Andrew Keen's book, The Cult of the Amateur, hits bookstores today. Keen has given us a brickbat of a polemic, which is to say, it's blunt, mean and not very sophisticated. Think of his argument as: Everything On or Transmitted Over or Affected By the Internet is Bad For You. His actual subtitle is "How Today's Internet is Killing Our Culture." Same thing. For those of us with stock in the belief that the Internet has liberated a great deal of latent creativity, ideas and dare I say it, beauty, it's an offensive notion.
It is also, to hear Keen's critics, a disingenuous one. Prominent voices like Jeff Jarvis, Dave Winer and Robert Scoble have all cast Keen in the role of a calculating and—worse, this—sophomoric provocateur, producing arguments that aren't worth a "thoughtful response," in Winer's words, because they are "beneath criticism." (Rather than offer a round-up of the various leading lights who've taken the whip hand to Keen, I'll hand you over to Dan Farber at ZDNet, who does an admirable job of it.)
As everyone seems to have their basic talking points down—Keen's not just wrong, he's terrible at being wrong—the only real debate in play is whether to engage Keen at all. The consensus is that Keen is a troll, and the only way to deal with trolls is ignore them. I can't say I agree. I read Keen's book when I first received a review copy back in February, and had a similar reaction as many others. One, thank god someone's finally poking a stick in the Web 2.0 happy hive; and Two, why does the welcome antagonist have to wield such a clumsy, ineffective tool?
I talked to my immediate editors at Wired about the book anyway. We agreed that the book was likely to get tons of press, and that you go to the ring with the opponent you have, not the opponent you want. I spent several, long hours battling Keen—whose not without personal charm and wit—and found him as exasperating as his book. For what it's worth, I believe Keen is in earnest, not merely out to make a buck. (Which isn't to say the two motives are mutually exclusive.)
In the end the decision was made not to run the piece. I have decided to run the interview on Crowdsourcing.com. Because while we all might know Keen is a troll, the London Times, Forbes, the Financial Times and some 45 other publications don't. According to the Nexis news database, they all gave Keen coverage in the last several months. The scientific community decided that Intelligent Design was beneath criticism too, and we know how well that went.
The fact is, Keen's arguments will sound mightily persuasive to a significant constituency who do believe the Internet is primarily a repository of porn, spam and corrosive amateurism. Failing to recognize that the choir to which Keen preaches might just be larger than our own congregation is an arrogant, and potentially irreversible blunder. While Web 2.0 insiders might love to hate Keen, many in the world at large will love to love him. I should note that I'm not the only dissenter on this count. Clay Shirky wages a more eloquent version of my argument here.
As such, in the spirit that all debate is good debate, I'm publishing the Wired Q&A after the jump. We kept the truly vitriolic bits out, so excuse me if it reads a bit more courtly than what I've written above. If vitriol is what you're looking for though, tomorrow I'll be moderating a debate between Keen and Time writer Lev Grossman at the Strand in New York. If you happen to live in the city or be in town for a visit, I hope you can join the fray.