Democracy in Internetia

Reviewed by Marshall Poe

The Cult of the Amateur: How Blogs, MySpace, YouTube, and the Rest of Today’s User-Generated Media Are Destroying Our Economy, Our Culture, and Our Values
by Andrew Keen
Doubleday, 2007, 256 pages.

Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing Without Organizations
by Clay Shirky
Penguin, 2008, 336 pages.

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n 1988, I bought a book called High Weirdness by Mail: A Directory of the Fringe—Mad Prophets, Crackpots, Kooks and True Visionaries. The book was something of a cult object among smirking post-hippies, which was what I then aspired to be. It was compiled by “the Reverend Ivan Stang,” head of the “Church of the SubGenius.” Of course, both were fictions. The real Ivan Stang was a businessman named Douglass St. Clair Smith who sold wacky counterculture to college students; the Church of the SubGenius was his vehicle. You won’t be surprised to learn that High Weirdness was published by Random House, a company whose interests are decidedly not countercultural. At the time, I didn’t see the irony in any of this, and ate High Weirdness up like so much hipster candy. Not that I took the book seriously—one can’t really take anything seriously and still remain hip. No, High Weirdness was what I called “bog reading”: stuff you read on the toilet. And “read” isn’t really the right word, either; instead, you leafed through the book, laughing at the random wackiness that filled its pages and reveling in the sense that you were in on something the squares were not.
Though I now put High Weirdness in the category of “pretentious things I thought were cool back when I thought I was cool,” I must confess that the book taught me something important, namely that there were many more things in heaven and earth than were dreamt of in my philosophy. I thought I had seen a fair amount of what there was to be seen, at least in the United States. But I was dead wrong. High Weirdness was brimming with tales of invisible groups deeply engaged in the pursuit of the most bizarre things you could possibly imagine; and many that you—or at least I—couldn’t. It just never occurred to me that a group of people would band together for that—whatever that was. But there they were in their hundreds, a huge secret garden of strangeness growing just below the surface of American life. And what was more intriguing, the garden had no walls. Stang promised high weirdness by mail, and he delivered: For the cost of a stamp, I could contact any of the odd groups listed. I could have an epistolary exchange with “mad prophets, crackpots, kooks, and true visionaries,” all at a safe distance. That was somehow exciting.
I sometimes think the Internet is High Weirdness by Mail writ large. The Reverend Stang uncovered a small piece of the invisible world of human variety. The Internet has shone a bright light on the entire sphere. Before the Internet, most of us had no idea that there might be toilet paper critics, rotten fruit collectors, and toenail worshippers walking among us. Now we know that they exist, as do millions upon millions of other eccentrics. Just type “fetish” into any search engine (not at work) and behold the infinite weirdness that is humanity. See anything interesting? Well, it’s your lucky day, because you can easily participate in the fun! Just write a post on the Web site or send an email, and you’re a member of the club. Don’t see the flavor you like? Well, your bonanza continues, because you can set up your own oddball site almost as easily. Sign up with a Web hosting company (some are free), write a Web page (it’s as easy as pie), and watch as people who share your “interests” gather round. Of course, consorting with fetishists can be a nasty business, even if you are one yourself. But don’t worry. The Web provides you with the cloak of anonymity, so you can sit back and watch the rumpus from a safe distance.
Sounds great. But is it? Andrew Keen’s The Cult of the Amateur and Clay Shirky’s Here Comes Everybody both grapple with this question. Let me begin by saying that both books are excellent. If you want to understand what the Web is doing to you, me, and everyone else, I highly recommend you read them. But you have to read both of them, because they reach diametrically opposed conclusions. This is somewhat disturbing: We would like to think that when two smart people look at the same thing, they will tend to agree on what they think about it. At the very least, we would expect them to reach conclusions that seem to come from the same planet. Instead, it turns out that Clay Shirky is from Mars and Andrew Keen is from Venus.


Marshall Poe is a professor of history at the University of Iowa and the founder of MemoryArchive, a universal, wiki-type collection of contemporary memoirs.

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