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Web 2.0: 'Generally Worthless'

Reporter's Notebook PALO ALTO -- Talk about walking into the lion's den.

Controversial author Andrew Keen participated in a panel discussion before a roomful of Web entrepreneurs, executives and online media types in the wrap-up session of the AlwaysOn conference here. If that wasn't enough, a giant screen onstage projected bloggers' snide comments on the proceedings in real time. Keen, author of The Cult of The Amateur: How Today's Internet is Killing Our Culture, stuck to his guns in a spirited debate with the equally iconoclastic tech analyst George Gilder.

Keen didn't waste any time declaring most so-called Web 2.0 content to be extremely poor and hard to monetize. "The vast majority of Web video is un-watchable, the content unreadable and generally worthless," said Keen.

But Gilder had his own point to make: "The vast majority of culture is worthless; what's new about that?" he asked, noting that there's still plenty of quality content to be found on the Web. While he praised Keen's book as having "a lot of truth" and worth reading, he said it's "a barren and limited vision of what the Net has to offer."

Cult of the Amateur
The cult of Web 2.0.
Source: ajkeen.com

In his own damning-with-faint-praise concession, Keen said he didn't mean to say there wasn't anything on the Web worth viewing or reading.

"I'm not saying all the content is bad, or that every single one of the 70 million bloggers are bad. There are bound to be a few literate ones." Of course he also dismissed the rest as "user-generated amateurism."

Keen's larger point, which I think merits consideration, is not the rise of user-generated content per se, but the possibility it will overwhelm the kind of managed, edited, fact-checked and, dare I say, more reliable content that more traditional publishers provide.

"The really scary thing is when all that's left is this self-broadcasting culture," said Keen. "No one knows who they are, and no one knows who to believe. For kids coming online now, they aren't sophisticated or have the skepticism that's required. This profoundly affects our civic identity and culture."

Ironically, the need for managed content was never more evident than on the panel itself.

The otherwise lively debate veered off course several times when an HP executive took the mic. Barbara Waugh, the company's director of university relations, seemed extremely well-prepared. Only for a different panel. At a different conference.

On four different occasions she weighed in on the need for access to technology for children in Africa, a topic whiplash that, judging by their quizzical looks, utterly confounded the other panel members and the audience.

Still another panelist, marketing consultant Bill Cleary had some good, on point, comments. He noted the positive impact bloggers have had, such as exposing flaws in the recent case of the Duke Lacrosse players who were eventually cleared of rape charges.

Keen conceded the mainstream media did a "disgraceful job" of covering the Duke case. "The Internet is forcing mainstream media to be more honest," he said. "I'm all in favor of that."

In a follow-up interview with internetnews.com, Keen said his book is not meant as a balanced or objective view, but was written as a polemic that's intentionally provocative. "I expect there will be better books on the topic now that I've got things started."

Keen said he's tentatively scheduled to appear on Comedy Central's Colbert Report, which should make for some interesting chatter if it happens. If so, I predict Colbert will tweak Keen by over-the-top enthusiasm for his book: "You're RIGHT! This Internet thing must be stopped."

For now, Keen is headed for a vacation at a family camp without wireless or Internet access, which suits him fine. He said his book is an argument against the "cult" of Web 2.0.

"Being online is not real; Second Life is not real life. Real community is physical when you're with people in the same room." He said if he could change one thing about the Web it would be the anonymity of posters.

"We can't expect the Internet to police itself. In America we should require [when someone] joins a community they reveal who they are. Conversations will become more civil."

You can read more of Keen's thoughts at, where else? His blog.

David Needle is West Coast Bureau Chief for internetnews.com.