The European: You are known as a vocal critic of what is happening on the internet. Why?
Keen: I’m a Silicon Valley entrepreneur but I am also someone who is interested in telling the truth about what’s really happening. In the mid-2000s, when everyone was saying that user-generated content would easily replace traditional media and it would be easy to create a new economy for writers and authors, I argued that was not the case. New media was not replacing old media, new media was existing parallel to old media. And it was increasingly hard to monetize the new media economy because nobody was paying for content. I was critical of piracy, I was critical of some of the more excessive elements of the internet like pornography. So, my first book in 2007, The Cult of the Amateur, was a pushback against some of the more extreme utopianism which one always finds in digital society because that society attracts the most utopian and idealistic people.
The European: What are you arguing against today?
Keen: My latest book, “Digital Vertico”, is a pushback on the new cult. The first cult was the cult of the amateur, today’s cult is the cult of the social. Everything in Silicon Valley is going social, ranging from Facebook, Twitter and Linkedin to location-based services. Personal information is becoming the new oil windfall for the digital economy. We are living online as real people and we are revealing ourselves to an increasing degree. Privacy and secrecy are the things that we are loosing. The goal of my book is to remind us that while we cannot go back to the old world and that social media can be good – I am not going to deny that social media has been very important, for example in undermining authoritarian regimes in the Middle East and Russia, and I have a Twitter account on my own and see some of the benefits as a writer –, but I am concerned that we – as human beings – are loosing sense of who we really are by living so publicly and transparently. There are many theorists now who believe that this kind of transparency is a good thing for the human race. They believe it will enable us to be free and truthful, that we can become better than human beings. I am not so sure about that. What I am arguing is that we need to remind us of the value of solitude in the increasingly public nature of digital life in the 21st century.
The European: When we spoke to Nicholas Carr, he argued that social media leads us to re-shape our self-image. Do you support that theory?
Keen: Yes. People are building their personalities and brands in the way that the world is looking at them. So they become some kind of media personalities. And I think that is very unhealthy. I would agree, assuming that Nicolas Carr was quite critical of that. We would not be able to develop those identities and personalities organically behind closed doors. Today, we are always thinking about how we are perceived. This is what I also call digital narcissism – we use new media to bathe in our own fame. Unfortunately most of us are not very interesting and do not have anything interesting to say. And ultimately, that openness can also come back to undermine us when we do things that are embarrassing or that reveal us as immature and silly, or expose details about our sex lives and alcohol consumption. We are only at the early stages of the social media revolution. We still need to learn to manage our identities in the digital age.
The European: Are we not conditioned to share details about our life? Think of applications like “Path”, where you document everything that happens in your life.
Keen: My book warns against networks like Path. There are examples of this in every space – in travel, in television or education. All these services are being used to reveal who we really are. And I think this is very dangerous because they are taking advantage of us when we are at our most vulnerable and not able to think critically. My book is a warning against the ubiquity of the social in all new products. The reality of Silicon Valley is that everything is becoming social. Social is the given part of the network, it is the factor that is driving all change. All companies, technologies and applications are becoming social. Path is actually more private and less social than Facebook or Twitter. So some of Path’s success is to cordon things off from the rest of the world.
The European: Traditional media companies are struggling to find ways to monetize content online. Google News, on the other hand, simple aggregates content for free. What do you think of that?
Keen: Whilst I am critical of Google, I am not sympathetic to the idea of media companies being payed by Google. Google is nothing but a link machine. All Google does is to provide users a link to a newspaper article. And media companies can also opt out; they don’t have to be on Google. Rupert Murdoch’s newspapers are a good example of that approach, they have often put up pay walls. But Google is the search engine of record on the internet – Big Media has to understand the importance of Google and turn towards it. So I do not think that Big Media should charge Google for access to their links, especially since Google is in many ways an advertising machine as well. If you are running a successful media business, Google is a critical vehicle for driving users to see your product. You cannot punish Google for that.
The European: How are media companies responding to the fact that their content is publically available on Google?
Keen: I am very critical of the ideology of the free. I think media should be payed for, but you cannot blame Google for free content. As I said, Rupert Murdoch has made a decision that he wants much of his content to be behind a paywall. The London Times and the Wall Street Journal both have paywalls. But you cannot blame Google for websites that don’t.
The European: Why is free content problematic?
Keen: I believe there are three issues. The first is piracy, which still needs to be addressed, particularly in the US, where some of the softer proponents of piracy laws have just won a big battle over SOPA. But I am very concerned that the ideology behind the proponents is essentially a radical permissiveness about intellectual content, which says that you should not have to pay for content. I am against that. Second, I believe that media companies made an error in the 1990s giving their stuff out for free. Some of them have realized that, like the New York Times or the Financial Times, and have set up paywalls that seem to be working. The third issue is that consumers also need to understand that good quality content cannot be free. Someone is paying for it somewhere. It is the same principle on Facebook: Because membership is free, the company makes its money from using and selling your data. Consumers have to understand that they are the product that is being marketed by Facebook. What I would like to see is many more companies charging consumers for their products and services, whether it is a social network, an application or even YouTube.
The European: This seems to happening though, especially in mobile computing.
Keen: Yes, the mobile space and the App space is more encouraging. I think the worst is over. In 2007, there was very little pushback against free content. But I think there are consumers who have woken up to the reality that they cannot have high quality content for free. You can only have one or the other. Trash on the blogosphere can be free. And that is fine, because much of it is advertising-supported and you cannot tell a difference between content and advertising. Or, on the other hand, you can have high quality content that you pay for. That is the reality, it will never change. There are no new laws of economics on the internet. Scarcity still has its value.
The European: So the whole idea of blogs is dead?
Keen: I think blogs have become a little old-fashioned. All the action now is on micro-blogs and services like Twitter and Facebook. Many bloggers now are washed up and burnt out. They spent years writing and did not really change much. Generally speaking, there is a decreasing distinction between old and new media. Some of the best blogs including the Huffington Post were acquired and have become traditional, conventional media.
The European: But the Huffington Post is known for its free content aggregation model.
Keen: It is still not clear where the Huffington Post is in my mind. Is it a model for aggregating people’s free opinion – as Arianna Huffington began the product – or is it a replacement for old media? She has been hiring traditional journalists, she has been investing large amounts of money in getting good quality journalists, both locally and internationally. It is still not clear to me what the future of the Huffington Post is, whether it can simultaneously be a blog and a New York Times. At a certain point in future they will have to choose.
The European: Are you confident that quality content will win this war?
Keen: The high-end content will survive. The New York Times, the Wall Street Journal or the Financial Times are doing a good job. One of the ironies of the internet revolution is that it is actually creating a much larger distinction between a narrow informational elite and everyone else. It is true of most things on the internet that you have got this huge ocean of free crap and stuff that does not have any real value, and a small amount of high quality content that at least some people are willing to pay for. In the old world, I think, newspapers were more democratic. Mass society was actually much more sympathetic, much less inegalitarian than our digital world. Ironically one of the problems of the digital world is that despite all the egalitarianism and democratization, it is actually leading to less democracy. Take Twitter as an example: There is a tiny proportion of people with huge follower communities that shape the service more than the millions of users who have only a few hundred followers.
The European: How is a printed version of the New York Times more democratic than micro-blogging systems that allows anyone to comment directly to the editors?
Keen: Ok, well in that sense the New York Times has done a good job. They are trying to combine the best of both worlds. The New York Times is learning how to calibrate between free and paid content, and not built up this huge wall to people who want free stuff. You have to seduce your customer, you have to up-sell them. The New York Times is doing a good job, but it’s still too early to tell whether they will be economically successful. Interestingly enough, you will see a consolidation of newspaper brands around the world. The Guardian from London is already very strong in the US, the New York Times has a great opportunity to become a global brand. Your are going to have a consolidation of a few high quality newspapers which will have some walls around them and everything else will die out.
The European: What is going to happen to local journalism?
Keen: I think local journalism is screwed. It is very hard to monetize local coverage. For example, there is little evidence that AOL’s Patch network is successful. Although there have been a lot of experiments and a lot of investment, none of it has been very successful. Today, people are not willing to pay for local news.
The Euroean: In Germany the local newspapers run very well.
Keen: Well, that is very good. In America by contrast, many of the local papers are going out of business. And perhaps the future of local papers in America rests on local networks like Yelp. Again, if such networks would go into journalism it would be a mixture of advertising and informational content. Essentially it will be paid advertising. I hope that AOL’s Patch will not make that same move.
The European: So you are critical of advertised services because you are afraid that objectivity is lost?
Keen: The old world was never perfect. There was always an element of corruption. But in many newspapers there was a fairly strict distinction between advertising and content. You paid for the newspaper, there was paid advertising in the newspaper and they ran alongside content. On the internet, however, because it is so hard to monetize the product and because there are so many ways you can break those rules and experiment with various business models, the distinctions are falling apart. One of the reasons why the internet has been so disappointing is that everyone assumed that you would be able to simply transplant the old world to the new. You cannot ordinarily publish content and sell advertising space online; it will not sustain your business. The problem is that the two worlds are not really comparable and that advertising on the internet is a real struggle. Banner advertisement has mostly been a great failure: The rates that are being charged are so minimal that they do not enable the functioning of real businesses. So you are forced to either let your consumers pay for content, or to make deals which could compromise your product or at least its perceived objectivity.
The European: What needs to be done to save quality content on the internet?
Keen: People need to happily pay for that content. They must pay for their online newspapers like they pay for food, their travel or their housing. They must understand that the only way to guarantee the existence of professional journalists is to pay for them. If you choose that they do not have any value, there is not going to be a professional class any longer. Above all else I still think that piracy is a problem. We have to acknowledge that. We have to actively discourage our children from stealing stuff online, the same way that we discourage them from stealing stuff in stores or stealing from each other. Digital theft is no different from physical theft. It cannot be justified. There were no robbers in the old media world. Unfortunately, after 20 years of trying, there is still no coherent replacement for those businesses. And even subscription services like Spotify or Netflix are struggling. It is still not entirely clear how a quality content industry of music, movies, books and newspapers can be run successfully in the digital 21st century.