Monday, June 8, 2009

Andrew Keen, amateurs, Wikipedia, and the Oxford English Dictionary

I've now read a book that I'd long been getting around to reading, Andrew Keen's The Cult of the Amateur: How Today's Internet Is Killing Our Culture (New York: Doubleday, 2007). I too mourn the disappearance of book stores and record stores, but Keen's polemic seems to me mistaken in countless ways. What most bothers me in this book — aside from its soon-predictable reliance on sensationalist anecdotes, sweeping generalizations, and rhetorical questions — is its uncritical trust of those whom Keen calls "gatekeepers," the "seasoned," the "trained," the professionals whose work it is to select for everyone else what is worthy of attention. Keen equates these gatekeepers with those who manage traditional media, whose expert judgments are supposedly being undermined by anyone with an Internet connection. He misses the real point of the Internet: not that it makes everyone an expert (it doesn't of course), but that it allows independent expertise to flourish.

Keen reserves special contempt for Wikipedia. This passage gives a sense of his argument and tone:

On today's Internet, . . . amateurism, rather than expertise, is celebrated, even revered. Today, the OED and the Encyclopaedia Britannica, two trusted reference volumes upon which we have long relied for information, are being replaced by Wikipedia and other user-generated resources. The professional is being replaced by the amateur, the lexicographer by the layperson, the Harvard professor by the unschooled populace.
One might argue about whether the Britannica is what "we" have long relied upon for information (I grew up in a World Book house), but to present the Oxford English Dictionary as the people's choice is to distort reality. And it's certain that there's no user-generated resource now replacing it.

Moreover — here comes irony — Keen seems unaware that the OED is the result of the volunteer work of a considerable number of laypeople, reading books and sending in quotations to document words in use. (Granted, laypeople did not write the entries, nor did OED editor James A. H. Murray believe them capable of doing more than collection work: "I have had to come to the conclusion that practically the only valuable work that can be done by the average amateur, & out of the Scriptorium, is that of reading books and extracting quotations.")

Keen's contempt for Wikipedia is not shared by everyone on the Oxford side of things. In a recent (post-Cult) interview, Niko Pfund of the Oxford University Press says that he's "very fond" of Wikipedia and uses it daily, and he likens the resource to — yes, here comes more irony — the Oxford English Dictionary:
I'm actually increasingly bored by this question of whether Wikipedia is good or bad, and even more so by the easy vilification of it, a reaction often rooted in professional self-interest. After all, the Oxford English Dictionary, arguably the greatest reference work in the English language (and certainly the greatest reference work ABOUT the English language) found its origins in a wiki model, whereby scholars put out the word to English speakers far and wide that they would welcome hard evidence of the earliest appearances of English words. The response was astonishing (never underestimate the enthusiasm of amateur lexicographers), so much so that the building in which the word submissions were kept, called The Scriptorum, began to sink under the weight of all the paper. Wikipedia is here to stay and its evolution will be one of the more interesting publishing and technology stories in the next decade.
I wonder what Andrew Keen would say to that.

[The Murray quotation is from K.M. Elisabeth Murray, Caught in the Web of Words: James A. H. Murray and the Oxford English Dictionary (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1979). One prolific OED contributor, William Chester Minor, did his work from an insane asylum. That story is told in Simon Winchester's The Professor and the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity, and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary (New York: HarperPerennial, 1998).]

comments: 1

Rob said...

One thing I've always found interesting is the fact that the media actually started this concept of "on-the-street reporting" when they began accepting videos from average citizens. The Rodney King video, home video of natural disasters, crimes caught on tape, etc., brought about a whole new era of television (for better or worse). The news outlets encouraged people to "send in your shocking, amazing videos" for that brief glimpse of infamy.

Now that they don't have the scoop - those same videos show up on YouTube before anyone even thinks of sending them into the local news station - it's a problem and these amateurs have no place in the media. Talk about biting the hand that feeds you...