Esoteric Dissertations from a One-Track Mind

June 20, 2007

User-Generated Content Considered Harmful?

Filed under: books, culture, politics — codesmithy @ 7:17 am

MSNBC ran a story about a new book by Andrew Keen “The Cult of the Amateur: How Today’s Internet is Killing Our Culture.” Michael Rogers thinks that an admittedly extreme and biased book is worthy of contemplation solely due to the fact that Keen doesn’t come off completely clueless to the technology, he holds an unpopular viewpoint and it reflects “real public concerns.”

The fact that Michael Rogers himself is firmly entrenched in existing media companies which Keen highlights as threatened by user created content gives him the ability to declare what “real public concerns” are, opposed to “manufactured public concerns” or “real private concerns (because I work at a media company that is affected by this change in culture, so I could lose my job).”

There is a segment in a Google tech talk that specifically deals with some of the issues at play, (about 42:55 in) centering around authority. The tech talk is given by David Weinberger going over ideas in his new book “Everything is Miscellaneous.” As Weinberger points out, traditional media has a vested interest in appearing authoritative. As opposed to user-generated content which is admittedly fallible and frequently advertises that fact, which is predictably the vector of attack.

How much authority traditional media actually warrants is a matter of debate, but I do agree with Keen that much of the investigative fact-finding is done by traditional media, and it would be a travesty if it were lost. However, I think that fear it utterly unfounded, since the majority of blogs, which he claims are substitutes for this fact-finding, actually just link to interesting bits they find in traditional media. What blogs manage to do is add an extra layer of complexity by connecting ideas from one article to another and comparing and contrasting those ideas. It is not necessary to be an expert to point out that two sources disagree or agree on a particular topic.

In response to Michael Rogers query: Is the Internet dumbing us down? The overwhelming answer is no. Mass media dumbs things down, taking speeches and summarizing them down to sound-bites and giving shortened reactions from essentially random people. User-generated content adds back a lot of complexity that is lost in the traditional news media. First, user-generated content can link to direct sources for much of the information, literally allowing the user to dig as deep as they want to. Secondly, authoritative sources can emerge based reputation (which is the same way news agencies dictate their own authority). Third, in many cases the people commenting are more expert in the field than the reporters trying to explain it. Fourth, the wider the group, the more it knows. I don’t how I would have every read about Collyer brothers if it hadn’t been for a post on fark in a thread about compulsive hoarding. The point being that groups can be far more intelligent than the individuals if there is the ability to filter out the noise, which much of Web 2.0 is about.

In “The Tipping Point” by Malcolm Gladwell, he talks about mavens. People who are experts in a particular topic. The people who actually call the number on the back of Lever 2000 or Dial soap with a question or a comment. The idea is alluded to in Weinberger talk about tagging. It only takes a few people to properly tag articles for everyone to benefit. These people can be mavens, although it may not be their day-job, which in Keen’s book makes them an amateur.

Web 2.0 hurts the media as a power center which was probably Keen’s chief complaint when examining his first subtitle: “how the democratization of the digital world is assaulting our economy, our culture and our values.” I won’t disagree, Web 2.0 is assaulting traditional media, but I won’t say that it is a bad thing either. The printing press assaulted the town crier. The television assaulted the newspaper. Now it is the web, and while I freely admit there have been drawbacks and problems to each evolution; the net gain far outweighs the cost.

Web 2.0 moves the discussion of news of the day from the editorial page to a wider audience where more people can discuss, and bring a wider array of information into the discussion. It moves editorials from appointment to meritocracy (Andy Rooney, for example, is not the only cranky old man in the world, nor the most insightful). Nor is it required that everyone be an expert since people are capable of understanding and recognizing people who are and cite them as the basis of opinion. There have always been cranks, and peddlers of cranks that attempt to poison the discussion with disinformation and fear to further their agenda. Whether that is the case in this instance is a matter of opinion, but to simply act as if such bias or fallibility simply doesn’t exist in traditional media is to be either completely disingenuous or extraordinarily naive. Web 2.0 suffers from the same problems, it is less controlled, but ultimately it is a more honest representation of what we know, because occasionally people with unpopular opinions are right.

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