Everything I know is Wrong

I read Andrew Keen’s brilliant book The Cult of the Amateur over the weekend. I read it in one sitting.

I’m stunned. I’m shocked. I feel lost.

In short, with a mere 200 pages, Andrew convinced a hardnose like me that I’m wrong. About everything. About a great many things having to do with the internet.

I spent most of Monday in a fog. I felt like deleting my blog, shutting down my business, and going to work on a lawn crew for the next ten years. I’m not joking.

I think I’m starting to recover a bit. But who knows?

Andrew passionately makes the case that the internet, particularly Web 2.0 with all of it’s socialization and democratization, is making us all idiots. This is nothing new and you, like me, will probably scoff and think, “Tell me something I don’t know”.


The book absolutely destroys Wikipedia, YouTube, Digg, and even some of Google’s search philosophy. It blows away the idea or concept that a democracy is an equalizing (or empowering) benefit to the millions of us who have, for some time now, felt that the best days were ahead.

As he says, the internet is “ignorance meets egoism meets bad taste meets mob rule - on steroids”. He mockingly derides the “wisdom of the crowd” (a term coined by a popular book that I also found disturbingly bizarre) and “the long tail” (a marketing term created by Wired magazine editor Chris Anderson which has never been proven to work in any large scale economy, but only in isolated instances).

I don’t want to do a full-blown book review. I can’t. There would be no point. You have to read the book. If you are involved in the internet as part of your business, or if you are a blogger, or a media producer, new media evangelist, tech writer, or any such animal, you must read this book. Call me a shill if you like, but I’m not getting paid a penny to promote this.

The book didn’t have an unusual amount of shocking information in it. Not for informed netizens. I think it was the combination of Keen’s persuasive writing with facts being presented one after another, like smashing hammer blows, taking away the possibility that you would try to reason your way out of turning the page. It was, for me, inescapable. I felt my breath being sucked out of my lungs. What could I say? Nothing. He was right. About everything. And I was wrong. And we all were wrong. Collectively, we have been destroying our culture when we instead thought we were building it up.

The book makes the strong and reasoned argument that we need to return to the established and traditional institutions of information: professional news, music, literature, and even television and movies.

That didn’t sit well with me at first. I was particularly miffed that anyone would suggest that the dying dollars at newspapers and magazines were anything to shed tears over. After all, having been interviewed by newspapers and television stations myself, I had later seen those reports and wondered if they were reporting about the same event. The thirty years of liberal bias in many major media outlets had, for me, left me without a concern for their well-being, much less their profitability.

After reading Keen’s book, I’m completely switched my opinion. In fact, as he points out, without a stable and functioning news media, the blogs themselves would be doomed.


Although Keen only touches on this, I’ve argued sometime now for transparency. Full openness on the internet. No more anonymous debate.

I recently encountered a man who had put up a “blog” blasting his former church. While he wasn’t purely anonymous (the church was well aware of him), he had named the pastor and others in the church using their first and last names as well as the full name of the church (and denomination). All the while, he only referred to himself and his wife by first names only. My wife was a friend of his wife at one time. When I challenged him to take down his “blog” (for a variety of reasons), I also pointed out the cowardice of attacking behind an anonymous platform.

I included the Google results for searches on the church and the pastor. They both highly ranked his “blog” in the results. However, should a potential employer, business partner, or anyone else bother to search on his name, there would be no record of his identity in relation to his hate-filled “blog”. In fact, he had even spent the extra $10 to privately mask the ownership of his domain.

While on the one hand I was sorely tempted to “out” him, because the church had the good sense not to, I felt it would only contribute to the overall problem, and embroil me in an issue that I saw as just plain silly and dumb. Worse, it would likely turn him from an egomaniac to a megalomaniac, potentially making him even more dangerous and unstable.

This is the root of the problem of anonymity. For some reason, it has become some cherished right to have an alter ego, a user ID, a “handle”, that from which anyone can fire surface-to-air missiles at their enemies (and even friends). Thus, my favorite two cartoons on the internet.

I’m certainly not proud of everything I’ve done on the internet or by email. No one who has been doing this as long as I have is without some serious mishaps in their past. We are all learning. But I’ve made those mistakes as myself. As Lawrence Salberg. Not as “HotStud69″ or “hack3rBoy666″.

I can even go back to a 100+ email thread prior to Y2K in which I insisted that there was no reason to fear (or stockpile weapons and water) and for which I actually lost a few friends. Turns out I was right (that time), but that didn’t help my friends desire to return to the fold. It wasn’t even an important issue with me. I knew I was right - I had the compu-knowledge that many of them lacked. I had worked on mainframes and desktop computers since the TRS-80. But it didn’t matter. It was an argument over nothing.

The night of Y2K (New Year’s Eve), I had forgotten all about it. I spent the evening playing StarCraft on a 56Kb modem connection with three other players from all over the country. My wife walked up to me at 12:30am, kissed me, and said amongst the buzzing of SCV’s and Zergling rush attacks “Happy New Year, sweetie”. I paused as the Zerglings defiled the last of my Command Center. It was New Years. Here I was, doing something that, at the time, was one of the more sophisticated consumer technology advances out there (online gaming). Not a single one of us broke connection. Not one of us had lost power. No one had even blinked.

I wrote to the old Y2K mailing list the next day announcing my triumph (and by inference, their stupidity). Deadly silence was my reply. They knew they were wrong and could say nothing.

It was a bad decision on my part. I should have given my advice once or twice and then just let it go. People will do as they want anyway.

Imagine Y2K today. Or the myriad controversies debated on a million forums and blogs all over the world. As bad as our Y2K discussion was via an email thread, we all knew who each other were. There were no crazy anonymous posters jumping in and inflaming (or flaming, as the case may be) everyone else. The dozen of us that participated didn’t treat each other with the greatest of respect at times, but there were checkpoints to our cracks. We would see each other again; we knew were each of us worked.

Despite our individual views, most of the emails were reasoned attempts to explain our position, to debunk the others, or the find balance between the two. Foul language, idiotic analogies, and links to irrelevant websites (or videos) were all non-existent.

Now, after reading this book, I find myself in the awkward position of considering support of government-forced transparency on the net. It chaffs my conservative principles to the core, and yet, I see no other way if we are to recapture the hope that I once believed the internet held for all of us.

The idea that we can walk up and down the street without name badges is a cherished American privilege. But it is not a right. We can be asked, at times and places deemed appropriate, for our “papers”: during the commission of an illegal act, by a police officer with a reasonable suspicion of some not-so-societal behavior on our part, and even at some public protests. In other words, you need not wear a sticker that says “Hello. My name is ____”, but you must properly identify yourself at times.

Contrast that to the internet. You can and will be found out only after an extensive civil suit or investigation by the FBI. You can poke your nose into all manner of “buildings” (websites) and never be asked for your true identity. Most major media websites that allow user “feedback” and allow you to register, allow you to create your user ID. You can be “SantaElf29″ if you want to be. And then you can proceed to use their forum to utterly destroy those with whom you disagree - even people of prominence.

In fact, there’s nothing to stop even a 14-year old from setting up a userID at the Miami Herald and blasting the mayor of the city, post after post after post. Despite his lack of knowledge (and the fact he’d be thrown out of a council meeting in two minutes with that mouth), he could potentially stay on the forums for months or years before the Herald bothered to remove him. What’s good for traffic is controversy - and traffic breeds advertising dollars.

Meanwhile, we all suffer from his distracting and unedifying participation.


I’ve joked for years that we are all A.D.D. on the internet. Now, I’m beginning to think it may be more than just a joke.

Nicholas Carr, in a depressing essay entitled “Is Google making us Stupid?: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains” (Atlantic Monthly - July/Aug 2008) lamented some similar issues.

Michael Hyatt, the CEO of Thomas Nelson Books (the largest publisher of Christian books) noted in response that he had lost the concentration to read long passages. That can’t be good.

Dr. Edward M. Hallowell, a leading expert on adult A.D.D. published a book this past year called “CrazyBusy – Overstretched, Overbooked and About to Snap! Strategies for Coping in a World Gone ADD“. I haven’t read it yet, but the book is a help guide for the millions of people who are beginning to think they have A.D.D, but are really just pawns of our culture’s obsession with information.

And even yesterday, the New York Times reported that a junior-level NBC employee who broke the story of Tim Russert’s death on Wikipedia overstepped his authority (and one might argue, journalistic ethics) and was promptly fired by NBC:

The instinct of the junior-level employee, presumably, was to correct the record on Wikipedia and share knowledge with the wider world. That flash of idealism was very brief; 11 minutes later, according to Wikipedia records, someone at another Internet Broadcasting computer deleted the date of death and turned all the past tenses back to present tenses. Only minutes later, of course, none of this would matter.


Cult of the Amateur was written by a web maverick, a man who had successfully launched a web application, an Silicon Valley insider, a man who, in 2004, begin to suspect that he may be on the wrong side of history.

Keen chronicles his undoing at an O’Reilly weekend retreat in which he makes the mistake of, quite simply, observing. Like a scientific discovery that begins the same way, he suddenly sees his colleagues, many of them internet millionaires and computer geniuses, in a freakishly devilish light. In a 24-hour period, he would undergo a transformation from web guru to web reformer. As he says:

The more that was said that weekend, the less I wanted to express myself. As the din of narcissism swelled, I became increasingly silent. And thus began my rebellion against Silicon Valley. Instead of adding to the noise, I broke the one law of FOO Camp 2004. I stopped participating and sat back and watched.

I haven’t stopped watching since. I’ve spent the last two years observing the Web 2.0 revolution, and I’m dismayed by what I’ve seen.

I point this out because Andrew Keen had (and has) the authority to make the statements he has made.

Sadly, there are those who may read this, who may find occasion to use this book to congratulate themselves on their notable absence in anything webified. With an air of superiority, these few have rarely read a blog post (much less posted one), uploaded a YouTube video (or perhaps even watched one), and hardly know what Wikipedia even is. They have purposely and intentionally stayed away from the web. Some seem downright incapable of even a simple email exchange. I’ve written before about my suspicions regarding these types, so I won’t belabor that here.

Suffice to say, these “anti-nets” (as I call them) are merely against the internet because they have forever been threatened by it. The difference between them and me is simple: they would find the words of Keen’s book to be comforting, self-assuring, and perhaps deliciously vengeful. They will undoubtedly (and unconvincingly) point to such a polemic and say, “That’s what I’ve been trying to say for ten years”. Despite positioning themselves on the moral high ground in an attempt to mask their ineffective communication skills, this book really isn’t for them.

It’s for those of us, like me, who are greatly disturbed by its findings, but at the same time see it as a hopeful turning point, not to withdraw and avoid the greatest boon to communication and commerce in our lifetime to date. No. Not at all. It should be a watershed to take these early years as a lesson for us all and to work together to solve the very many and serious problems identified by Keen.


This is the weak point of the book. Keen places some measure of hope in projects like Citizendium and Politico, but beyond that, there isn’t much to go on.

As is often the case with me, I see much more that can be done. I’m going to express some of it in my next post and outline many steps that I think bloggers, in particular, need to do immediately if we are to have any self-respect at the end of the day.

It won’t be pretty. It will be a tall order. And I’ll be drinking from the same kool-aid I’ll be serving. You may find some of it shocking - particularly if you are aware of my right-wing leanings.

But it has to be done. Or else all of this - my blog, your blog, my MySpace page, your Facebook account - it’s all for nothing. Absolutely nothing. And even though on the one hand, maybe the utter destruction of all this faux information would be a good thing, I think there is “yet another hope” (to quote Obi-Wan).

As more and more folks come online, read our blogs, get broadband, and join the “great conversation”, those of us who have been doing this a long time have to change our ways, to be the moral leaders of the future, and to set the standard. It’s going to be difficult, ugly, and many will refuse and maintain their fascist support for the current system that, up until this weekend, I also thought was the bright hope of communication for America.

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Lawrence…I’m a new reader. This post was referred via Michael Hyatt’s twitter.

For a living, I help companies understand the web and devise a plan to put it to their best-use. While I can understand part of what you’re saying, your post challenges me as well.

Thanks for the post. I’m gonna buy the book and see what happens.


Audible has it, and I have a credit. I will be listening to this next.

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