It's All About Us

Amateurs are filling the vacuum created by everything the old media chose to ignore

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ILLUSTRATION FOR TIME BY ARTHUR E. GIRON

If Web 1.0 was organized around pages, Web 2.0 is organized around people. And not just those special people who appear on TV screens and in Op-Ed columns. Web 2.0 is made up of ordinary people: hobbyists, diarists, armchair pundits, people adding their voice to the Web's great evolving conversation for the sheer love of it.

Amateurs, in other words. And to a certain extent, how you feel about the broader cultural implications of the Web revolves around the response this permanent amateur hour triggers in you. For some, it has power-to-the-people authenticity. For others, it signals the end of quality and professionalism, as though the history of electronic media turned out to be one long battle between Edward R. Murrow and America's Funniest Home Videos, and Home Videos won.

I happen to be a great believer in this wave, but there's no avoiding the reality that the shift from pro to am comes at some cost. There is undeniably a vast increase in the sheer quantity and accessibility of pure crap, even when measured against the dregs of the newsstand and the cable spectrum. That decreased signal-to-noise ratio means that filters--search tools, recommendation engines, RSS feeds--become increasingly important to us as a society, and so it's crucial that we have a public discussion about who designs those tools and what values are encoded in them.

If you read through the arguments and Op-Eds over the past few years about the impact of Web amateurism, you'll find that the debate keeps cycling back to two refrains: the impact of blogging on traditional journalism and the impact of Wikipedia on traditional scholarship. In both cases, a trained, institutionally accredited élite has been challenged by what the blogger Glenn Reynolds called an "army of Davids," with much triumphalism, derision and defensiveness on both sides.

This is a perfectly legitimate debate to have, since bloggers and Wikipedians are likely to do some things better than their professional equivalents and some things much worse, and we may as well figure out which is which. The problem with spending so much time hashing out these issues is that it overstates the importance of amateur journalism and encyclopedia authoring in the vast marketplace of ideas that the Web has opened up. The fact is that most user-created content on the Web is not challenging the authority of a traditional expert. It's working in a zone where there are no experts or where the users themselves are the experts.

The most obvious example of this is in the prominence of diary-style pages like those on LiveJournal or MySpace. These people aren't challenging David Brooks or George Will; they're just writing about their lives and the lives of their friends. The overwhelming majority of photographers at Flickr harbor no dream of becoming the next Annie Leibovitz. They just want to share with their extended family the pics they snapped over the holidays.

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