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.

  • Jorge

    Why are some individuals so paranoid of Blogs? Maybe it’s just part of human nature. Like the horse vs the car?
    The buggy makers merged with the gas motor and bingo!

    Question… Is’nt a professional just an amateur with a lot of practice?

  • Wow! No comment.

  • Ben Clark


    I like your blog in general, but your reasoning here is really sloppy. You willfully distort Carr’s points, and you don’t respond to Nolan’s. Categorizing people as “curmudgeons” is a good way to dismiss their arguments but not a good way to refute them.


  • Toni

    Well, I don’t like your blog, and your reasoning is sloppy as usual. I suppose as long as the consulting contracts and yak-on-a-panel invites keep coming in, you’ll keep pushing the Kool-Aid. But Carr’s essay is getting linked because it makes sense.

  • I’ll second Ben’s remark here. You do a good job of reversing Carr’s attack and belittling his arguments (“Silly”), but a poor job of debating the points he makes.

    Scrutiny of the Web 2.0 meme should be encouraged , not squelched.

    zach rodgers

  • Dan

    This sort of we-know-best gibberish is everywhere in the press. Look at this foolishness — here’s a guy from Direct magazine, which claims to be the expert in direct marketing — badmouthing the blog world.
    His answer? Create a “blog” without feedback functions.
    What a moron.

  • Michael

    Amorality is such a strong word

    Really? I suppose “immoral” is strong, but “amoral”? That seems quite neutral, actually.

  • I read Jeff Nolan’s posts and would like to pick up on the point he is making about businesses listening to what its users (or customers) say.

    Towards the end of his first post he tells us:

    … that my argument is that companies need to take responsibility for things like product design, customer service, and so on, and if they do things like bring more users into that process then that’s great.

    Yet in his second post, after he’d thought about it some more, he says:

    (Companies should validate what they want to build) with a well defined group of customers/users.

    So which is it? Bring more customers into the product design etc. process or limit your focus to a “well defined group of customers/users”?

    The latter is the old way of arranging things which was tidy and convenient. It’s now possible for customers to blast the world with their opinions on any company – what they produce, what they do, what level of service they offer – whether those companies are producing luxuries or commodities. He wishes it wasn’t this way. I can understand that. Doesn’t change that it is this way. It seems to me a good idea for companies to take these changing dynamics into account.

    But Mr. Nolan resists the idea of letting more people into the process of building or improving a company’s product and/or service and the reason he gives for why is in the conclusion of his first post:

    … just because you have communities of users it doesn’t mean that all the voices are either right or equal. Customers can be wrong and it’s up to the company to make the decision about what voices to listen to with the end game being that of increasing the value of their brand.

    I agree with this, but it’s Mr. Nolan’s next sentence I don’t understand:

    But having communities of users in no way relieves a company of doing the fundamental things that we expect of companies.

    But no one is suggesting companies should use what people say as an excuse for shirking their responsibility for making the best quality products and service they think people want to buy. No one is suggesting any company should “let” their users design the product. This is how Mr. Nolan wants to interpret what was said, but it isn’t what was suggested.

    Why is he reading it this way?

    It suggests that he is afraid of the power ordinary people now have to either help build up a brand or demolish it. His advice is essentially to not bother listening and responding to what the majority of your customers are saying because it is too much work, even though it is now possible like it never was before to listen to your customers – all your customers – which has always been sound advice in business. I said ‘listen’ not ‘do everything they suggest’ which is how he would like to read it. Why?

  • I’m one of the people who linked to the Carr piece, in the context of an item where I also linked to Ed Sim’s write-up of his conversation with … Jeff Jarvis.

    Small world, huh?

    I didn’t agree with every expression and implication of either post, as I don’t agree with everything Jeff says here.

    But the thread I tried to sew between the two is this: Place less faith in the labeling and hyping of any market or social trends. In the marketplace, place faith in products and services that work, that meet a need.

    Some blogs, some social media, some participatory/collaborative services, do that. Some don’t. Some innovations disrupt and change a little piece of the world, often for the better. But some disrupt and just … disrupt.

    I’d rather we stop worrying about amateur vs. professional, mainstream vs. bottom-up media, disruptive vs. sustaining innovation, Web 2.0 vs. whatever. Capabilities for greatness exist in any of these categories.

    If amateurs, professionals, mainstream media, emerging media, disruptors or sustainers can build good products or provide good services, please and by all means, do it. And please and by all means, do it before you start trying to label or categorize it. Bubble mentality comes from hyping things that don’t exist as promised.

  • Joe Buhler

    Looks like some of those who controlled the levers of communications and distribution of product channels are bemoaning their loss of control. Not surprising. Only question is, how long will it still take until those giant corporate mediocrities still prevalent in so many industries are finally brought to the point of realizing that they are in business to serve their customers and not the other way around! There’s still way too much of the old marketing ruling product development and communications in too many corporations stifling innovation at every turn in defense of the status quo.

  • Ravo

    Customers have always had the veto. But companies used to make out nicely in the interim years it took to deliver the message.

  • Nick Carr writes “And free trumps quality all the time.” Really? All the time? I like to see enough examples to even justify saying “some of the time.”

    That whole Britannica example is written without any understanding of the root causes of the encyclopedia’s failures as a profitable business… such as not listening to their customers.

    Many of Carr’s points are good but that “free trumps quality all the time” is not one of them.

  • On Nicholas Carr’s post:

    Painting the web in terms of a software release (Web 2.0) and writing about it as though it’s going to save humanity gives Mr. Carr reasonable grounds to raise legitimate questions about it. And in the context of Web 2.0, it’s hard not to agree with some of what he says. If you don’t go along with the Web 2.0 mantra however, then what of importance is Mr. Carr really saying? That the web is potentially “bad” to society and culture? Potentially more “bad” than “good”? I don’t think so.

    Mr. Carr “will take the professionals over the amateurs” because he trusts them more, but it doesn’t necessarily follow that those who think the web is a pretty good way of voicing opinions and sharing information, must take the opposite view and “venerate the amateur and distrust the professional.” There isn’t a little room for doing both? Every professional in the world started out as an amateur. One of the great things about the web is that we can decide which amateurs to listen to while balancing what they say with what the professionals are telling us we should think.

    Maybe we should have a little faith in the ability of people to choose for themselves, and in doing so, make informed choices; choices we may not always agree with. After all, it is a democracy we’re living in. Isn’t it?

  • Microsoft should hire him.

  • personally, I just liked the creative uses of the word “curmudgeon” and all its derivatives…..

  • Glyn

    Isn’t this the equivalent of 15th-century monks complaining that the new amateurs with their printing presses are destroying the future of illustrated manuscripts (which was absolutely correct).

  • Danny Burkes

    Absolutely brilliant essay, Jeff!

    Nicholas Carr paints the public as infantile, drooling, ignorant clods who don’t have a clue about quality- they only want what’s free. I think anyone who saw that Teenager panel at Web 2.0 learned that, while those kids definitely only wanted what was free, they were the very opposite of infantile, drooling, and ignorant. In fact, I think the most eye-opening part of that panel to most of the people in the room was just how smart and plugged-in those kids were.

    I’ll take competition, Mr. Carr- my faith is in the public’s ability to decide where the quality is.

  • This is an old argument in a new arena. Carr is mimmicing Bastiat but he’s not trying to be satirical. Instead of banning sunlight to spare the suffering candlemakers he’s proposing that we rid ourselves of the internet to spare the 9,000 “professionals” simultaneously writing reviews of the movie “Doom”.

    A lot of liberals are having to re-evaluate their beliefs now that their love of a free and open internet is at odds with the bureacracy killing unemployment that it creates.

    People who really need high quality up to date information will subscribe to high quality content providers like WSJ online. No university level paper would dare cite Wikipedia as a source. Carr assumes people are too dumb to pay money for higher quality content which is simply ridiculous. We pay to see movies even though free content exists on TV, how is that possible in Carr’s crazy world where people will only watch Law and Order re-runs because “durr… it’s free”.

    If opinions weren’t a dime a dozen, Times Select would be doing just fine. In the absence of a distribution monopoly, they’re forced to accept the market price of $0.00833.

    Substitue the Internet for the sun in this argument for a summary of Carr’s arguments:

    We are suffering from the ruinous competition of a rival who apparently works under conditions so far superior to our own for the production of light that he is flooding the domestic market with it at an incredibly low price; for the moment he appears, our sales cease, all the consumers turn to him, and a branch of French industry whose ramifications are innumerable is all at once reduced to complete stagnation. This rival, which is none other than the sun, is waging war on us so mercilessly we suspect he is being stirred up against us by perfidious Albion (excellent diplomacy nowadays!), particularly because he has for that haughty island a respect that he does not show for us.

  • Essentially it is correct that technology is neutral or amoral. It is people’s nature and use of technology that gives it meaning. The nature of people to their use of guns, copiers, the internet, etc. makes such devices purposeful. So, it is not clear that people’s nature has changed out of new technlogies, it’s only their ability to express their nature that has been opened and extended.

  • daudder

    I’d guess a few hundred “bloggers” account for 90% of all traffic, and those “bloggers” are professionals in every sense of the world. The technology gave brief hope, but has quickly become part of the media machine and is now being controlled, confined and consumed.

    Citizen journalists? Yeah, and those leaflets stablegunned to the telephone pole are giving the advertisiing world fits.

  • One more thing… The Wikipedia comparison is flawed because Wikipedia has over a million articles in dozens of languages, Britannica has 120,000. To compare depth but not breadth is one sided. Granted the quality is better in most cases in Britannica but there is simply no economical way to print millions of articles created by a limited staff. Personally, faced with a choice between a non-existant article in Britannica and 2,000 amateur words from Wikipedia, I’ll take the wiki version every time.

    Wikipedia even has a huge article on Britannica!

  • You know typesetters and dot etchers had the same reaction to desktop publishing.

    “The quality isn’t professional. Desktop publishers are amateurs and clods… their stuff is unreadable. This is going to ruin a century-old profession.”

  • Nicholas Carr is suggesting that the choice now is between either a credentialed ruling class or mob rule. And he says he would prefer credentials. But those are not our only choices. What we are beginning to see now is the credentialed having to make room not for the mob, but for the power of the individual voice. This is what he is really objecting to.

  • Great post. Wish I’d read it before I penned my own post “An Internet Fed by Amateurs is Fascinating” in response to Mike Langberg’s column in San Jose Merc jumping on the cult of the amateur bandwagon, “An Internet Fed on Amateurs is Frightening.” I didn’t feel called to respond when Carr wrote that, but Langberg lives in Silicon Valley. A place that thrives on amateurs. I like Jeff Nolan’s stuff often – so it’s a funny coincidence, that he disagrees with you as I use SAP and venture capital examples in my post.

    I’m off on my own quest to show that literary/narrative journalism can be done by amateurs in December. And starting a microfund for amateur artisan/citizen journalism projects (same link).

  • No comment.

  • In the marketplace of ideas, curmudgeons are the guys who want to “go second.” They watch what gets said, and wait for the appearance of an overblown claim they can puncture. They know the new will be hyped, and in the process of deflating the hype the curmudgeon can sound wise, mature, adult, unmoved by all the excitement. This sound is their satisfaction, their agenda.

    The curmudgeons see through. They never go for “kumbiyah crap,” but they think a lot of people do. They are more realistic than everyone else; and they seek to remind us how the fundamental things apply. They think “there is no panacea!” is an insight, when it’s really just a cliche. The unstated philosophy of every curmudgeon is: nothing new under the sun– despite appearances! (“We were the same as ever.”)

    Personally, I think curmudgeons are hilarious; the most pretentious people around. John Tierney of the New York Times, a curmudgeon who styles himself a “contrarian,” doesn’t realize how funny that is for a columnist: to be contrarian is not a philosophy– it’s a pose that can be as tiresome as any other pose! “What do you believe, Sir?” “Believe? I’m a contrarian.” Hilarious!

    Curmudgeons believe their lot in life in truthtelling; but yours is wish fulfillment.

    They wish!

  • The only thing funnier than a curmudgeon, Jay Rosen, is an anti-curmudgeon; it’s a self-cancelling exercise.

    Web 2.0, if it were to exist at all, would not be likely to be universally good, any more than blogs are universally engines for truth, justice, and baseball. Those of us who haven’t drunk the Kool-Aid, and who don’t have a stake in selling Kool-Aid to children, can see that.

    The rest of you ought to wise-up a bit.

  • I knew a person who wrote for Britannica.

    I read one of the articles the person wrote and then researched the matter. I was not impressed.

    Some of the Britannica stuff was good, some very good, some not very good at all. Wikki is about the same.

    If you get on topics where folks are not having Wikki Wars the coverage is pretty good. People add stuff.

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