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The Internet is 90% Amateur Crap

This is the sixth email in an eight-email debate between Kevin Kelly, founder of Wired Magazine, and Andrew Keen, author of The Cult of the Amateur. Here, Kelly argues that the unapologetic amateurism of online culture is precisely what will make this medium so revolutionary a force in the history of human culture.

From: Kevin Kelly To: Andrew Keen Subject: Out of Crap, Brilliance


Like you, I enjoy my self-image as a radical (though in my case it’s all talk). But the difference between our rhetoric—other than the opposing sides we represent—is that I have no animosity toward the other side. I love books, albums, magazines, movies, silver photographic prints, and all the rest of the analog world that I am supposedly trying to make disappear. And I do not “want to get rid of copies.”

As I write this I am surrounded by my two-story library of tens of thousands of books, albums, magazines, catalogs, and photographic slides, which I have spent my life enjoying and which I plan to keep enjoying into the future. I don’t need John Updike to remind me of the value and benefits of the old-fashioned paper book; I am in no hurry to see it go. But, more importantly, there’s really nothing I can do to prevent its slow replacement by digital and hybrid versions. In response to my “manifesto,” Updike issued a wonderfully lyrical call for book lovers to build a fortress to keep out the wave of digital change. It was beautifully written, sweet, nostalgic, and of course totally inept, because it is clear that a tiny fort of book lovers cannot stop the oceanic change swamping the analog world. And I am enthusiastic about digital technology simply because I believe that in the end writers, readers, and publishers will gain more from the change than they lose.

As new business models evolve, publishers/labels/studios will make more money—and more creative works—in this new regime than before. Everyone will benefit. Readers will have more choices in content. Authors/artists will have more opportunities to create than ever before. In 50 years people will marvel at all our hand-wringing and screams of bloody murder, because the creative outpouring that has just started online will produce a degree and volume of creative work that will dwarf the greatness of the last 50 years. Will there be crap? Of course there will be. Ninety percent of everything made is crap. And that is good. One of the reasons TV went stagnant while online bloomed is that there was not enough bad—I mean really bad—TV. Television and movies cost so much to make and distribute that the system could not generate really, really bad TV in the same way a web page, or even a book, can be really crap. Instead, the huge expense of producing TV and movies meant that the bad never had a chance. But neither did risky greatness, so all we got was mediocrity. We got middle-of-the-road TV, some shows better than others, but little of it either genius or total mind-numbing bad (and yes, I’ve seen daytime TV).

You don’t know crap until you’ve trolled the depths of the web and self-publishing. But now with the advent of YouTube, digital-video tools, and cheap DVD rentals and sales, really bad TV has been liberated! And in the midst of this morass of total crap comes the freedom and risk to make really great TV. I think it’s no coincidence that with the advent of the web, TV is now in its golden age. Shows like Lost, 24, The Sopranos, and The Wire will rank as this generation’s greatest cultural contributions. They will be taught in university courses in centuries to come.

The greatness of these long-form TV shows was unleashed by the digital technology that made re-watching important, time-shifting easy, audience infatuation contagious, and new complexity totally engaging. They are produced by professionals with big budgets, and more shows like them will continue to be made and watched by large audiences. But shorter, amateur-made films will also reach the heights of greatness, now that the tyranny of the mediocre has been broken by really easy-to-make crap. Two admissions: One, we don’t yet know how this bountiful new world will economically reward creators, and, two, the transition is likely to be ugly. The transition from the agricultural economy to the industrial was wracked with losses of livelihood, civil unrest, and bankruptcies, as well as fortunes and great uncertainty. Buggy whip–makers, who were real craftsmen, with real families, disappeared from the economy. Should we have stopped industrialization in order to save their jobs? Should we have stopped industrialization until we could explain to them how the new economy actually worked? I believe a better remedy would have been to accept their occupation’s demise and retrain them for
their future. We can each make our own list of the sins of industrialization, but by our very participation in this industrialized world, we acknowledge that the benefits of industrialization were worth the loss of the beauty of an agricultural economy. Unless you are living like the Amish (which you can choose to do), you’ve voted for the costly advantages of industrialization. We are making a similar vote today with computer bits. The web is all of 5,000 days old. It may take another few thousand days to figure out viable systems of law, business practices, and cultural norms that will reward audiences, creators, and the middle industries. Or it may take a generation. But that is still a relatively short time in the lifecycle of an economy. What’s the evidence that these new models will come? My expectations are largely the product of my own experience. While I am a published author, with commercial books still in print generating royalties, the majority of my income does not come from paper books. It comes from a plurality of sources: syndication rights, speaking fees, online advertising, direct digital sales, and associative marketing revenues on the web. Am I an exception? I don’t think so. The one thing I’ve learned is that whenever I think I am an exception, it turns out that I am only a little early and the rest of the world will soon be there to make it clear my ideas are not mine. My pattern will be ordinary. The principle that will ensure an income for the world’s artists and publishers, bands and labels, is that wherever attention flows, money will follow. If you are able to sustain the attention of an audience, and keep them interested over time, then money will flow to you. It will come both directly and indirectly (ads, sponsorship, middle folk), but it will come for two reasons. One, because we are bored and will pay for something that elevates us above life’s averageness, and, two, because we crave to connect with creators who elevate and equip us. We want to pay; just make paying easy, just, and beneficial. The funny thing about the supposed demise of high culture (authors and books, musicians and music, directors and films) supported by classic industrial economics is that we see the demise everywhere except in the statistics. There are more books, songs, films, etc., being made every year, and more artists, authors, and musicians working than ever before. Every bit of data I have been able to find points to yet more artists and more art in the coming years. It could be that this outpouring is a heroic last gasp before culture’s ultimate disappearance by digital technology, but I doubt it. Far more likely is that this outpouring is due to the peculiar and nearly metaphysical properties of digital technology, which has turned many millions of consumers into prosumers. You can call them amateurs, but I call them a miracle. During the 1980s and even into the early ’90s, I struggled to convince the heads of media companies that the participatory nature of the Internet was real. They were convinced that online enthusiasts like myself were exceptions. The Internet was a young male domain, they insisted, that would not appeal to females, anyone older than 19, or those living in the heartland. They were even more adamant t
hat “no one would ever get up from the couch to make their own videos,” let alone write text. The idea of millions of videos being made by the audience was absolutely unthinkable. It was impossible. My own experiences living online, prosuming media with many others, were declared an aberrant exception. My vision of a billion people owning computers, actively creating text, videos, and music in some kind of online network was dismissed as raving utopianism. Who can argue against the goodness of having a billion people get off the couches and start making stuff, even if 90 percent is crap? That means 10 percent is great. And not only is that 10 percent more than we had before, I will argue that eventually some of that 10 percent will be superior to the best we get from the established media industry. And even if the greatest is never made by prosumers, it is still wonderful they are off their butts and using the talents that God gave them.


NEXT: Not Everyone Can Be Kevin Kelly

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