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The Cult of the Professional

There's been a certain amount of publicity recently for Andrew Keen's book The Cult of the Amateur, which roundly criticises citizen journalism, Wikipedia, and pretty much anything else associated with 'Web 2.0' and user-led content creation for 'killing our culture'. Looks like it's striking all the right chords with the usual moral panic crowd who find it hard to accept that anyone but themselves could be in charge of determining what's good and worthy - or indeed, that users themselves, as the participants in culture, might want to have a say in such decisions.

Keen's one-man cultural crusade is reminiscent of the Discovery Institute's 'Teach the Controversy' campaign against the science of evolution, which similarly relies on clever marketing to disguise the fundamental flaws of its 'scientific theory' of intelligent design; or in a related comparison, he's establishing himself as the media industry equivalent of a climate change denialist, even in the face of overwhelming evidence to discredit his overgeneralised hyperbole. Some industrial journalists, of course, love anything which attempts to take the shine off their citizen counterparts. So, I was reasonably concerned what I saw Keen pop up in the weeknightly podcast of the BBC's NewsNight programme - but thankfully, they had Charles Leadbeater at hand to inject some reason into the debate:

[NewsNight video at the BBC - what, no embeddable version?]

Look, it's perfectly correct to point out that citizen journalism and other produsage-based forms of information and knowledge are as flawed as their contributors, that yes, Forrest, in the end you never know what you're gonna get. Their quality is determined on probabilistic grounds: they operate on the assumption that the more (and the more diverse) users contribute to discussion, debate, and deliberation, the more insightful and comprehensive it will be.

What critics of that model like to ignore is that commercial journalism operates on exactly the same probabilistic model, but - in reality, not in the fantasies of many journalists and defenders of journalism-as-a-profession - has significantly worse odds: if I read the Australian, for example (that's 'read' as in /red/, not /ri:d/, for those of you keeping track), I can be almost certain that its political coverage will be heavily skewed towards the outgoing government's line, if not simply reprinting its press releases; if I tried to watch the major news channels here in the U.S., in fact, I can be certain that Fox News will be as unfair as it is unbalanced, and that CNN will manage to be both inane and preachy.

(For those of you who think that to pick out such examples is unfair, because on the whole those three are beset with systemic political influence from their owners and operated by a particularly spineless bunch of staff anyway: the continued decline of revenue for journalistic publications, and the staff cuts and shifts to junior and untrained staff which follow from it, mean that even where there is no overt political influence, commercial pressures have led to an ever more limited ability for journalists to undertake actual journalistic work and do more than proofread wire reports and press releases.)

The odds are substantially better for the best of citizen journalism: even though overall, for example, the Australian political blogosphere tends to lean some way to the left at present, it still contains engaged debate between opinions and thereby presents a truly multiperspectival coverage of politics; my likelihood of encountering a variety of readings of an issue which enable me to make up my own mind is therefore much improved. Ultimately, however, it remains up to me to make up my mind - contrary to the traditional, 'professional' model, what I'm getting is no bite-size, pre-digested version of 'all the news that's fit to print' that essentially encourages me to switch off all critical functions, but a rough and multifaceted assemblage of facts inviting me to work out for myself what it all means.

And that's the crux of the matter, of course: Keen and others clearly believe in a mass media view of the audience as dopes needing to be told what to think; they believe that 'informed opinion' can exist only if they're the ones doing the (in)forming. (Additionally, they also believe they can get away with an argument that overgeneralises its portrait of citizen journalism and user-created content beyond all recognition.) They're defending a cult of the professional which has become utterly indefensible.

Well, no thanks - I'd rather form my opinion with the help of those who know better than I do. So, instead of Keen's Cult, let me recommend The Pro-Am Revolution by Leadbeater & Miller as a much more informative read - and while you're there, check out the inspiring Open Source Democracy by their Demos stable-mate Douglas Rushkoff, too. In combination, they should keep the Keens of this world at bay at least until my produsage book comes out.

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