On the dark side of the Internet: Part I

The Cult of the Amateur
The Cult of the Amateur

We live in a world of ongoing digital/information revolution and we can truly feel its impact on our everyday life. But are we changing in a good way or a bad way?

While there’re thousands of anthems for the Internet, much fewer books are arguing that the Internet (and Web 2.0) is evil. The Cult of the Amateur is one of them.

For me, it’s a rather strange experience during the last weeks when I was reading this book by Andrew Keen. On the one hand, there’re lots of examples, figures and compelling arguments in the book that show the dark side of the Web 2.0 world we’re living. They are true stories. However, on the other hand, I’ve found that I do depend on these new inventions like Wikipedia to work more efficiently and to live a better life.

This mixed feeling kind of forced me to rethink about various issues about the Internet which were discussed in the book. In the end, the Internet in the real world convinced me that the world is not working as the one Keen has suggested.

But this is not a easy answer as it may seems.

Truth and authority

Wikipedia is a major leading force of Web 2.0 and also the focus of related controversies for the most of time. The problem is: can a social worker really be considered credible in arguing with a trained physicist over the string theory? (p.44)

Although Keen thought this is obviously “chilling and absurd”, I think the answer should be “yes”.

Because the truth is credible in itself, regardless of the way it’s expressed. And a POV(Point of View) is valuable if it’s well reasoned, regardless of the authority of the speaker.

I think Keen must have misunderstood Wikipedia in a big way. Wikipedia does not allow original research [1], that is to say, all the materials on Wikipedia should be verifiable with published sources that directly supports it. That’s why Wikipedia is not built for everyone to say whatever he wants. It is designed to be a free compilation of reliable information that is at least as credible as Encyclopædia Britannica [2].

By empowering the amateur in this way, instead of undermining the authority of the experts (as Keen suggested), we are helping revealing the truth as it is.

That is the mission of Wikipedia. However, that is not the status quo and it is keep improving. There’re so many entries on Wikipedia that is not sourced and some of them could be totally wrong. But most of the information on Wikipedia is more accurate that you could have ever imagined in a world without it. It’s good enough for most of the tasks we are facing everyday.

What we get from Wikipedia is a completely free encyclopedia which is almost reliable. Every user of Wikipedia should know about that. If you saw the warning below, but failed your exam by using unverified information from Wikipedia, who should you blame?

There’re no such things as “professional standards of truth” (p.205), there’s only one “standard of truth”.

Update: Here’s an illuminating article on the reliability of Wikipedia: Should you believe Wikipedia?

[1] Please refer to Wikipedia:No original research.

[2] Britannica, interestingly, allows users to contribute to articles now.

When we say “democratization”, we mean it

According to Keen, Web 2.0 democratization “is costing us a fortune”, “real businesses” are going to die. The reality is: that is the price for democracy. We must pay for it and we will earn it back.

There’re people in Middle-East fighting for democracy now. The situation is difficult and serious. But they keep fighting at very huge expenses including lives of people. Why do they want civil liberties so much?

Because democratization is not about record company losing their money or television networks are cutting their expenses. It’s about what is right and what is wrong. It’s about the future.

When a country is controlled by a monarchy or a group of noblemen, the country is not free. When culture is controlled by a minority of people, culture is not free.

It’s lucky for Keen to live in the United States where he could enjoy the beloved “mainstream media”. It’ll be my pleasure to welcome anyone to enjoy the “mainstream media” in a country where almost every TV station, every radio station and every newspaper is owned or directly controlled by the government. This may help you better understand what an “Orwellian” culture really looks like and why it should be democratized.

We may miss the good old days. But I’m afraid that there’s no way back.

Professional and expertise

So how are we going to earn things back?

Despite the fact that democratization is inevitable, real talents and geniuses will find their ways to make a living out of their expertise and skills in a better way. Because the notion of UGC(user generated content) is to remove the barrier between everyone and professionals.

If you are bored, you can either watch a series of hilarious YouTube videos or watch a funny show on a cable channel. What is the difference of the effectiveness between the two choices? Does it really matter if it’s home-made or professionally-produced? If I can read a joke and get entertained to the same extent for free, I don’t understand why should anybody pay for it.

The general point is, the quality of work is not determined by how professional it is. With UGC sites like blogs, Flickr and YouTube, we now have an open arena where the ideas and work by everyone can compete with each other regardless of the profession and authority of the creators, with a nearly free entrance fee.

There used to be a big amount of “entrance fee”. If you think your idea is valuable, you’ll have to either pay the publishers and make them happy to get it published, or become an expert in this field, publishing papers and attending conferences to get noticed. Before all these were invented, the priceless ideas could only be transmitted by word of mouth, or forgotten.

The history of how culture flourishes is basically a history of how communication become easier and faster. The problem we face is not “YouTube or Joost”, “Wikipedia or Citizendium” (p.189). This choice does not even exist because we are moving from Britannica only to Wikipedia+Citizendium+Britannica.

It’s not a life-or-death struggle, it’s the expansion of spectrum. It’s nothing about replacing, it’s all about complementing.

The only problem is that the experts and professionals who are not good enough but get used to be protected by the “entrance-fee” barrier are worrying about how to defend themselves against the more talented amateurs in the newly-opened arena.

In contrary, the truly excellent professionals should not be worrying at all. If the Tower clerks, whom were important to Keen (p.105), are “deeply knowledgeable” enough, they could start a collective blog or online magazine and they would still be cultural tastemakers.

For the big record companies, you can’t survive this revolution if you are too greedy to change. The premium you got from resisting everyone else from entering the game is gone forever. If you don’t want to lower the price, then spending more money to make better music, instead of wasting money suing the rest of the world.

This sounds cruel. But this is more fair.

Continued on: