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Book Discussion – The Cult Of The Amateur


cult of the amateur

The Cult of the Amateur by Andrew Keen

For idiots, by idiots.

You’re the idiot reading this. I’m the idiot who wrote it. Shame on us!

That basically sums up Andrew Keen’s tantrum about the Internet. The full title of the book is–The Cult of the Amateur: How Blogs, Myspace, Youtube, and The Rest of Today’s User-Generated Media Are Destroying Our Economy, Our Culture, and Our Values.

Wow, look at him go.

The first ten pages of the book were fairly thought provoking, if fairly logic-free. But then it quickly became apparent that Keen had done most of his typing with tears of rage streaming down his face as he stomped his foot under his computer desk.

He’s really quite upset, the poor fellow, and he thinks you should be as well. Nay, he demands it of you, unless you’re one of those mouth-breathing blogger types.

The premise

The fact that it is now so easy for everyone to share their thoughts and ideas online is undermining the efforts of experts while stealing their livelihoods.

If you have ever shared a Tweet, a Facebook status update, searched Craiglist or ran an ad on the online classified site, have written a blog post or filmed a Youtube video or have downloaded a song from iTunes, you are one of Thomas Huxley’s infinite monkeys, typing away on a keyboard.

If you do any sort of sharing and you are not one of Keen’s qualified experts, you better shut up. Otherwise, you better own up to your evil doings and preface every single babbling word that comes out of your mouth or keyboard by twiddling your well-waxed mustache.

You are stealing valuable ad space from the venerable old newspapers.

You are responsible for the collapse of Keen’s beloved Tower Records.

By writing a blog post about something in the news, you are saying to yourself, “Bwahahaha, time to cause some layoffs at the New York Times.”

If your read an entry or edit a page on Wikipedia you are spitting in the faces of the Britannica editors.

Not without merit

A problem with this book is that he raises many valid points. But the points have been discussed elsewhere in less shrill, more cogent arguments. Because Cult of the Amateur is not an argument. It’s an ill-formed indictment voiced in shrieks.

Is there a lot of user-generated crap out there? Of course. Has it changed the face of the music business, the movie business, the publishing business, and the news industry? Hard to argue against that.

Could someone be misled by a blog post out there if they had no idea (or didn’t care) that it wasn’t written by an expert?

Is it easier for kids to discover things online that were previously the province of plastic-wrapped magazines behind the counter at 7-11? Yes.

But none of these support his rather vague statement that our culture, values, and economy are dying. Maybe there are associations, but they aren’t causes, no matter how loudly he types.

A couple of suggestions for further reading

If you are interested in reading books about this topic that are actually logical and engaging, I highly recommend:

The Shallows – How The Internet is Changing Our Brains by Nicholas Carr

Understanding Media by Marshall Mcluhan

Amusing Ourselves To Death by Neil Postman

All three of these books present many of the points Keen thought he was making in a lucid, engaging way.

There are many ideas in Amateur that I believe are worth considering and I’m not pretending that the Internet doesn’t have any negative consequences. There are many trends that I find extremely troubling.

And there are many wonderful things, and he dismisses these out of hand. It is easier than ever before to spread ideas. Many of those ideas are worth spreading. If I learn something that I feel is worth knowing, I don’t care if it came from Youtube vs. a lecture at MIT.

If I read a book review on a blog that leads me to a book I enjoy, why should I think Wait, do I really want to help kill our culture? just because it didn’t come from Harold Bloom?


So let’s talk. Book discussions. If you read the book, what did you think? Did you find it persuasive? What do you find are the best and worst aspects of the online sharing culture?

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Gubernatrix May 3, 2011, 10:27 am

    I haven’t read this book but your review put me in mind of a video I just watched today where Ben Goldacre (a popular science writer in the UK, author of Bad Science) makes an excellent case for blogs to be taken *more* seriously than news stories or even ‘experts’.
    See the video here: http://vimeo.com/2881597
    He starts talking about blogs at 5:15.

  • Dave Doolin May 3, 2011, 10:47 am

    Disclaimer: Haven’t read it. But for a very good reason: I’m on both sides of that coin. (And let’s not get started on Bloom, please.)

    I have, however, read quite a bit about the book, I’ve read Keen’s free material, watched videos, etc. so I believe I have a pretty good feel for it.

    One thing I’m very, very well acquainted with is Professional-Amateur subculture, which I’m going to abbreviate as Pro-Am.

    What it boils down to is Pro-Am subculture, ranging from cycling to cave exploring to blogging, has an implicit set of social rules which must *not* be violated, and which bear almost no connection to actual market forces. These subcultures are a product of leisure time, pure and simple.

    For 99% of bloggers, blogging is a hobby, an indulgent luxury.

    But it’s even more interesting, because success in Pro-Am doesn’t revolve around monetary gain. Success is measured in terms of, for lack of a better word, popularity.

    And that’s what Keen doesn’t get.

    He is correct that our culture is being destroyed. He is incorrect in not seeing it being renewed.

    Values blow with the wind. Evidently, the Victorians were nasty, randy, hypocritical perverts. These days, we just talk about such things. The behavior hasn’t changed overmuch, but our attitude about hypocrisy and, ah, diversity has. Keen misses this.

    Qualified experts. Problematic for me, since I am one (just not practicing in that field). I’m gonna cut this short with an observation: a very large number of people conflate “expertise” with “authority.”

    But authority and expertise are not the same. I would go so far as saying people who focus on building authority can never be true experts on anything other than building authority. In the best world, authority would follow expertise. In the current and coming world, it seems authority is it’s own thing. From everything I’ve read about Keen, this is the fundamental nature of his complaint.

    For an example of the difference between authority and expertise, consider premium WordPress theme sales. Some very authoritative people sell these things. Are they the best products for J Random Blogger? Who would know? Maybe someone who codes up themes, installs websites for a living, and works in the trenches with customers solving real business problems? Experts, in other words? I don’t know.

    I could write a *very* long essay (10,000 words, easy) on authority, expertise and Pro-Am, but I have work to do today. So I best get after it.

    • Josh Hanagarne May 3, 2011, 10:54 am

      thanks Dave. Fascinating. In fairness to Keen, I know nothing about him beyond this book.

      • Dave Doolin May 3, 2011, 12:08 pm

        Apologies for such a telegraphic comment. I’ve started several full blog posts around each topic I introduce. They do tie together. But I always end up deleting them because the amount of energy required to do it all justice is very high, and the return, I perceive as very low.

        • Josh Hanagarne May 3, 2011, 1:14 pm

          No, I loved it. Please write that 10,000 word post and give it to me as a guest:)

          • Dave Doolin May 3, 2011, 4:29 pm

            Josh, thanks. If I write it up, you have first crack at it.

  • Heather May 4, 2011, 6:44 am

    Josh, I haven’t read this book yet, but now I want to. In fact, if I can find it at a Deep, Deep Discount on Amazon, I’ll download it and pi$$ this guy off even more. I’ll give it a look-see, as well as the others that you mentioned. My whole take on this stuff? It isn’t destroying our culture, it’s enhancing it. It’s changing it. Many of the ideas discussed in blogs are similar to the ideas discussed in BOOKS, it’s just that the format has changed. Information can be updated on-the-fly, and BECAUSE there was such a mass idiot factor when a lot of this stuff got off the ground, many sites such as Wikipedia have tightened up on their postings and modifications updates. And now, MANY experts have blogs and twitter-feeds and web sites. Perhaps this guy should come join us in our shiny, happy world of the 21st Century. We have cookies, AND free pr0n! 😉

  • Brad Czerniak May 9, 2011, 9:22 am


    I’m right there with you about The Cult of the Amateur being an emotional appeal lacking logic. In fact, I tried to use that as the basis for an experimental challenge to the book in the Troy Public Library collection (which I never ended up submitting).

    I think the sheer amount of information being submitted on the web constitutes a signal vs. noise issue that is yet to be resolved adequately. In theory, quality content (regardless of the professional or amateur status of the content creator) should find its audience. Increasingly, this marriage of author to audience will occur without the intervention of the traditional media.

    Early in the web, search was the ticket to locating desired content. Currently, interesting content is likely to reach audiences via social channels. In the future, as is Google’s long-term mission, computers will be able to reliably predict a person’s needs and interests based on past and current input, to the point that such suggestions reliably deliver desired content to the user.

    The trustworthiness of the content suggested is subject to the “Information Literacy” of both the computer doing the suggesting and the user consuming it. Caveat Lector!

    Also, what a wonderful writeup in the Deseret News!

    • Dave Doolin May 9, 2011, 12:22 pm

      Brad, transliteracy seems pretty cool.

      I’m promoting this thing I call “metaliteracy” which is understanding, explaining and structurally defining contextually important metadata.

      Most people can do this to some extent. Anyone who can write out a recipe has the foundation for metaliteracy. Getting from there to syntactically valid structured metadata readable by web browsers requires another leap of learning.

      • Brad Czerniak May 9, 2011, 12:54 pm


        Metaliteracy seems like a cool concept as well.

        Some questions:
        1. From a Greek prefix standpoint, metaliteracy would be a literacy of literacies, which while itself cool, is different from being literate in metadata. Shouldn’t what you’re describing be “metadata literacy”?
        2. In the same way that metadata’s importance is contextual, so is structure’s. What I mean is that a recipe’s syntax is sufficiently-structured for a human cook to parse it. On the other hand, a computerized cooking machine might not have the natural language processing ability to build a correct procedure from a plain recipe’s declarations. So, as important as describing something is, it’s also important to describe it by choosing the correct structure for the intended audience. Is that an ingrained part of this literacy’s processes?
        3. Given that natural language processing and semantic computing is improving, is a literacy of writing (since the metadata is ostensibly, but not necessarily, machine-read) structured metadata in line with the direction of the information ecosystem?
        4. In the same way that an academic paper with big words and difficult grammar could be simplified to reach an audience with a smaller lexicon, it seems that much of the trouble in getting metadata entered correctly and with sufficient structure can be mitigated by creating the simplest possible schema/syntax and designing user interfaces with affordances for easy, error-free entry. Are there other means, beside instructing people, to improve the metadata-entry process?
        5. How, as specifically as possible, do you define metadata?
        6. Is your definition itself included in the set it defines?


        • Josh Hanagarne May 9, 2011, 1:25 pm

          This is easily the brainiest conversation that’s ever taken place over here. I’ll leave you two to it.

        • Dave Doolin May 9, 2011, 2:46 pm


          6. Given I haven’t formally defined anything, anything defined formally will (of course) satisfy axiomatic ZFC as a starting point. But I’m not working on the theory side, I’m simply implementing as I have time.

          5. This is a good question, and I’m not going to tear into it right now. Informally, and at the moment, I’m restricting any such definition to machine parsable data about data. For example, recipe metadata.

          4. 1. I do not agree that an academic paper can be simplified to reach an audience with a smaller lexicon… and (you imply) maintain it’s precision. When the precision isn’t warranted (and often it’s not), there is no issue. But, generally speaking, whenever I read popular accounts of scientific research, then go read the original source, the popular account gets it wrong. Sometimes badly wrong. Especially when motive or cause is imputed. 2. User interface design is really hard, and the constraints can be difficult to overcome. Consider, for example, WordPress as a tool for created metadata. Using the built-in TinyMCE editor *creates* problems of it’s own, part of which is that coding around those problems, is a problem.

          3. NLP is AI-hard, so until we reach singularity, progress proceeds in inches. Semantic machine-to-machine communication is Web 3.0 (or 4.0, or whatever), is coming, though. There is no doubt. In general, this is a good thing. Let’s take recipes again. Providing a structured data wrapper for a recipe allows the recipe itself to “take flight,” to become “self-propelled” in the datasphere without any further analysis. Validity (is it really a recipe?) and verification (is the recipe what it says it is?) are separate issues.

          2. There is a form/content coupling here, and observe that, in this context, computer parsable recipes are a (definably strict) subset of human parsable recipes. Part of the difficulty on the UI/UX side is that humans with little exposure to computing (in general) and structured data (in specific) don’t understand why it’s necessary to impose so many rules on recipe structure. Making it easy on the computer (which really means the programmer, here) requires using recipe templates. When the recipe template matches the user’s expectation, the user doesn’t notice. When the template does not, the user is unhappy, and wonders why: “If computers are so smart, why is it so difficult for Google to make my recipe look pretty?”

          But it’s also important to create programs which are easy to understand and maintain.

          In any case, while the variation of recipe structures might be (denumerably) infinite, I suspect tomorrow’s children will ponder “why all recipes have the same structure” about as much as today’s children wonder why all wheels are round.

          1. Metadata literacy is accurate. It has, however, no stickiness at all. Whereas metaliteracy is potentially sticky as hell. Normally I decry such abuse of language as metaliteracy. So what to do?

          Think carefully.

          Suppose I very precisely propose and promote “metadata literacy” in all the right places, with all the right people. And they like it. It gets a little traction.

          How long would it take someone else to create the utterly obvious portmanteau “metaliteracy?”

          32 seconds?

          While we in our ivory towers rail against barbaric neologisms, the newly born word cares not.

          I’m *sure* I’m going to want to edit this thing an instant after I hit the submit button.