The Cyberbrains

Research and contemplation in new media

“Different” vs. “Better”

Jeremy LittauSnobbery comes in all forms. The elitist snobbery that has plagued a sense of exploration and innovation in the media industry has led to a disconnect between media producers and audience, and we’re trying to catch up now. But the upstart kid, the new media ventures that are cutting into the media pie by connecting people in ways Old Media always should have been, has its own issues.

Andrew Keen, former founder of, recently ruffled more than a few virtual feathers by suggesting in his new book (“The Cult of the Amateur: How Today’s Internet is Killing our Culture”) that social networking sites and blogs are ushering an era where amateurism is valued more than expertise. This, of course, is sort of a twist on what drives citizen media; the amateurish is not so much praised as the amateur sharing what expertise they have rather than a journalist sharing acquired expertise. Keen’s work essentially criticizes an Internet movement whereby the amateur’s view is seen as more valuable than the expert’s. Keen describes his book as a “grenade” lobbed at those who somehow think social networking is a cure-all to media ills.

The usual critics (Jeff Jarvis, Dan Gillmor, several other bloggers … eh, just search Technorati and you’ll see what I mean) have lined up, and their criticisms aren’t that off base. They accuse Keen of throwing the virtual baby out with the virtual bathwater, painting the Internet as a tool being used only for bad and showing nothing about that good that comes with social networking.

The truth is probably somewhere in the middle Keen is really doing cultural criticism here, and he admits to not being balanced in his approach. And his commentary about what happens when the news is told only by the non-professional reflects a lot of nervousness people have, and not just those in the new industry – a lot of us who care about democracy wonder how truth and error can truly grapple in the marketplace of ideas if there is no agreed-upon forum in which to gather.

Keen is right to say that an information system where the amateur is always elevated over the professional has some troubling aspects to it, but I wish he would make some room for them. Cit-j and social media advocates sometimes fall too much in love with their own platform just as other Old Media operators looked too fondly at theirs. There has to be room at the table for all of them. I like social media sites, but I don’t want them to put professional news out of business (notably, Gillmor is one person doing work to try and bring up the level of cit-j, and that’s a great thing).

The truth is that social networking sites give us a different form of journalism. It is not a better form of journalism, just as Old Media don’t necessarily do it better than New Media. Everything has its own unique strengths and weaknesses. Where this takes us, who knows, but let’s keep the baby and the bathwater together for now if we can for now.

June 11, 2007 - Posted by | Jeremy Littau

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