Frictionless Sharing

IdeaConnection Interview with Andrew Keen, Author of The Cult of the Amateur and Digital Vertigo
By Vern Burkhardt
"But it's our contemporary mania for revealing our location which is most chilling of the Web's new collective architecture." Page 40, Digital Vertigo

Vern Burkhardt (VB): What is digital vertigo?

photo of Andrew KeenAndrew Keen: It's the name of my book, but it's also a metaphor. It's not a scientific book so it's not an attempt to suggest that we literally have something called digital vertigo, but I use the term to describe this new world of confusion, of dizziness.

Dizziness is, of course, the defining quality of vertigo and it's the online dizziness I'm trying to define. It's a sense that for all of us, particularly people who aren't circumvallated insiders, people who aren't Robert Scoble, Mark Zuckerberg, or Reid Hoffman, we are mystified by the dramatic cultural revolution in communication with Facebook and particularly Twitter. We're mystified by how people are living more and more publicly. It's an attempt to explain what's going on, and why we feel confusion, ambivalence, and cultural dizziness.

VB: As individuals can we be cured of this digital vertigo even though we still want to live in an increasingly connected world?

Andrew Keen: I wouldn't say I would want us to be completely cured of it. I think that a tiny bit of dizziness isn't necessarily a bad thing. The problem at the moment is it's a bit excessive.

I don't want us to go back to agricultural villages where nothing ever changes. That's one of the themes in the book as well.

I'm not sure I can use the word cure. It's too much of a medical, scientific term. I think we need to make sense of this cultural revolution, and manage and use it to our benefit rather than it using us to its benefit.

Facebook turns us into products. It's capitalizing in dollar terms and in every other sense on our information, on our data. The more general problem in today's social media world is that we've been transformed into products, which is one of the reasons why it's such a demeaning experience. Most of us don't really understand what it's like to be a product.

VB: Do you understand why so many people are willing to share so much about themselves in the social media, what you call "an orgy of over sharing?" What are behind so many people going public with everything they do and think, and everywhere they go?

Andrew Keen: There are two ways of thinking about this, and I don't think either is complete on its own. They have to be understood in parallel and as interconnected. In some ways that's even contradictory.

The first is that we are living in an age of more and more narcissism. I've used the term 'digital narcissism'. I don't know how original this is as I'm suspect other people have used it.

Narcissism isn't new of course – the excessive love of the self – it was around from the time of the ancient Greeks. They were the ones that came up with the term through their mythology. But it seems to have been gathering pace in the late industrial age. Christopher Lasch wrote about it in the 60's. It certainly is a feature of the counter-culture, and it's become more and more of a central feature of culturalizing the digital age.

I spent a page or two in the book discussing this. I've not done any original research on this topic, but there are a couple of Silicon Valley-based psychologists who have. Jean Twinge, who has become a bit of a global authority on this, has done a lot of work. MIT Professor Sherry Turkle makes it a central point in her book.

It's this excessive love of the self that thinks that everyone's interested in our business affairs or identity, and the social media is the ideal platform for this. We can post all our photographs on Facebook, express our most intimate thoughts, record our seemingly irrelevant thoughts about what we had for breakfast, and say how we feel about the day, our work, and our relationships. It is in this sense that digital narcissism reflects a loss. It's a cultural shift, particularly in America, from a Puritanism that argues that what we leave unsaid is the most meaningful thing of our existence to what define us is what we say about ourselves. We will become, in a sense, celebrities in a 21st century digital environment where everyone has a platform to publicize themselves. This is the first side, a kind of narcissism.

The other side is a bit different. It's reflected in a socio-economic shift from an industrial culture in which most of us worked in large companies and firms, to an increasingly fragmented knowledge economy in which we are more and more, for better or worse, our own brand. We now don't work for the most part for single companies. We invent and re-invent ourselves. Reid Hoffman in his book, Starts Up with You, describes this well.

In that world we have to use social media to build our brands so it's not just a question of narcissism. It's not as if we've all suddenly become collectively in love with ourselves, although there is something of that. It also reflects a fundamental shift in how society is arranged in economic terms. In this second sense it shows that social media is part of a much more deeply rooted structural shift in the socio-economic nature of things. It's not something that can be dismissed purely as a kind of cultural aberration.

VB: It's not just a generational question; it's not only attractive to younger people.

Andrew Keen: Yes, I agree. In my book I didn't want to be imprisoned within a cultural quick think that it only applies to young people, as if the older people did everything right and the young people are becoming intoxicated with themselves. There is something of that in the book, but I hope I don't make it central. It's only a part of the argument.

There's something deeper going on which is why older people also have become engaged in social media. It's why more and more people understand, for better or worse, that they need to use Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, and the other entire social networks to build their own brands in this new economy.

VB: Given all the privacy issues with Facebook, LinkedIn, and many other social media sites, why do the numbers of subscribers and users keep growing? Are many users too innocent and trusting?

Andrew Keen: This is a really good question. I think there's something viral about it. Facebook is a brilliant business idea, and it's embedding itself as the operating system of the Web 3.0 world. Increasingly to be online you have to be on Facebook. AOL/Netscape was the operating system of Web 1.0, Google was the operating system of Web 2.0, and Facebook is the operating system of Web 3.0.

For example, if you want to be on any of the new location-based devices, you have to be on Facebook. Facebook just acquired Instagram and inevitably will integrate Instagram much more closely into the Facebook orbit. Facebook has been brilliant at manipulation of the Web 3.0 economy. It's embedding itself more and more on more and more web pages, and thus the Internet is migrating from being a PC-based product to a mobile product. It's on smart phones and on devices like iPods. It is becoming increasingly hard to survive without Facebook, plus the viral nature of Facebook is brilliant. As more and more of our friends tell us about Facebook, try to send us links, and invite us onto Facebook it becomes a compelling product.

Increasingly the people not on Facebook are active dissenters like me who have decided for better or worse not to be on it because they don't like it, or they're people who just aren't on the Internet for one reason or another – such as poor or marginalized people, or the very wealthy who don't need to be on it. Everybody else is going to have to be on it, at least in the short term. It will be interesting to see how this plays out in the long term.

It's not just Facebook. You see the impact of Twitter, for example, when you watch television which remains a powerful medium today in spite of the success of Web 3.0. If you're watching CNN every few sound bites the Twitter handle of the producer, director, or presenter is advertised. This is an increasingly compelling advertisement for us to be on Twitter because that's how we access television, how we put forth our questions, learn about celebrities, and, for better or worse, it's how we get our news and information.

So it's going to be increasingly hard to be on the Internet without being on many of these social networks. I don't know anybody who is not on these networks, unless they are an active dissenter or for one reason or another are uncomfortable with revealing themselves on the network. It's increasingly hard to avoid these networks.

VB: Do you think businesses must use the social media in order to survive?

Andrew Keen: It's understandable why businesses would think it necessary. Traditional advertising is in a state of massive flux. Although it's still unproven how successful online advertising is, particularly traditional online advertising such as banners, everyone's aware of these new opportunities for exposure. In many respects Twitter offers free advertising. So does Facebook. No one's charging these companies to be on the network so it's a very effective device to put the message out.

Increasingly companies are using tools like Yamma for internal communications. Social media evangelists are aggressively trying to convince companies that social messaging – social communication – within a company is a good thing. I strongly disagree with this. I touched on it in my book and Susan Cain's new book, Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can't Stop Talking deals with this very well. Great geniuses, the most creative people, are the ones who are best left alone.

Steve Wozniak, for example, wasn't on any network. He stayed up all night and that's how he created the personal computer. I'm not convinced it's the right thing but more and more companies seem to be dragged into the social media environment for better or worse. When it comes to internal messaging it's for the worse. At work we have a right to privacy. A company doesn't have the right to nose its way into every second of our working lives.

VB: They certainly are using the social media for recruitment.

Andrew Keen: Right. The hiring process is another piece of this. It's another reason why people need to be online, to be on these networks. Particularly today, where it's still a struggle to get work, you have to be on LinkedIn and the other networks. More and more companies, as I show in my book, are using these networks for hiring purposes.

The same is true with kids in college. It's easy to be critical of kids, but more and more colleges are looking at kids' Facebook pages to make a determination on whether to accept them. Of course it can go both ways. I don't know what colleges make of kids who don't have Facebook pages, whether this would make them more or less suspicious of them. It certainly it means that for someone who wants to get into a college or get a job social media becomes a critical platform to make sure one's identity is as compelling as possible.

VB: "Personal visibility, I recognized, is the new symbol of status and power in our digital age." Would you talk a bit about this?

Andrew Keen: As I said, we have witnessed the breakup of the old industrial firm. In the middle of the 20th century the vast majority of workers would go to high school and some on to college, and then work for a firm or two. They would acquire a skill and that would be their skill used most or all of their working lives, and it would be used in the same company. Today the economy is much more fluid and dynamic, and much more destructive in Joseph Schumpeter's sense. The creative destruction of today's economy is dramatic both on and offline.

With a more and more competitive economy we're having what one Internet service calls the development of an attention economy in which, as free agents, we're all essentially competing for attention. It is as true for creative people including authors as it is for workers. In this new economy our real values are increasingly determined by the amount of followers we have on Twitter. The scores we get on networks like Klout and Kred reflects on our authority. It's a new kind of economy in which the more networked you are and the larger the audience you have, the more power you will have either as an author or someone trying to build your own creative brand.

VB: As a result of reality TV and social media people are now famous just for being famous. Does being a "Super Node" guarantee someone's credibility? Or are we more discerning than that?

Andrew Keen: Well there are super nodes and there are super nodes. I write about Robert Scoble in the book. Robert Scoble is a kind of legend although perhaps in some ways he's a legend to himself. Not all super nodes are immensely wealthy and powerful. I write about Reid Hoffman in my book and I respect him more than I criticize him but he's clearly someone who is a very powerful man. He's on Twitter but he's not really aggressively on Twitter. I'm not sure if he's on Facebook. You can still be influential in this world and not be actively on Twitter. Although I think politicians now are more and more actively on it and are using these media again to build their brands and build relationships with their voters.

The idea of a super node is, and I deal with it in my book in a slightly tongue-and-cheek way particularly in the first chapter, that it is increasingly a measure of value in the digital economy. It's what all the theorists of personal re-invention are saying. In his book, The Start-up of You, Reid Hoffman tells us that the people who have the best networks are the most successful. You've got to build a professional network. And he's right.

I'm not pretending that I don't have a network, but parts of my book reflect my ambivalence about needing to have a network. I realize it's valuable but, at the same time, it takes away from our privacy and perhaps it even undermines our personality. The challenge in this new age is to calibrate the need we have in reality to build effective networks without having it destroy our personality and whatever it is which makes us human.

VB: Would you talk a bit about "reputation banks?"

Andrew Keen: Reputation banks are a part of the same world which I'm describing in the attention economy. The idealists say that all we have online is our reputations, and in a radically transparent network where everyone is free to comment on everyone else our real abilities, identities, credibility, honesty or dishonesty will shine through.

There are people who believe reputation banks reflect a much more just society – a place where we get what we deserve. I'm not so sure. Firstly, it's rather easy to invent or peddle reputation. Also, often on the Internet in spite of the disappearance of anonymity there's a lot of dishonesty in the social media. In a society which is increasingly intolerant rather than tolerant, and I give lots of examples in my book, reputation is a highly complex thing. Many people don't want everything about themselves revealed even if the network has a tendency to do it.

[Vern's note: Andrew Keen quotes from Rachel Botsford and Roo Rogers' article "What's Mine Is Yours: How Collaborative Consumption
Is Changing the Way We Live" in Harper Business, 2010, "With every seller we rate; spammer we flag; comment we leave; idea, comment, video or photo we post; peer we review, we leave a cumulative record of how well we collaborate and if we can be trusted."]

VB: "But it's our contemporary mania for revealing our location which is most chilling of the Web's new collective architecture." Why is this so chilling?

Andrew Keen: This I think is a kind of madness. It's something we will increasingly come to regret. We seem to be intoxicated by location networks.

When I was writing the book – and this shows how quickly this economy is moving – the dominant social geo-location services were Foursquare, Loopt, Buzzd, Facebook Places, and Gowalla. Now we have social location networks like Highlight, Sonar, and Glancee that have only emerged in the last few months. If I was doing the book now I would make them much more central. They allow us to connect with strangers through social networks on a location basis.

One reflection on them is it's a more mobile world, but I think it reflects isolation and loneliness. It reflects the Darwinian struggle for attention and reputation, so everywhere we go we're trying to network. If we're in our local Starbucks and we know there's someone there who could be useful to us – get us a job, help us make a sale – we're going to connect with them. In all these contexts we're seeing the disappearance of privacy. With location networks you can't go anywhere without somebody else knowing where you are.

I've used them for research purposes but I'm not on them anymore. I wouldn't want anybody, even my own family, to always know where I am.

VB: It's an incredible invasion of our privacy.

Andrew Keen: Yes. Some people would say, "Well, no one has to use it" and they're right. It's not Big Brother. It's not as if we're forced to do it. We're not going to go to jail if we decide we don't want to be on Glancee, Highlight, or Foursquare but it does reflect the way privacy is devalued as a core value.

Privacy is something that was taken for granted in the industrial world, but all these new technologies and networks are undermining it slowly and surely. And it is troubling if 'publicness' becomes the norm, because then people will have a collective amnesia, and as a human race we will forget that privacy was once the core thing which defined our values laws, and politics. It was what we wanted to protect. Its something we will come to deeply regret if we allow 'publicness' to replace privacy.

VB: Are people's interactions and what they know about each other, based on social media use, more or less shallow than in-person contact?

Andrew Keen: The word 'shallow'…Nicholas Carr wrote a book, The Shallows, which talks about what the Internet is doing to our brains.

Interactions through the social media don't have to be shallow. You can have online communication which is as deep as letter writing, and you can talk to somebody on Skype which is just as rich as talking to them on the telephone. Physical interaction cannot be replicated on the Internet, at least at the moment, in terms of its subtlety, but I don't think all online communication is shallow.

I would say that the instantaneous nature of social media, particularly in terms of networks like Twitter and our increasing preoccupation with things that are trendy, means we have shorter and shorter memories. We cover issues and conversations in a more and more superficial way. The very fact that Twitter is a 140-character product reflects this.

It doesn't mean you can't express yourself well in 140 characters. You can. It lends itself to a smart, aphoristic kind of expression that can be done very well. There are people on Twitter who are really good. Margaret Attwood is on Twitter and she's a wonderful writer, but I'm not sure if I'd pay for her Tweets whereas I would pay for her written work.

It seems clear that social media reflects an increasing ephemeral nature of cultural intercourse, of communication. Nick Carr is generally right. We are living in a digital world that is contributing to emergence of a more and more shallow kind of culture, intercourse, communications, and social media. Carr's book, The Shallows, didn't focus on the social media because it was written before social media became so dominant, but its dominance certainly strengthens his argument. I'm not a scientist, and I haven't done any research on the impact of the brain as he has, but I'm generally in his camp.

VB: The social media is probably contributing, to a shortening of attention spans.

Andrew Keen: Yes, this observation has been going on for generations. Some people will say, "Every generation complains about shortening attention spans." Maybe there's some truth in this. We always think that the generation to come is less focused.

The social media can be used in an intelligent way, and there are people who using it intelligently. The problem is the majority of people don't seem to be.

I'm concerned with how the social media is a perpetual world. If you stay on Twitter all day and watch the traffic you really will suffer from vertigo. It's an endless sense of dizziness, with one issue after the other emerging, every minute there's a new thing, and there doesn't seem to be any predictable trends. None of the tweets are connected.

I follow perhaps 10,000 people on Twitter. If I look at my incoming tweets, after a while I feel completely confused and bemused. There's everything from global politics to jokes and spam, so it's a perfect way to catch digital vertigo just by looking at Twitter all day.

VB: "The idea of technology as the first mover, as the thing-in-itself that triggers all consequent social, economic and cultural change, is a trap into which both techno-skeptics and techno-utopians alike – from Kevin Kelly to Nicholas Carr – have fallen." Would you talk about this?

Andrew Keen: I'm as guilty of this as anybody. Because of the way in which technology seems to be so dominant in the world today it's all too easy to believe that the technology itself is the first mover. What I've tried to do in my book in a creative rather than scientific way is to argue that technology is the 'MacGuffin'. Alfred Hitchcock used the term MacGuffin to describe the fact there was always an obvious culprit in a crime that didn't turn out to be the perpetrator, or a weapon that didn't turn out to be the weapon used. As an aside, his 1935 film, "The 39 Steps" contained an early example of using this concept.

Technology comes out of culture. In my book I've tried to show that the Internet, and the idealization or perhaps even the ideology of the network, came out of counter-culture. It was a peculiar kind of counter-culture that was mixed up with the military defense establishment. Out of all this you've got this perpetual obsession with the network.

Often people point to the network and say, "Well this shows that this is true or that is true, because the network worked." What people miss is that the network didn't just come along. It was created. It came out of a set of values. I quote Tim Wu, who probably won't like my book and won't agree with it, but he recognizes in The Master Switch – perhaps in a more positive sense – that the Internet is ideology. I have tried to stress this.

It's not a book about technology because I don't think technology is overly interesting. It's the culture that generated the technology that is really interesting.

VB: Are people who use social media as interested in what others post as they are in what they themselves post? Or is it a vast growing collection of largely unaccessed boring personal trivia?

Andrew Keen: There's certainly the narcissistic element which means we're always much more interested in what we post than anyone else's posts. On Twitter I use TweetDeck, and I have to admit that for the most part I follow either what I write or what people write about me. I think this explains the success of something like TweetDeck where you can customize what you see so it only reflects your interests. Ironically the social media, in spite of its supposed social nature, is increasingly individualized and reflects us as individuals.

I don't want to suggest that nobody is interested in what other people say. And I hope I don't argue in the book that social media has no value. For some people social media is great. It's a way of keeping in touch, of keeping up with and reconnecting with friends. It's a way of seeing the photographs of other people's kids and keeping up with their lives.

The whole point of my book is to describe the cult of the social media, which I fear has gotten completely out of control – particularly in Silicon Valley.

I'm critical of Facebook and of Mark Zuckerberg and his self-interested obsession with the social media. But even Facebook has some value. The fact that I don't use it doesn't mean it doesn't have any value. I personally find it kind of annoying and I would rather not have it, but I know that for many people Facebook does have value.

cover of Digital VertigoVB: You say Digital Vertigo is "…also an investigation into why, as human beings, privacy and solitude makes us happy." Why do they make us happy?

Andrew Keen: I'm not sure if they make us happy. I think that's too much of a utilitarian equation. The idea of a perpetual striving for happiness is problematic. Bentham's Utilitarianism, which I talk about in my book, is an attempt to maximize happiness and pleasures, and minimize pain. This is an oversimplified view of what we're like as human beings.

I'm not sure if solitude makes us happier. Ultimately an element of solitude allows us to build real personalities, do more original things, build more original products or services, and think more original thoughts. I'm not suggesting we all live in caves and separate ourselves from everybody else, but a collectivism – I wouldn't say it's an enforced collectivism – in which we're perpetually living in public neither lends itself to our happiness, productivity, or meaningfulness as human beings. In my book I use the example of Josh Harris featured in the "We Live In Public" movie. It's an extreme version – no one is ever going to live in complete public like he and his girlfriend did with camera in every room, even in his toilet and bedroom – but it does portray how living in pubic ultimately makes us more and more solitary and unhappy. This forces us to live in caves.

The relationship between the social and the individual is an incredibly complex and multi-faceted one, and it doesn't always come out as well as I'd like in the book. I have as much respect for the social as I do for the individual, but I think the best society, the richest social society, arises where individuals have the space to separate themselves.

VB: "The advent of the social, local, and mobile technology now heralds what Doerr calls a 'perfect storm' to disrupt traditional businesses." How deeply will it disrupt businesses?

Andrew Keen: It will disrupt them in a profound way – social, local, and mobile. It's changing the very nature of commerce, making it more social. It's changing the nature of entertainment, and of the information industry. It will come to change the nature of education, the health industry, and even the energy industry. This 'perfect storm' of social, local, and mobile is the whirlwind that is now changing everything.

My book focuses on the social media rather than mobile or local. Local in particular I leave alone, but there is clearly a close connection, a symbiosis in some ways, between the social and mobile. This is not a personal computer revolution. It's a post-PC cultural revolution driven by smart phones, an app economy, tablets, and increasingly by other kinds of electronic devices. Ultimately it will probably be devices, knitted into our clothing or even into our bodies.

VB: You quote Mark Zuckerberg, co-founder and CEO of Facebook, "we are at the beginning of a social revolution that will change not only the online user experience but also our entire economy and society." Do you believe Zuckerberg's comment that it will change "our entire economy?"

Andrew Keen: Yes, I think he's right. I'm not sure if it will have as much impact on Lockheed Martin, for example, as it will on information companies, newspapers, or perhaps even the medical profession. There still will be industrial sectors of the economy that will be less influenced, but overall I think he's right.

The Facebook phenomenon isn't just a bubble. It's not just another 1999 dotcom form of hysteria. It's real. Whether or not Facebook is worth 100 billion dollars, whether or not Facebook will grow dramatically larger than it's billion members, those are different questions. But social is very real. This is why I wrote the book.

My first book, The Cult of the Amateur, was an attempt to make fun of the Web 2.0 economy which was inevitably full of itself. It didn't make any sense and was in some ways fraudulent. The social media reflects a much more profound shift in our economic and social structures, and in that sense Digital Vertical is a more serious book. This is more than a cult of the amateur. There's an element of satire and a polemical element, but it's also an attempt to make historical sense of something that is deeply rooted. This is why I spent so much time in the book talking about the industrial revolution. In some ways it's as profound as the social, economic, and political shifts of the industrial revolution.

[Vern's note: See my June 9, 2008 interview with Andrew Keen where we discuss ideas contained in The Cult of the Amateur.]

VB: In your book you mention Rockefeller's "Do Not Track" bill and European privacy regulators' "opt in" option as examples of attempts to mitigate the rampant collection of users' private information. Do you think these types of attempts to provide protections can be successful?

Andrew Keen: I think they can, but we can't rely exclusively on government. In my book I have a later chapter on solutions dealing with this.

Clearly the Europeans are more aggressive about this matter, and there's more and more European legislation driven from the European Union to protect the privacy of individuals. The Viviane Reding initiative would force the Internet to learn how to forget – a right to be forgotten where users would be allowed to destroy data already published on the network.

Facebook will experience a lot more regulatory attention in Europe than in the U.S. I live in America and, while I've been critical of much of what's going on with the social media in the U.S. and the world, I wouldn't rely exclusively on government. The problem in the U.S. is that the government is so sclerotic; it's so weak and struggles to come up with any kind of legislative agenda. However, the US government does need to come up with a stand on privacy whether it's a Privacy Bill of Rights or a Do Not Track initiative. This needs to go hand in hand with a number of other things including the development of new technologies, perhaps new companies built around privacy, and, above all else, consumer awareness in terms of managing how they use social media, understanding it more, and ensuring when they go on a network that they actually understand how their data is being used by these companies.

As users we have become a product, and that's bad. The government needs to protect us, but to rely exclusively on the government as this knight in shining armor to save us is inappropriate and certainly not going to happen in America in the 21st century.

VB: You say that with "our increasingly transparent and social age"…there "is this loss of the private person, the disappearance of secrecy and mystery", "the victory of Bentham's utilitarianism over Mill's individuality and, most of all, the collective amnesia about what it really means to be human." You also say, "I am scared of the ghost of mankind, a ghost that would have forgotten what it is to be human." What is it to be human?

Andrew Keen: The climax of my book, which I like the most, is the section where I see Johannes Vermeer's painting "Woman in Blue Reading a Letter." To quantify this experience is hard. When trying to quantify it you can fall into the utilitarian trap of saying this is exactly what it means to be human. All of us can understand what it means to be human by looking at a picture like this. Perhaps also by looking at Hitchcock's movie, "Vertigo," which is why I made it so important in the book.

What it means to be human can't be written in a sentence or two. It's a very complex thing. This is why I avoid trying to define it, and why the book is built around a metaphor. It's not a matter of preparing a list of what it is, or of what we have to do, to be human. That would be the classic non-fictional book, which I've tried to avoid.

What it means to be human in terms of the development of personality is to have the space to be in part separate from public opinion, and distant from the collective thoughts of others which are often very unthinking. What it means to be human, in my mind, is to be able to develop oneself independently of the dominant orthodoxies of any given age. This is why I rely so much on John Stuart Mill and his On Liberty, which is a classic text in this kind of defense. I don't think of being human in utilitarian terms, in terms of what does it achieve? Does it mean we're going to have more money or more scientific? Susan Cain argues this in her book, Quiet.

We tend to be more productive when we're left alone. Most of us tend to be introverts rather than extroverts, or at least a mixture of the two. Most of us have an element of introversion, but there's something beyond this. Emile by Jean-Jacques Rousseau touches on this. It's beyond utilitarianism. It's retaining the innate human goodness while remaining part of a corrupting collectivity.

To have real meaning in our lives, to understand things, to have any kind of depth as a human being means having a degree of solitude and privacy which gives us the time, space, and energy to think for ourselves. This is why I like Johannes Vermeer's "Woman in Blue Reading a Letter" painting so much. Who knows what this young Dutch woman is concentrating on in the letter she is holding? It's secretive, private, and mysterious and yet relevant, pressing and eternal. For all I know she was on the Facebook of her age in 1663 and 1664. You can't really tell, but there is something intrinsically human and meaningful about that painting. It's certainly a picture you can't find on Facebook today.

VB: You have given presentations and debated the issues related to Web 3.0. What has been the reaction of audiences?

Andrew Keen: The reaction has surprised me because I always take it for granted that I'm the outsider. I'm the one who everyone said was reactionary and a Luddite when I criticized Web 2.0. Maybe there was some truth to that label of me when I wrote The Cult of the Amateur, but I've been pleasantly surprised by the amount of sympathy for my comments about Web 3.0. More and more people, even in Pakistan, are saying, "Enough is enough. This social stuff has gone way too far."

There are some people such as Jeff Jarvis, who's a friend of mine, will strongly disagree with my position. But the majority of people are saying, "You're absolutely right." "This has gone way too far." "We don't like it." Most people don't like Facebook. Even people on it don't really like or trust it, and they don't trust Zuckerberg.

With Web 2.0 most people liked and trusted Google. Google itself is now vulnerable to not being trusted because it's trying to turn itself into a Web 3.0 company. I gave Google an element of trust in the book, but I wrote it before their March 1st change of their privacy policy, and their intent to tie together all their different services and reveal and leverage people's data.

My professional identity is as a controversialist so I hope the book is not too uncontroversial. I hope it will elicit a lot of debate. I do think that the general cultural atmosphere particularly amongst mainstream users of the Internet, not amongst the hard core, is suspicion and concern with the overpowering nature of the social media, how demanding it is, and how dodgy it seems to be in terms of using our data.

One thing that's worth stressing, which I haven't yet said during our conversation, is I hope Digital Vertigo will elicit a debate about free economies. In my first book I also wrote about one of the problems with Facebook. As Michael Fertik from says, the problem with Facebook and even Google is that their business model, by definition, means that we have become their product because their services are free. I'm much more sympathetic and trusting of products you have to pay to use. It's free now but I'd be more than happy to pay for Apple email, because you don't get advertising with it and I don't think they're leveraging my personal data in the same way as Gmail does. I hope my book will create this kind of debate.

Overall, I'm generally encouraged but maybe it's because I've given the early review copies of the book to people I know will be vaguely sympathetic. The communitarians will likely be critical. It would be interesting to hear what somebody like Clay Shirky, who is smart and I respect, will make of it because I criticize him in the book. Of course the social media crowd, the Robert Scoble's of the world, will likely have concerns. In a sense I pick on Scoble but I hope I've not de-humanized or treated him unfairly. I don't trash Scoble, but then Digital Vertigo is a lot less trashy than my first book.

VB: Do you feel like a lone voice in a wilderness of Internet white noise?

Andrew Keen: No, I don't think I am. In fact, there are more and more books and articles about the social media and the loss of privacy. I'm pleased that other people have come out with books with similar themes. William Powers with Hamlet's Blackberry was along the same lines. I quote Jonathan Franzen's article "Liking Is for Cowards. Go for What Hurts." Digital Vertigo is trying to knit together disparate communities, such as the creative, political, and legal communities.

Lori Andrews has just written a very good book about this – I Know Who You Are and I Saw What You Did: Social Networks and the Death of Privacy. She comes more from the legal community. She attempts to knit together people's legal, cultural, and political concerns and to try and make sense of what's happening in a coherent, historical way.

I don't feel alone, although it's the job of a writer to be a little bit alone, and to be ahead of what other people are saying. Otherwise what writers are saying has little or no value, and no one's going to read their work.

VB: Good writers spark people to think, and to not merely accept the status quo.

Andrew Keen: Yes, and the book is specifically and obstinately written for a broad audience. There will be people who will say, "Oh, you got this fact wrong." "You didn't cover that item." "There's no original research into the technologies."

Digital Vertigo is to be an introduction for a literate audience into what's happening in the social world. It's not a book for insiders. It's a book for outsiders.

A lot of people will read it and say "Oh I already knew this." If you read, you'll know that the social is dominant. You may not have quite my spin but most of what I say shouldn't be a surprise. I love dealing with a TechCrunch audience when I'm speaking at their events, but my book isn't written for The TechCrunch Network. It's written for the kind of people who might watch CNN or read Time Magazine.

VB: How do you think @quixotic will react to your book?

Andrew Keen: I don't think Reid Hoffman will be too bothered one way or the other. He's been so amazingly successful. I was at an event where Hoffman was, and the person introducing him referred to him as having the power of the Queen or some member of the royal family.

I'm in awe of Hoffman on many levels. He's remarkably smart and successful. He's iconic. His book, Start-up of You, is on the bestseller list so it will probably sell more than mine even though he's not a writer. I don't know how much time he spent writing the book.

His response to Digital Vertigo might be that he agrees with a lot of what I'm saying so why did I use him as the hanger to build the narrative? My reply would be I used him because it was convenient and made sense to the narrative. I did my best not to vilify him in any way.

Our initial, short conversation in the Oxford Hotel was in a sense an excuse to introduce the issues. I suspect he would probably share a lot of my concerns about the social media. But it's my book, not his. He can write his own book about his concerns of social media. I don't suggest that he simplifies the human condition like a Mark Zuckerberg or Sheryl Sandberg.

The problem with @quixotic is he's trying, and in some sense he has succeeded, in having his cake and eating it. He's a smart, credible guy. But he's also made a fortune – billions of dollars – from this economy. He's about as close as you can come to being wealthy and virtuous. I'm not suggesting he's bad, but I'm not convinced he's quite as virtuous as he is portrayed.

VB: What changes need to be made to address your concerns about Web 3.0?

Andrew Keen: I have a whole chapter on this. We need some legislative framework to control the more flagrant disregard for privacy by companies like Facebook and Google. We need users to be much more wary and more responsible in how they use these networks, and also in how they allow their children, friends, or relatives to use them. We need more encouragement for technologies that monetize privacy, which I'm all in favor of.

Many of the solutions are market-based rather than government regulation based. Most importantly we need to rethink some of the language used in the social media. A Facebook friend isn't a real friend. It doesn't mean you can't have friends on Facebook, but 'friending' is a way into the system. Of course, when you 'friend' someone you're generally not friends. You often don't even know who they are.

We need to think much more carefully what we want to get out of social media and what we're willing to give up. We have to understand that it's a trade-off – nothing is free. Facebook isn't free. Google+ isn't really free. Every time we use it we're giving something of ourselves away. I'm not saying we should never do this but we need to be much more aware of what we are doing.

Companies need to be forced, and this is where I think government legislation can be effective, to simplify their terms of service so it is clear what they will and won't do with our data. It's still way too confusing. I don't understand all the terms.

For example, I have no idea how LinkedIn knows so much about me. How is it that it is always suggesting people I should friend or connect up with, and they are people I know well? How do they do this? Is the system reading my emails? I have no idea.

Whether it's LinkedIn, which tends to be less badly behaved than Facebook or Google+, or other social media they need to provide their product in ways that, as consumers, we understand what exactly is going on. What are we getting involved with when we open a Facebook or Google+ account.

VB: In simple words so we can understand, and then decide whether to use it.

Andrew Keen: Yes, a one-pager. I like the idea of companies having to explain what their products and services are in a page. One is inevitably suspicious when a company says, "We respect your rights and never sell your data," and then they have another 80 pages of legalize which no one can understand explaining what they do and what they do about privacy.

VB: One suspects that when these terms of service are so complicated people skip over them rather than trying to read and understand them.

Andrew Keen: Relying on lawyers to write these terms of service in complicated language often seems to suggest that they're up to no good.

VB: What triggered your deep interest in the issue of the social media?

Andrew Keen: It's so important. After I had written The Cult of the Amateur I wanted to write about the next big thing. This is the next big thing.

I wrote the book strategically so it would come out at about the same time as the Facebook IPO, which symbolizes this new menu of the social media.

As a writer you want to write something that's relevant and interesting and this is both. The social media has a great impact on all of us as human beings.

VB: Do you have a vision of what the next big thing will be after social media fully matures?

Andrew Keen: No. I haven't thought about that. I'd like to think of something interesting, but technology is moving so fast. At the moment I'm focusing on Digital Vertigo because it's just been published. I'm doing a lot of writing, thinking, and interviews about this book. I probably won't think about my next project until later this summer.

VB: Clearly you do an extensive amount of research when writing, and you include a large number and broad range of references. Do you enjoy the process of writing your books?

Andrew Keen: Well I enjoy it in the way a mother would say she enjoys giving birth. It's enjoyable when it's done. There are times when it's awful, where you hate it, where you swear you'll never do another book.

My first book was a lot easier to write. I wrote it in a much shorter time. I think the second book is a better book, but it doesn't mean it will be as successful.

I couldn't say I enjoyed the process of writing the books. I now enjoy having written it, but the process of writing is very demanding. Inevitably you're under huge pressures. The book was late. So no, I wouldn't say I enjoyed writing Digital Vertigo.

I mean you enjoy it at times. When things come together there's nothing more fun and encouraging with these good days, but there's nothing more demoralizing, depressing, and frustrating about a day where the stuff doesn't come together. It's an ambitious book. There's a lot in there.

I often joke my first book was a critique of amateurism which was defiantly amateurish. The second book is a critique of activity that is intricately connected, so there's a lot there. I don't know if it all comes perfectly together – I hope it does. Some people say maybe it's a bit too sprawling but I had a lot to say. Some of the bits may not be quite as relevant as they should be. It's an ambitious book so there were a lot of pieces to put together.

VB: Would you say that your experience seeing Jeremy Bentham's body and debating at Oxford provide you with some great insights?

Andrew Keen: Yes, that's how a book works – especially books built around epiphanies. The process of thinking through this epiphany was a bit more complex and long-winded than it seems in the book, but yes it afforded me some useful insights.

Jeremy Bentham does reflect the heart of the book. His Auto-icon and his debates with John Stuart Mill are oddly enough the heart of my book. One of the things I realized when reading about Facebook's attempt to quantify happiness – global happiness – the light bulb went off in terms of my understanding how close Bentham and Zuckerberg are to each other. Both are geniuses. Both are remarkable people. There's no doubt about the fact they are major historical figures, but they're both defined by a childishness; a childishly simplified way of thinking about the human condition, which is wrong.

Author Andrew Keen says "…the Internet is radically changing too, its architecture reflecting the new social dial tone for the twenty-first century. Everything on the Web – from its infrastructure to its navigation to its entertainment to its commerce to its communications – is going social. John Doerr is right. Today's Web 3.0 revolution, this Internet of people, is indeed the third great wave of technological innovation, as profound as the invention of both the personal computer and the Worldwide Web itself." Web 3.0 will have dramatic effects, both positive and negative, but there will be dramatic effects.

The author expresses deep concerns about privacy and autonomy, and poses three important questions:

  1. What exactly will be the fate of privacy when you and I and everyone else are trapped, for better or worse, in a radically transparent network of "frictionless sharing" that has done away with secrecy and solitariness?

  2. What happens in just eight years' time, in 2020, when everything – from our intelligent cars to our intelligent televisions to our intelligent telephones to our other 50 billion networked devices – are connected?

  3. What are the human implications of this great rewiring, this cult of the social which, according to Don Tapscott and Doug Williams, represents a grand historical turning point equal to the Renaissance in the history of mankind?

Andrew Keen is posing fundamental and important issues about the threats to our privacy, even the potential for ruining the reputations of innocent people. We owe it to ourselves to be informed and to take control of our use of the social media – to read the fine print of terms and conditions of use. We owe it to ourselves to be aware of the risks of digital vertigo. We owe it to ourselves to read Digital Vertigo.

Andrew Keen's Bio:
Andrew Keen is an Internet entrepreneur who founded in 1995 and built it into a popular first generation Internet company. He is currently the host of the "Keen On" show on Techcrunch TV. He is a columnist for CNN and a regular commentator for many other newspapers, radio and television networks around the world.

He is an acclaimed speaker, regularly addressing the impact of digital technologies on 21st century business, education and society. Andrew Keen has given keynote speeches in many countries around the world including the United States, Canada, Britain, Brazil, South Korea, Singapore, Spain, France, Germany, Holland, Denmark, Finland, Norway, Ireland, Austria and Poland. At the United Nations Conference on the Internet in November 2007 in Rio, he debated Internet founder Vint Cerf. He frequently lectures at universities including UC Berkeley, Vanderbilt, Oxford, York, Warsaw and Amsterdam, where he gave the 21st Globalization Felix Meritis lecture. He has also appeared at literary festivals in Rio de Janeiro and Los Angeles and spoken at the London Institute of Contemporary Arts and the Royal Society of Arts where he is a Fellow.

Subjects he speaks on include:

  • Can Traditional Media Survive the Internet Age?

  • Is the Internet Killing Our Culture?

  • What is Social Media and how is it Changing Our world?

  • Anxiety, Loneliness and Inequality in the Digital Age: How Can Silicon Valley be Replicated Outside America?

  • How Companies Should and Shouldn't Use the Tools of the Internet Revolution

  • The Impact of the Internet on Politics and Government: What Comes after Television?

  • Reading, Writing and Thinking in the 21st Century: Can the Newspapers Survive the Digital Revolution?

Andrew Keen is the author of The Cult of the Amateur: How the Internet is Killing Our Culture (2007) which has been published in 17 different languages, and Digital Vertigo: How Today's Social Revolution is Dividing, Diminishing and Disorienting Us (May 22, 2012).

Feedback Welcome:
We would appreciate receiving feedback about this, or any of our other articles on the website. [Please write us] with any comments or suggestions.

If you would like us to interview you about an article or book you have written, or an interesting idea, or a business you are involved with, [please let us know].

To read other interviews with authors and people interested in innovation, creativity, and business leadership please go to Interviews with Innovation Authors and Corporate Innovators. To read interviews with corporate innovators please go to Conversations with Corporate Innovators.

Share on        
Next Interview »