Saturday, September 1, 2007


It's the anniversary of the start of Blogocentrism and as fate or some other abstract entity would have it I recently read two different accounts of the internet world, the one Michiko Kakutani's review of The Cult of the Amateur by Andrew Keen, the other "A Space for Us," Pagan Kennedy's essay on "meeting" her readers by searching for mention of her books on MySpace. Keen's book criticizes the DIY ethic of the internet, particularly sites like MySpace, YouTube and Wikipedia, arguing that the lack of standards, expert opinion, professional production values, content guardians, and so forth, will produce a culture of anything goes and nobody knows. Kennedy, on the other hand, seems starry-eyed at the prospect of learning info about the kinds of people who read her books; the internet lets her interact with them, maybe even to the point of trying to live up to their expectations of her work. In any case, the main point of her essay is the startling -- to her -- idea that readers have faces, lives and, most unexpectedly, voices.

Both Keen and Kennedy seem to live sheltered lives, or at least have adopted such a persona for purposes of their major point. It's of course overstatement to ascribe a revolution or a decadence to the fact that people use the internet to communicate their loves and hates. People have always done so anyway, but now there's a record of it that strangers can consult if they so choose. The trend-setting aspect of word-of-mouth may be increased astronomically, but it's still the basic appeal to a popularly perceived need or ideal or amusement that it always was. Keen acts as if the vox populi online will sweep away the culture of informed voices -- but that's only possible if informed readers cease to heed authoritative opinion. But is it really believable that readers of cultural mainstays such as The New York Review of Books, or The New Yorker, or The Nation, or what have you will get their opinions entirely from bloggers with cryptic names and busy websites? What strikes me as quaint in Keen's view, as presented by Kakutani, is that it almost seems as if he was under the delusion that until the internet dawned opinion was actually formed by the established organs -- when it's just that other opinion was ignored (unless put on display in fussy letters to the editor).

The point is that the official organs set a standard but also standardized a viewpoint, a taste, a manner that could then be taken for granted as "the best opinion." Those in that web needed never to consider what those outside it thought, sought or fought for. Now, if the insiders log in to what the hoi polloi are looking at and saying and reading, they have the immense shock of realizing that discourse has gone on all along, blithely indifferent in many instances to what the opinion makers have had to say.

An illustration: the least-read publications of all are academic studies because they are the most informed, but so narrowly focused and so scrupulous in referencing sources and acknowledging ideas that they are hamstrung and uninteresting as writing, by and large. The popular press tends to take ideas from the world of research and particularized knowledge and makes them "general" by not playing the game of citations, and without the complex weighing of differing viewpoints. Then along comes the "everyperson press" of the internet, which plays at accountability but which is mainly aimed to disseminate what "everyone" knows or says, regardless of its factual basis. Or, as in Wikipedia, it aims to catalogue every current term or concept or personality without benefit of the kind of long-term status and consensus that leads to encyclopedia entries.

I'm more on the side of Kennedy -- though with somewhat less the "brave new world with such creatures in it" tone. I think all readers of a book or viewers of a film or listeners to music or attenders of a political speech should -- in a free country with free access to means of expression -- be able to express an opinion and to do so in any manner they choose. "By their presents shall ye know them," as the saying goes; if a cretin is expressing a cretinous opinion that will show, if an informed voice gives serious consideration to something the paid pundits have no time for, that too will show.

Keen seems to think that if "everyone's doing it," then no one is left to be an audience for the "true" practitioners, but that's rather unlikely. It's long been the case, for instance, that most readers of poetry also write some version of poetry, and the DIY experience of trying to do what the most admired poets do hasn't ended the production of poetry, some of it quite remarkably good, or of the publication of poetry (always to some extent by a coterie of strong-willed DIY intellectuals), it has simply created an environment in which there are very few who are "only" readers of poetry. Likewise there are few more dedicated admirers of musicians than other musicians, or attenders of art openings than other artists.

Granted, when we move away from the creative arts with their valuable subjective element and start talking about knowledge -- of history, of biology, of chemistry, of politics, etc. -- then the pop version -- or propaganda -- version of such things that Google or Wikipedia potentially delivers is more pernicious. But presses and newspapers often have their ax to grind, their slant, and every encyclopedia entry has been updated or revised at some point. The caveat is against taking any source as the complete and utter authority. At least Wikipedia, because it is DIY, appears provisional from the start, a place to start, not the first and only source. But it may be that exposure to contrary opinions or accounts will send the searcher in search of the most thorough and informed account, which is the whole point of the procedure.

What Keen does bring to the fore is the fact that the internet is largely just a more haphazard and less accountable version of the popular press; Keen sees that, as quoted by Kakutani, what "the Web 2.0 revolution is really delivering is superficial observations of the world around us rather than deep analysis, shrill opinion rather than considered judgment." I'm in agreement with that observation, but, unlike Keen, I already assume that "deep analysis" and "considered judgment" are not part of the popular press to begin with -- where, if the opinions are not "shrill," it's only because they're smug.


Andrew Shields said...

Have you had any problems with students who are overdependent on Wikipedia? (Or on the Internet in general?)

Donald Brown said...

I wouldn't say "problems" exactly -- for Freshman taking Freshman comp to learn to write research papers, it is necessary to divest them, sometimes, of ideas that if it's not on the internet it doesn't exist, and that all posted sources are more or less of equal worth. It's a struggle, but so is getting them to cite things correctly and to write grammatically.

I think Wikipedia still has "cool" status -- the attraction of the "renegade" operation, I guess. Also, it's fun to see what kind of things have entries.

In my dealings with it, I find it generally accurate on the facts, depending (as with any account) on how detailed the entry is, but when entries offer interpretation or evaluative claims -- look out!

Andrew Shields said...

Exactly: facts good, interpretations slippery ...

The college students here have learned to be careful with Wikipedia, apparently, but they still use it as a first step. Which is fine.