Revisionist curmudgeons

Predictably, the backlashers are trying to make their marks and get their linkjuice by arguing that this web/citizens/blog thing just ain’t what it’s being blown up to be. But so much of the antihype is even sillier than the hype.

Take the much-linked “Amorality of web 2.0″ by Nicholas Carr, “named one of ‘ten people in business to watch’ by American Airlines’ American Way magazine.”

Amorality is such a strong word.

Like it or not, Web 2.0, like Web 1.0, is amoral. It’s a set of technologies – a machine, not a Machine – that alters the forms and economics of production and consumption. It doesn’t care whether its consequences are good or bad. It doesn’t care whether it brings us to a higher consciousness or a lower one. It doesn’t care whether it burnishes our culture or dulls it. It doesn’t care whether it leads us into a golden age or a dark one. So let’s can the millenialist rhetoric and see the thing for what it is, not what we wish it would be.

Well, guns are just a technology that doesn’t care, either. Technology is a technology that doesn’t care. Hell, printing presses are a technology that doesn’t care. But does anyone care to argue that Gutenberg didn’t change and better the world with his invention? Silly.

And this:

The Internet had transformed many things, but it had not transformed us. We were the same as ever.

Hell, the remote control changed us. And the cable box. And the VCR. And the Interstate. And the microwave. And the assembly line. And the computer. You bet, the internet changed us and our possibilities.

But here’s his real problem: Carr can’t stand the rise of amateurism. Curmudgeons are resistant to change because they don’t want to be dislodged from their curmudgeonly pulpits:

The promoters of Web 2.0 venerate the amateur and distrust the professional. We see it in their unalloyed praise of Wikipedia, and we see it in their worship of open-source software and myriad other examples of democratic creativity. Perhaps nowhere, though, is their love of amateurism so apparent as in their promotion of blogging as an alternative to what they call “the mainstream media.”…

He goes after the quality of two crappy Wikipedia entries and with them rejects the whole notion of amateurism. Except I could show him many articles in my local papers that are crappy. Does that negate the value of all newspaperdom and all journalists? Does Judy Miller. Silly.

Of the professionals, he says:

They can hire and pay talented people who would not be able to survive as sole proprietors on the Internet. They can employ editors and proofreaders and other unsung protectors of quality work. They can place, with equal weight, opposing ideologies on the same page. Forced to choose between reading blogs and subscribing to, say, the New York Times, the Financial Times, the Atlantic, and the Economist, I will choose the latter. I will take the professionals over the amateurs.

But I don’t want to be forced to make that choice.

And nor should you have to. I’m one of many who have been arguing that the professionals and the amateurs should be working together — especially as the revenue that has supported the professionals is nosediving because the customers — aka, the amateurs — reject their products and the advertisers flee.

But Carr’s real issue is unemployment for the formerly professional professionals:

And so, having gone on for so long, I at long last come to my point. The Internet is changing the economics of creative work – or, to put it more broadly, the economics of culture – and it’s doing it in a way that may well restrict rather than expand our choices. Wikipedia might be a pale shadow of the Britannica, but because it’s created by amateurs rather than professionals, it’s free. And free trumps quality all the time. So what happens to those poor saps who write encyclopedias for a living? They wither and die. The same thing happens when blogs and other free on-line content go up against old-fashioned newspapers and magazines. Of course the mainstream media sees the blogosphere as a competitor. It is a competitor. And, given the economics of the competition, it may well turn out to be a superior competitor. The layoffs we’ve recently seen at major newspapers may just be the beginning, and those layoffs should be cause not for self-satisfied snickering but for despair. Implicit in the ecstatic visions of Web 2.0 is the hegemony of the amateur. I for one can’t imagine anything more frightening.

So Carr is really saying two things: He is saying that the professionals are better than the amateurs because they are paid. I don’t buy that. And he distrusts the amateurs, which is saying that he distrusts the public those professionals supposedly serve. Which is to say that he distrusts us. Well, distrust begets distrust. So the feeling is mutual.

It’s quite simple, really: It’s all about supply and demand. When distribution was scare and made content scarce, it promoted the creation of a professional media class. Now that neither is scarce, the economics are changed. The market is free. Lots of content is free. There is more content. I believe that there is thus more good content. So media must rethink their business models, their value, their relationships to the marketplace. And I believe that is good. Carr believes disruption is amoral. I believe stagnation is unnatural.

: And now we move to Jeff Nolan, a VC who takes two posts to argue against my “kumbiyah crap.” In the first, he sums up what I said at the generally insufferable BlogOn this way:

Jarvis’ position is that companies should go out and find all the communities that exist around their product and let the influencers in that community service your customers, design your products, and so on. I’m not making this up by the way, that’s what he said.

Yes, I did. And if you’re lucky enough to have the Treo, I said, and your customers answer your customers’ questions and help sell your product and help design your next version, only a fool would pass up these opportunities to have a better, more engaged, more efficient, more profitable relationship with your market. But many fools do. Of course, the company still has to make the final decisions in all these areas, because it’s their money at risk, it’s their product, it’s their brand. But the closer you get to your customers, the better. Right? I said in his comments:

Well then why the hell do companies spend untold fortunes on focus groups, surveys, market research, product testing, and all that? To hear what customers want. When customer go to the effort of tellling you, why not listen? If it’s easier for them to tell you, why not help them? If they have good ideas, why not embrace them? If they show you what’s wrong with your ideas, why not learn? It’s that simple. If you think that’s crap, fine. I think that’s smart business.

In his next post, he argues against the notion that companies should be transparent. Yes, we all love to give our money to people who hide, lie, cheat, and steal. This is curmudgeonlliness for the sake of curmudgeonliness.

: Next to the Marcom blog, which cautions McDonald’s — the tonedeaf company whose clueless droning drove me out of BlogOn — against fraternizing with bloggers and uses me as the cautionary tale:

Let’s look at the famous ‘Dell Hell‘ case from Jeff Jarvis. Dell did eventually respond to Jeff, but the out-reach by Dell didn’t really save them any face. But what if Dell had said to Jeff, “you’re right, we’ll send you a brand new laptop and refund a portion of your original purchase price.” How many bloggers would start posting, “Hey my Dell laptop sucks too!” Then what does Dell do? Only refund the most influential bloggers? Then you would have every personal blogger screaming favoritism.

And I replied in the comments there:

Their policy should be every customer a satisfied customer. My policy is if I buy something for a few thousand dollars it better damned well work and if it doesn’t I want my money back. Has nothing to do with blogging or preferential treatment. It really is just about plain, old customer service. And if you lose sight of that, you’re lost.

What all these good people lose sight of is that they’re not dealing with bloggers. They’re dealing with people. Customers. Us. We’re just people who are speaking as we always have but now can be heard. If you don’t listen, you lose.

: LATER: Jeff Nolan responds.

: LATER STILL: Tim O’Reilly responds to Carr:

His method is what Plato described thousands of years ago as sophism, “making the better appear the worse,” not engaging in argument about the substance of what someone else is saying, but framing the discussion with straw men that can easily be demolished, arguments designed to win points rather than elicit truth.

For example, Carr focuses his argument against “collective intelligence” almost entirely on Wikipedia, ignoring all of the other examples described in my What is Web 2.0? article. And even in his discussion of Wikipedia, he makes the now-expected attack on the quality of entries with a few cheap shots rather than substantial analysis.

: DAYS LATER: Umair Haque does far better than I did at demolishing Carr’s argument.