Before you get offended by the above photo, because you do or don’t believe in elitism, please give me a chance.
I am not interested in labeling our country’s thinkers. Instead, I am going to explore and prod at some ideas put forth by Andrew Keen*, a man who has admitted, “I’m an elitist, and I’m very hungry for power” – with a straight face. He also describes himself as “the Antichrist of Silicon Valley“.
Just yesterday, I was whining about how today’s media makers lack original thoughts. Well, I was challenged, annoyed, and intrigued by a 15-minute speech given by Keen, author of The Cult of the Amateur: How Today’s Internet Is Killing Our Culture.
Last year, Keen spoke at The Audience Conference, an event discussing the role of audience and community in our rapidly changing culture.
You can listen to the talk yourself and draw your own conclusions, but I would like to catalog five of his points (in bold) and respond to them.
1. Audience/amateur, in the Web 2.0 sense, is the empowered (through collaboration and conversation) masses: the untalented, the ignorant, the narcissistic, the people formerly below the stage.
Frankly, I believe that Keen makes a lot of unfair assumptions about audience. Like most elitists, Keen looks down upon his own roots. Does he truly believe that he was never part of the audience himself? Elitists tend to despise the very systems that helped them rise to power because they are afraid that other people take advantage of the same systems.
Somewhere along the way, Keen was given opportunities that allowed him to be the person he is today. Maybe a professor encouraged him. Maybe his parents helped fund his education. Maybe just maybe someone read his manuscript and thought it was worth publishing.
In some sense, Keen remains part of the audience – once he is confronted by a subject he doesn’t understand, he will join the audience again. One day, his (my, your) work will be irrelevant.
2. Audience/amateur, in the Web 2.0 sense, is a cultural revolution against the creative elite, the media elite, and the entertainment elite.
I truly believe that a revolution requires effort and inspiration.
So, the ignorant and untalented started a revolution against the “media elite” – why?
Does Keen think they started a revolution simply because they were jealous? Because they all wanted to be media elite too?
No, people start revolutions because they want reform not novelty.
3. This “cultural revolution” is fraudulent because the very people driving it represent a new elite. The group of people talking about and leading the revolution are gaining power.
Not everyone at the forefront of this cultural revolution wants the power associated with being a new elite. Sure, many of the most talented people will want respect and monetary rewards, but not all of them want power.
Naturally, the group of people talking about and leading the revolution are going to rise to the top. Why? Because they understand the medium and its implications.
4. The new elite makes the audience believe that they have a voice by encouraging them to blog, tweet, and freely distribute content via technology. People like Mike Arrington (TechCrunch) and Biz Stone (Twitter) are getting rich by offering a sense of empowerment to the masses.
The “new elite” doesn’t make the audience believe anything. Frankly, the audience has ALWAYS believed (to use his terms) that it has power. Think about protests, letters to the editor, town hall meetings, open mics, etc. Think about every medium that gave the average person power before the dawn of the Internet.
Everyone is clamoring for a voice – Twitter and blogging are simply new technologies, new enablers. Substitute any technology, and people will be rushing to express themselves. Keen, are you so threatened by these people that you need to feel power over them? That you need to refer to them as the ignorant?
By using new media, most of these “ignorant” people are not seeking power – they are trying to connect with friends and express their ideas. Frankly, they don’t give a shit about you and fighting you for the talking stick.
Some individuals will rise up from these ignorant masses to prove that their voices are valuable. And if they do? Great!
In America, we currently have a system that allows people to do things like rise up from nothing (Yes, we can rise from nothing despite Keen’s belief that this sense of empowerment is simply an illusion – wait, where did he come from again? Oh, that’s right – nothing.).
5. “Humility is the thing that will kill the professional media creator in the 21st century.” If you think the audience should be writing the news stories, you have committed creative suicide.
Here, I agree with Keen to a certain extent. Many of the most talented people are selling themselves short due to lost jobs and few professional opportunities. Companies like Demand Media pay reasonably talented writers pennies, and journalists are allowing the ones with the money (not everyone will have tons of money, especially if they spend more time focusing on their craft rather than their rise to power) to treat them like crap.
Personally, I don’t think this “creative suicide” is an issue of power – it’s an issue of value that comes from within a society, not from the people who hover like cowards on the fringes, calling themselves and each other “the elite”.
*Andrew, no offense, but if you want power you need your own domain name.
(Photo by Kradlum)