“Grand utopian movement”, said one author about web 2.0… They call him the Antichrist of Silicon Valley. In Amsterdam, at The Next Web conference, we met probably the most prominent critic of Web 2.0, Mr. Andrew Keen.
Mr. Keen is well known for his particular view of Web 2.0 as a “grand utopian movement”, describing new media and technology in terms of it’s significance to modern culture and society. Basing his arguments on a view based on comparative history and sociology, Keen has stirred up both interest and controversy with his book, “The Cult of the Amateur”. So what does the man who writes about the age of digital narcissism have to to say about Twitter?
Mr. Keen, what are you doing in Amsterdam?
I was asked to give a little more optimistic and positive view of the internet. I didn’t necessarily agree to that, but on the other hand – I’m not opposed to technology. I try to give a more balanced view of where I see the internet today.
Why have you been dubbed the Antichrist of Silicon Valley?
It’s a bit of a joke. It’s just fun, not like the reformation where millions of people lost their lives. A lot of people were offended by my book and some of my arguments. I basically rejected the business premise of web 2.0, the idea that all this free content could generate viable businesses. I make the argument that on the one hand all this free content is just pretty bad. Also, the culture of free content is unhealthy and destructive. People like Larry Lessig and the Creative Commons group are, and they won’t explicitly say this, undermining the media industry by saying that artists and creators have some kind of moral obligation to give their work away for free. It’s also not a very good idea in business terms since most advertisers don’t want to associate their brand with content that can’t be controlled, which is often irrelevant, rude and semi-pornographic. I was stating the obvious that everybody knew, the little kid in the crowd who pointed out that the emperor wasn’t wearing any clothes.
The internet for me is morally neutral. Neither good nor bad – it simply reflects us. What’s interesting about web 2.0 is that it’s a mirror. That’s why it raises so many emotions. The problem, in my view, is that a late capitalist, late industrial society contributed to a culture of narcissism. It’s made us all increasingly isolated, lonely and eager for audiences. The web 2.0 period is interesting because finally we as individuals found a release for that. We can all be famous for 15 seconds. I think that the web 2.0 phenomenon can only be explained through deeper, sociological, cultural and economic events which are reshaping the way we live.
How would you compare Twitter to YouTube?
It’s something more and something less. It’s something less because it’s just fun. What I like about Twitter is that it doesn’t represent an attempt to replace mainstream media. It’s a nice way to meet people. It does away with a lot of problems of web 2.0 because it dismisses anonymity. I think it creates much more good will.
Twitter represents the beginning of the real time economy and real time culture. You can’t look back now. You won’t have companies or web services that aren’t real time. Now it seems unusual, but eventually it will be normal.
I was always opposed and hostile to the idea of democratization of the web and thought it was empty. The internet wasn’t democratized and it wasn’t planned. The reverse is actually true. Twitter represents digital feudalism. Either you’re a follower or you’re followed. With Twitter you have the reappearance of talent. You have your Stephen Frys and other talented thought leaders who sometimes have hundreds of thousands of followers. Most people don’t. Twitter is radically unequal. Is that good or bad? It’s a reality. At least it’s a little more honest than the web 2.0 period which lacks clarity and simplicity.
Coming to Eastern Europe. Lenin and Tito understood, that to revolutionize the village, you have to speak the language of the village. The problem with urban, East European communists from the war period was that they spoke the language of the city. They generally failed. What was distinctive about Tito was that he spoke the language of the people and built that conversation into a national movement. Twitter is the Lenin or the Tito of the web 2.0 revolution. Technology is catching up with the way we interact. Twitter is intimately familiar, yet revolutionary.
What role do politics play in microblogging?
The dangers of Twitter in politics are pretty obvious. Since it’s a digital feudal system where you’re either a follower or follower, there’s a dramatic imbalance of power. When that translates into politics, I think it lends itself to charismatic leadership, which is not a democratic system. Chris Sacca is a genuine democrat and I have a lot of respect for him, but I don’t agree with his view that Twitter is democratic. I think the opposite is true. Imagine Twitter in the 1930s, imagine what Hitler, Mussolini, or some of the angry young men of Eastern Europe could have used it for. A young charismatic could command a large number of followers, attention and loyalty almost overnight. That’s scary.
I think we’re on the verge of digital fascism. You can’t blame the technology. It has certainly reshaped the nature of politics. Obama, for example, has used this technology in a very honest and credible way. I’m not convinced everyone will use it in the same way in the future.
Where is Twitter, the web in general even, going?
The digital revolution is changing everything. The internet has become the central social and cultural battleground over many issues. It’s not because of technology, it’s in spite of it. It’s very important to understand that the internet right now has to be understood in broader cultural and social terms. It can’t just be seen the technology.