Amateur Hour


I'm just back from the Buying & Selling E-Content conference in Scottsdale. I had been particularly looking forward to hearing author Andrew Keen discuss the ideas he lays out in his book, Cult of the Amateur. I admit to being disappointed by his dialectic.

Keen's core argument (or at least what I think is his core argument - he's a man of many ideas who isn't particularly good at bringing them all together in an organized way) is that "curated content," content that has been selected and vetted by knowing professionals in publishing and media organizations, is valuable. Nobody can argue with that. But Keen goes on to suggest that giving voice to anyone who wants one via social media tools has been a giant step backward for both culture and society.

As a publisher, I expected to find myself cheering his view of things, yet I walked away from his presentation feeling quite unsettled. His argument didn't sit well with me, but I was unsure why.

On reflection, I think what bothers me is that curation is not just about selecting the best; it's also (at least in the media world) inherently about keeping out everything else. The historical success of the media has come from its ability to achieve monopolies - if not business monopolies, at least audience monopolies. With relatively few media outlets and few other cost-effective ways to reach large audiences, great power resulted, power that was not always wielded fairly or wisely. Even more significantly, media concentration meant the vast majority of people would never - by design - get needed exposure or be able make their voices heard.

I've written several books on obscure topics related to data publishing. Because of their limited appeal, no book publisher was ever interested in them. So I took the tough road of self-publishing and managed over the years to sell several thousand copies of these books. These books have helped society, albeit in a very limited way, by teaching associations and corporations how to publish more useful and effective directories, guides and databases. Yet Andrew Keen would seem to ascribe no societal value to my thoughts and insights because I couldn't get past the established gatekeepers. I could make the same point about this blog. It reaches several thousand people, and more than a few readers have told me they find it useful and insightful. Yet prior to social media, I wouldn't have this audience because no trade publisher would ever publish the specialized and eclectic thoughts I choose to discuss. Disintermediation has been very, very good to me!

What Andrew Keen is railing against is not really the rise of amateurs, but rather the decline in power of the professionals. Curated content now has to compete harder in the marketplace of ideas. It now also has to compete for attention. It used to be that those who could get past the media gatekeepers (e.g. Andrew Keen) were assured of doing well financially, sometimes achieving status and celebrity to boot. Now it's a much tougher game with fewer guarantees.

I've previously described what I call the five stages of Internet migration in the publishing world: denial, incredulity, anger, adoption and embrace. Most information publishers I know are well into stage four or beyond. Andrew Keen seems mired in stage three.

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