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Are We a Cult of Amateurs?

I had a brief but enlightening discussion a few days ago with our Head of Lower School regarding Andrew Keen’s book, The Cult of the Amateur: How Today’s Internet is Killing Our Culture. As the title suggests, Keen takes a dim view of the Internet and is particularly disparaging of blogs, wikis and other Web 2.0 tools. In his opening chapter, The Great Seduction, he states:

What the Web 2.0 revolution is really delivering is superficial observations of the world around us rather than deep analysis, shrill opinion rather than considered judgment. The information business is being transformed by the Internet into the sheer noise of a hundred million bloggers all simultaneously talking about themselves. … For the real consequence for the Web 2.0 revolution is less culture, less reliable news, and a chaos of useless information.”

Keen’s assertions, which many may be inclined to agree with given the anonymity of the Internet, gave me cause to reflect as one of the hundred million allegedly contributing to our “demise”. In light of his premise that democratized media will be the death of culture, we in the blogosphere must ask ourselves, “ARE we a cult of amateurs?” At the risk of over-simplification, the answer depends on whether we are generating “signals” or merely making noise.

Signal-to-Noise

Although an electrical engineering concept, signal-to-noise can be useful in evaluating participation in social media. As defined by Wikipedia:

“Signal-to-noise…is the ratio of a signal power to the noise power corrupting the signal. In less technical terms, signal-to-noise ratio compares the level of a desired signal (such as music) to the level of background noise. The higher the ratio, the less obtrusive the background noise.”

In completely non-technical terms, when we contribute to all that is Web 2.0, we must consider whether we are conveying accurate and meaningful information (signal) or unsubstantiated and/or misinformed opinion (noise). Unfortunately, the distinction between the two is often a matter of perception and experience; one person’s cowbell is another’s music:


YouTube Direkt

The majority of blogs that I read are related to education and instructional technology, and all of the bloggers that I regularly read demonstrate evidence of professional knowledge and expertise. This is not to say that it’s wrong to express opinions or that every post requires an annotated bibliography, but credibility requires that personal beliefs are not presented under the false pretense of professional best practice.

Keen is correct in that the Internet contains an almost overwhelming amount of noise, but there is a powerful signal there as well for those who choose to listen. What, then, is the ratio for us individually and collectively? Are we a cult of amateurs, or has Keen simply focused on the static in the background?

I invite you to share your thoughts on our “amateur” status and point us toward those resources that defy the stereotype. My “Sites to Visit” blogroll has been replaced by a currently empty “Signal-to-Noise” space that I hope to fill with your recommendations.  We look forward to reading your suggestions, so please share your professional insight, but go easy on the cowbell….

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4 Responses to Are We a Cult of Amateurs?

  1. Marianne Richmond

    Pat,

    I realize you have only recently started blogging and I am not 100% sure if you have read Keen’s book or are in agreement with him BUT I think you may be missing some important points.

    Of course not everyone that blogs is an expert with credentials and empirical evidence with footnotes to support their statements. Are you implying that man stream media is reliable?

    One of the important ways in which WE as blog readers separate the experts from the amateurs is by making it OUR responsibility if I may borrow from the MICDS mission statement to “think{read}critically”.

    That is, as we do not accept every print journalist or TV reporter as gospel, we should not accept every blogger as an expert.

    Likewise, as bloggers we must be transparent about our own expertise and our own limitations. There is a blog culture and it is built upon honesty, transparency, and passion.

    Technology has enabled “Citizen Journalism” and wit it lots of “noise”….however, it has also put the world’s knowledge at our fingertips. That is a gift….open it wisely.

    As far as Keen is concerned….

    I suggest that you might want to read:
    Cory Doctrow: http://www.boingboing.net/2008/03/12/lessig-publicly-humi.html
    Ethan Zuckerman:
    http://www.ethanzuckerman.com/blog/2008/02/02/searching-for-common-ground-with-andrew-keen/
    Lawrence Lessig: http://www.lessig.org/blog/2007/05/keens_the_cult_of_the_amateur.html
    Jeff Jarvis: http://www.buzzmachine.com/2007/05/10/your-advice-should-i-debate/

    I think you could feel confident adding them to your blogroll.

    Marianne

  2. pwoessner

    Marianne,

    Thanks for the links and well-spoken remarks; I agree that it IS our responsibility to think(read) critically and our students must master that skill as well.

    On the whole, I don’t agree with Keen (and I’m not going to even suggest that main stream media is always accurate and unbiased), but I think his “message” can be useful in raising awareness about the ease with which opinions can be misconstrued as fact via the Internet.

    Teaching is part art, part science, and the edubloggers that I follow and respect have an understanding of both aspects of the profession. Unfortunately, their voices are often lost among myriad posts from “professionals” who base their approach/advice to teaching and learning on nothing more than “gut instinct”. The vetting process works, but it works slowly, and I’d like to help it along.

    In requesting resources, I’m hoping to steer colleagues toward those quality voices that, while we shouldn’t accept as gospel, we can considered learned. The links you sent were great regarding Keen (thanks again) and I’m hoping to compile a new blog roll that highlights the real “signals” in education and instructional technology. I know who I would put on the list; I’m curious who my peers would place there.

    pat

  3. Graham Wegner

    Patrick, I scrapped the blogroll concept altogether on my blog. It was too limiting in a number of ways and instead I post my Google Reader shared items in the sidebar as a way of showing what I am finding that is valuable from my edublogging network. Unless you are planning to blogroll only researchers, then the definition of “learned” can be fuzzy as well. Many edubloggers are classroom practitioners and don’t have the room to participate in much more than their own version of “action research”. Even someone as well respected as Will Richardson has been known to come from the “throw it against a wall and see if it sticks” perspective. (I heard that in a podcast back in 2005.) Then the researchers don’t have the day-to-day picture of how implementing technology in the classroom actually works. As far as I can tell, you just have to work out whose voices are giving you the “signal” you need. The skills you develop through this process will be invaluable when you work with your students in helping them become information literate.

  4. Jason Bedsaul

    Excellent! If I could write like this I would be well chuffed. The more I read articles of such quality as this (which is rare), the more I think there might be a future for the Net. Keep it up, as it were.

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