Interview: Web 2.0 critic Andrew Keen

Author hits out at 'inane, chaotic and indulgent' culture

Then there is the information that wouldn't get into Britannica. Wikipedia is interesting in that sense. The potential for Wikipedia - and this is in some ways good but in some ways it's disturbing - is that Wikipedia is becoming this information resource about everything and everyone.

In the book I've written about 1984 2.0. In this entirely user-generated culture we're revealing more and more about ourselves and that information is there for everybody to see. I'm disturbed by how someone might want to put something in your listing that is clearly incorrect.

The problem is that, in theory, the crowd is this infinite editor. But in reality it doesn't work like that - most people don't check. The majority of entries are too obscure to get critical insight and critical editorial coverage and so it means that the information just is wrong, corrupt or insulting. It's just a rumour - a massive user-generated rumour board.

How can we protect ourselves from these things?

We need to be aware that every time we enter something into a search engine it's remembering what we're saying. It's a question of self-restraint. When we enter information about ourselves we need to accept that it's being broadcast throughout the network and it'll be broadcast forever, it won't go away.

Much of this debate is about education, it's about media literacy. We need to create a more media-literate world, and in fact we're creating media illiteracy together with a media-illiterate generation.

One of the purposes of my book is to challenge the thoughtless optimism of the Web 2.0 utopia - the idea that this utopia is going to result in the end of scarcity and infinite choice for everyone.

There are many examples in your book of things on YouTube turning out to be something other than what they were presented as. Don't you think all these cases make people more media savvy because it shows them that they can't take things at face value - that they have to consider things more deeply?

Maybe, I mean, I don't know, it's a contentious question. I don't think consumers are that literate about it, I think they're very naïve. I think they see much of the content on YouTube as independent, but actually much of it isn't.

I see that the lonelygirl15 series [a fictional story on YouTube about a teenager that was initially presented as being real] is now essentially sponsored by a company that produces beauty cream for young women. It's one long advertisement - you can imagine that the content will increasingly reflect her struggle with her spots on her face.

That's what I don't like about it, I don't think that it maintains any sort of professional credibility. It privatises content, makes it increasingly advertising-centric. It's a trivial media for a trivial society. I think the biggest weakness in my book is that I idealise mainstream media.

There's a fairly undramatic progression between the worst elements of mainstream media, talk radio, reality TV and the internet. So the main weakness in my book is that I treat mainstream media in a very idealised way.

So you're opposed in general to trivial media?

The book is pushing back at this, I think, really hostile attack on mainstream media, particular in America. I think that serious, high-end media does such a critical job in providing information that's irreplaceable. If you did away with the serious newspapers and broadcasting networks, then what would we be left with? How are we going to find out what's happening in Iraq?

If you're just left to rely on blogs and citizen media, much of it is unreliable and disorganised... we live in a society where the most important thing of all is attention and time, we're so busy, we need our information delivered to us coherently.