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Keen, Leigh and the appeal to authority

I spent close to 1700 words outlining my objections to Keen's Cult of the Amateur last week, even though I could have done it in three. I refrained from using the phrase lurking in the back of my mind, partly because I deemed it too academic, but, just as I published that post, veteran investigative journalist David Leigh (via The Press Gazette) gave me the perfect lead to explain it:

"...web culture 'degrades valuable things' such as 'the idea of discrimination', that some voices are more credible than others, that a named source is better than an anonymous pamphleteer... The notion of authoritativeness is derided as a sort of ‘top-down’ fascism. I fear that these developments will endanger the role of the reporter," said Leigh (in this lecture).

To me, this quote sums up much of the common, and misplaced, arguments against web culture, Keen's included. It's not that web culture contests authority or authoritativeness as such, rather it contests the appeal to, or argument by, authority, which is a different thing altogether, not to mention a logical fallacy.

It's the kind of argument that goes 'It is right/correct/above reproach because The Guardian/Telegraph/BBC/some authority said so' that is being contested, an argument which effectively shortcuts all discussion (why is it right? because xx said so, and xx is an authority and authorities are always right. why? because that's just the way it is. dead end). In the case of Keen, the flawed argument runs roughly like this:

1) Andrew Keen and his straw men say today's Internet is killing our culture and assaulting our economy
2) Andrew Keen and his straw men are experts
3) consequently Andrew Keen's claim is true

Perhaps, once upon a time, it used to be the case that something was deemed true and beyond argument just because mainstream media reported it. If it was, I'm not old enough to remember it, and my grasp of media history must be too flimsy, as I can't recall it, but it's certainly not the case today.

Authority, like any virtue, is something we have for times of our lives, but we don't have it once and for all. It's earned though our actions, and increasingly through the transparency of our actions/editorial choices - and through how well we can validate those choices and actions.

Web culture tests, challenges, probes and requires engagement. That's both a challenge and an opportunity. Let me illustrate this with a quote The Cluetrain Manifesto, which to me still is the book that best describes web mentality:

"Your product broke. Why? We'd like to ask the guy who made it. Your corporate strategy makes no sense. We'd like to have a chat with your CEO. What do your mean she's not in? ... We want you to take us as seriously as you take one reporter from The Wall Street Journal... We know some people from your company. They're pretty cool online. Do you have any more like that you're hiding? Can they come out and play?"

See, the web empowers people: when you can pretty much roll your own newspaper online with RSS and newsreaders, publish your own stuff without being a techie; talk freely with folks from all over the world about your good and bad experiences using various products; build your own tools, do your own thing - you get what some may feel is a group of uncomfortably empowered people (formerly known as the audience).

So you engage or perish.

It's not that web culture devalues everything, far from, but it has it's own way of establishing value, or authority if you like, and it's fickle in the respect that a web audience won't hang around forever just because you have an important brand or you once provided good stuff. I can't see how that's a bad thing.

In one respect, it's all about trust, but that's another debate. And of course engage does not equal agree, but that's yet another debate. And oops, that's 698 words. Ah well, that's why it takes me a while to get around to writing these things inbetween all my pressing deadlines...


That web mentality description from Cluetrain was great when a technology was is in its disruptive phase. Once that phase is over the CEO will not be taking calls/ emails/ twitters...

Did CEOs ever take calls? (apart from in Norway that is:-) )
I was just using the quote to illustrate how all the tools available online give a sense of empowerment, change our expectations to the world around us.

I also had a reaction to the Leigh piece. As a member of the authoritative fraternity I'll miss the access that may degrade with the rise of the citizen, but my objections were more capitalistic. That is, surely we (the mainstream media) must find a way to compete, an d if we can't compete, then we deserve to be swept away. I develop that a little more here:

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