book, web sites like these made the internet what it was. Now it's all about "me" and how many "friends" you have and how many times you "tweet" about nothingness throughout the day, wrapped inside a fancy wordpress theme and some Google adwords.

    Tiled backgrounds and MIDI sounds may have seemed bad at the time, but compared to what we have now, the web was much better back then.

  • Comment number 6.

    Mr Keen seems to confuse talent and salary - two very different things. If we discounted all the contributions to knowledge made by 'amateurs' we would lose large swathes of science, including Einstein's Special Theory of Relativity (Einstein was a clerk at the Swiss patent office at the time).

    Keen seems to regard big organisations where everybody takes orders from for a boss as the normal and inevitable way to do things; but it was only so for about a hundred years, and even then, the production of reliable knowledge was still by peer review.

    Knowledge renews itself, and standards of evidence and method have counted for more rather than the prestige or wealth of the people who produce it. Crick and Watson were very low status scientists when they discovered the structure of DNA. Linus Pauling was the big name in the field whom everybody expected to solve the riddle. And as many of us know, Sir Tim Berners-Lee created the world wide web to support the publication of peer-reviewed scientific research.

    'Small pieces loosely joined' has been the western way of knowledge since the Middle Ages, and it will continue to be.

  • Comment number 7.

    It seems to me, as is typicaly the case, that it;s the big corporations and businesses that charge ludicrous amounts of money that tend to complain about "amatuers taking over", especialy in regards to web design.

    To really emphasize this point, some of you may remember about 5 years ago Michal Jackson getting his website completly re-designed and it cost many many thousands of dollars to design and build it and all he got was a blank white page with a logo and his signature.

    And in response to #5, maybe the net was better before all the networking struck but personaly, both as a web designer and a web surfer myself, I would take today's web over the aweful pages made in Microsoft Word anyday.

    I love gadgets, and I love websites where people have gone to the trouble to make it interesting to browse and not just offer interesting information.

    Is web 2.0 really all about networking? I personaly don't think it is. In my opinion, web 2.0 is about the browser technology becoming advanced enough, largely through the now commonly introduced Flash applications, that a web page is completly interactive and not reminiscent of a boring 2 diemnsional broadsheet page glued onto a monitor screen.

  • Comment number 8.

    "encyclopedia" That's encyclopaedia to you, sunshine.

    This is still, whatever you might think, a British blog.

    "It would take a heart of stone, for instance, not to weep for the advertising professionals whose careers he sees threatened by kids making viral ads with a handycam and sticking them on YouTube."

    What twaddle - where do you think the 'advertising professionals' get their ideas from ? They nick them without paying for them, so YouTube is as much a godsend as a curse for them..

  • Comment number 9.

    Mr Keen is typical of the leeches that have hijacked the Web.

    The web is primarily, or at least should be, a repository for knowledge and information, that is freely available, not for making a profit as so many people, such as Mr Keen, seem to view it.

    And so what if amateurs do what professionals do, if professionals can't keep up or do better than amateurs and are being put out of work because of this then that's their problem.

    Seems to me Mr Keen doesn't like a bit of fair competition.

    But then I guess his motto is one for all and all for himself, like most capitalists...

  • Comment number 10.

    Video is hugely time consuming (well anything other than an off-the-cuff continuous single shot). Most people have neither the time nor desire to learn all the necessary video-making skills. Even if they do, they don't have the time to actually shoot and edit anything worthwhile.

    Text is easier. But, then again, it's a leisure thing for most people. So they'll write what they want. Professionals do all kinds of jobs, including things they don't enjoy, and that are boring, because they are paid money to do it.

    Look at any UK city and check how many popular blogs there actually are, see who is producing real content, and you'll find there are a mere handful of active people. Some, as you mention, are professional content producers, former journalists and the like.

    Money is a great motivator. People are inherently lazy (especially after working 9-5 all week) so the vast majority will continue to lounge on the sofa and look for entertainment rather than produce content of their own.

    The citizen journalist stuff is trendy hype from the deluded dreamers in Silicon Valley and New York. Look behind the hype and you'll find that many of the 'citizen journalists' over there are rich kids who don't need to work for a living. They seem to believe that if you say something often enough it will come true. I think they've watched the Wizard of Oz too many times!

  • Comment number 11.

    Not so much 'who you know', but 'who you work for'. Though the principle's the same, and little to do with talent, though it should be.

    Because it is all about making money, which the best talent, well-harnessed, should generate.

    Sadly, as layer upon layer of gatekeeper and administrator gets added, it would appear that 'other factors' come into play.

    To a web-struck musical individual I tried to equate to the situation of dashing to a virtual HMV store because your CD is on the shelves. Unfortunately, other than you, the situation is still that no one else knows it's there, no matter how good, and the racks are about 1,000 miles long.

    So while the money may no longer be required for creation, the 'powers that fee' now focus on controlling access and exposure.

    'twas ever thus.

    Just products from a brand. Hence, I wonder if the perceived 'value' is from 'old-fashioned professional journalists' or the fact that they work for 'mainstream media organisations' with a better chance of delivering an audience.

    Hence it might be worth seeing if one gets invited to report because of one's reputation (if possibly hard to divorce totally from the employer) or because of the name at the top of the card or as dropped by the researcher.

    'xx, talented bloke-who-writes' vs. yy from the BBC, national broadcaster with access to 60 million possible consumers. Tough, but maybe a simply grubby call. Especially when drawing up dinner invites that may lead to exposure to the largest audience.

  • Comment number 12.

    If Mr Keen espoused the (obvious) truth that the media is gradually fragmenting, record companies are collapsing, television channels are running out of money, production costs are shrinking and smaller players are becoming increasingly important as communication, publicity and political comment is becoming more decentralised, then he would be completely unremarkable, because we can all see that this is the case. By saying something deliberately and provocatively absurd, he has made a name for himself. That's pretty much all there is to this.

  • Comment number 13.

    Many of the boundaries and barriers to the masses joining in and creating and editing content online have been stripped away, empowering the public to take control or collaborate.

    The problem is there isn't always a gate-keeper to make sure of the validity or quality of the content or information, causing the web to be filled with hearsay and misinformation.

    It has made a massive difference to the web, opening up to the man on the street (with access to an internet connection) but has created alot of 'noise' muddying the waters of the Internet.

  • Comment number 14.

    I am sure the same sentiments were expressed when printing presses became popular. "Larks! Only trained professionals should copy manuscripts! What else could happen ? The great unwashed may even write original works! Lord Protec Us!" etc.

    It's just another revolution, move along...

  • Comment number 15.

    Keen is essentially a narcisistic blogger who has worked at a string of the kinds of Internet Startups that no one has ever heard of. I suspect what he has identified, is that there is no place for venture capital-funded nothing companies, like this, to claw advertising revenue from streaming secondrate media at ever dwindling numbers of users. The extrapolation-forwards, to assert that we're all free-loaders, who are destroying what we consume, rather handily avoids the fact that the kinds of stuff he has spent years trying to make money from, isn't actually worth paying for. It does not mean that true professionals will be out on their ears any time soon. If I want a chair, I'm still going to go to a carpenter; these days I just might ask, on line, first, if anyone knew of any good carpenters, that's all.

  • Comment number 16.

    This is a bit like snooker player throwing a tantrum when someone in the crowd sneezes. A professional that can't cope with a little background noise or (in this case) pressure from a few amateurs can't be quite as professional as he'd like us to think.

  • Comment number 17.

    Sorry but you are wrong. People who began on the web as amateurs have definately made it big, it's just that by the time most people get exposed to them they are professionals. That is what happens when someone with talent appears, they eventually get paid for doing it, or of course they lose interest.

    There have been thousands of extrememly popular bloggers, youtubers, musicians, webcomic artists and software developers who through their talent have managed to attain very large audiences as amateurs, usually by grouping themselves together via linkages. Some of them get offered jobs with professional companies (examples, the craters of Chart Wars (Rob Cooper) and Eastside Hockey Manager both worked for SI of Football Manager fame, Adam Ryland found a job with Grey Dog software etc.) to continue doing what they were doing out of interest previously. Some of them find that they lose interest or at least the same level of drive once other factors of life (like a job or kids) come along. Either way the successful Amateur as you describe it is NEVER going to last very long as an individual entity.

    But that does in no way mean that they can not make it as they have done so in plenty enough numbers, it's just that like most othr people you see successful amateurs who end up being paid as just more corporate professionals who were always there in that capacity.

  • Comment number 18.

    As an artist and musician myself, I certainly believe the Internet has given me access to a far larger audience than I would have otherwise had. In the old model, luck was the order of the day - you got noticed by some talent scout of some sort and taken under their wing to build your own brand - that is how people became professional. There are plenty of talented writers, musicians and artists whose work didn't get to the public eye because of luck. Now, these very same 'amateurs' as Andrew puts it are empowered to promote their own products - and that's exactly what it is - marketing. Let the public decide what's good and what's not - at least now they have a platform to view variety and make their own decisions.

    Regardless professionals already have a brand and that makes it easier to gain eyeballs on the Internet - they still have a significant advantage over aspiring 'amateurs'. The fact that they cannot maintain the level of interest as they had before is likely because of public preference not the 'death of culture' syndrome as Mr Keen claims. The public ultimately determines what is art and what is trash.

    Sizwe (Wabber cartoons)

  • Comment number 19.

    There are amateurs and professionals existing in many arenas in sports, photography, jewellery making and much more. All of these have existed for years and both thrive regardless of the internet. Often the differentiators are skills and the degree of commitment.

 

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