Cult of the Amateur? Blame Steve Jobs

It was 1984, I think, because it was the same week I snagged tickets for Springsteen’s Born in the USA tour. What a show it was!

macintosh_caseAnyway, a friend invited me to watch a demo of something called desktop publishing (DTP). I touched my first Apple computer that day, and learned about a goofy little gadget called the “mouse.”

The Apple rep told us that desktop publishing would change the world forever. Common folk like me — with no experience or knowledge of graphic arts — would take over my company/clients’ publications from concept to finished art. I would become writer, editor, typesetter and designer. That’s what she said.

I didn’t learn until a few years later that DTP could be a dangerous weapon in the hands of amateurs. If you were around then, you saw the results as companies and organizations began cranking out homespun newsletters and brochures replete with bad design, cheesy clip art, amateur photography and really crappy writing.

Designer wannabes opened freelance businesses that spread the wave of bad work far and wide. I hired some of them, because I always learn the hard way.

It took a while for the debacle of DTP to shake out, but it has largely lived up to its promise of lower costs and shorter production cycles. Designers use it deftly;  those with little or no design talent use templates to restrict their “creativity.”

Move the clock ahead to 1994. The World Wide Web was becoming semi-mainstream about then, and along with it came another wave of bad design. It was deja vu all over again, but this time the amateurs were building websites that would shame a 4th-grade art student.

fivexWe can’t blame Apple for the awful designs of early websites. Only the geeks understood how to build pages in those days, and nearly all of them used PCs. The geeks of the mid-90s knew nothing about communicating effectively with this new medium, and neither did I.

New media, in whatever form, attract early adopters who make lots of mistakes in the early going. Some learn from those mistakes, some don’t.

We saw gradual improvement of both print publications and websites as professional communicators applied their knowledge and share their ideas. Then came the blog boom of 2003-06 and with it millions upon millions of dreadful online diaries. That trend has seen a shakeout as well, with only about 5% of blogs active in the past 4 months.

Andrew Keen called it the “Cult of the Amatuer.” He made a lot of great points in that book — points that some true believers in social media have refused to consider. “Cult” was a rant, but one that pointed out the flaws of a medium that gives voice to everyone — including those who have nothing to say and those with malicious intent.

So what? Most of us are smart enough to sort out what’s useful and what’s not. I read a couple of dozen blogs written by people I respect. But I don’t count on them to supply information vital to my way of life. I don’t expect them to supplant the mainstream media as guardians of democracy, though once in a while a blogger will break an important story.

Keen’s concern that social media may destroy serious journalism and devalue expertise is worthy of inspection. As mainstream media continue to lose their revenue sources, they’ve been forced to curtail their vital “watchdog” mission. I’m sorry, but unpaid bloggers are in no position to fill that void, nor are most of us inclined to do the scut work involved in serious reporting.

So who will keep an eye on our increasingly corrupt government? You tell me.

Because I draw a nice paycheck from a school of journalism, some think I have a vested interest in seeing old media survive. Not really.

As a public relations specialist I could easily be celebrating the demise of mediated news. After all, if and when we lose professional news organizations, digital channels like blogs and social networks will give us direct and unchallenged access to our publics. And let’s not forget the job opps social media are creating for Web-savvy PR grads. It’s enough to make this old professor salivate.

So why the fear and trepidation? I worry that too many PR types will place client interest ahead of public interest, expediency ahead of ethics. They have in the past, and social media make it that much easier today. Until recently, a strong mainstream media have attempted to deliver objective truth — and we all knew where to find it.

Just so you know, I don’t REALLY blame Steve Jobs for the proliferation of amateurish content online. If anything, Apple has raised the bar. But the parallel to desktop publishing — a technology enabled by the Apple computer — is one I can’t get out of my head.

This connected world gives each of us access to dangerous weapons. Some use those weapons for good, others use them to clog the channels of communication with amateurish crap.

The possibilities for social media in PR remain endless — but so do the dangers. It’s exciting to watch the diffusion of this phenomenon, but a little scary at the same time.

Update #1: From the Bad Pitch Blog, here’s a great example of what happens when amateurs venture into our world. It’s only gonna get worse.

Update #2: With a note that read, “Something for your Cult of the Amateur” file, a friend sends this story from the NYT.

Update #3: Alan Wolk on “Scoble Blindness.” From Marketing Profs.

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20 Responses to Cult of the Amateur? Blame Steve Jobs

  1. Breeze says:

    Two points:

    1. You can’t blame Apple for crappy writing any more than you can awful design. Design issues have eventually shaken out, but crappy writing remains with us.

    2. Social media may be a threat to serious journalism, but it’s less of a danger that the current embrace of punditry and so-called balanced reporting by the MSM. Pundits and other non-journalist “experts” pose more of a threat to serious reporting, especially because they get far more consideration than bloggers do.

  2. Bill Sledzik says:

    Breeze: To point one, I think I said that in the next-to-next-to-last paragraph. That’s what I get for writing 900-word posts and trying to be funny. No one gets to the end of the long posts anymore. As I said, Apple has actually raised the bar in our business by enabling professionalism.

    As to point 2, can’t argue with you. Of course, I avoid the pundits just as I avoid bad blogs. What I’m worried about the health of investigative journalism. Who will do it once the MSM no longer have the resources to hire and retain quality journalists? (That day is already be here in Northeast Ohio.)

    You know, there’s a good chance — in today’s marketplace — that Woodward and Bernstein (both junior guys at the time of Watergate) would have been laid off. Then “Deep Throat” would only be a porno film, albeit a pretty decent one. I don’t blame any of this on social media, but it poses a definite threat to democracy. And it’s pretty doubtful that bloggers can pick up the slack.

  3. jsfwcz says:

    “Who will do it once the MSM no longer have the resources to hire and retain quality journalists? (That day is already be here in Northeast Ohio.)” There are many non profit think tanks and websites that are already doing it. Problem is that the story is not told in a way or a time that regular people can get it.

    The heroic age of journalism started with Woodward and Bernstein. The journalist as celebrity. In fact, based on the reporting on the run up to the Iraq War, the journos were more concerned with their rep and access than on getting the story.

    Meanwhile, the number of books published about our esteemed government in the last 4 years has been amazing.

    re the amateurs: I bet that at every stage of human creativity about 80% was trite and mediocre. The real problem now is that trite and mediocre is more visible. But the good news is that the chances of quality and experts rising above the noise, is that much greater.

  4. Bill Sledzik says:

    Thanks for stopping by jsfwcz. Your comment in that opening paragraph underscores my point:

    There are many non profit think tanks and websites that are already doing it. Problem is that the story is not told in a way or a time that regular people can get it.

    As I said, with a vibrant MSM, we all knew where to get the news. And until the last 7-8 years, it was pretty good and pretty thorough (Fox News notwithstanding). As for those think tanks, let’s not forget that most of them have an agenda that matches the views of those who supply the cash. Heritage comes to mind, but you find them on both sides of the aisle.

    Sure, we can say that the MSM has (or had) an agenda, but most principled journalists (and I know many) are committed to some sense of fairness and balance. You don’t find that in the blogosphere, nor do you expect it.

    I love this medium. I really do. But IMHO, it’s not journalism. It’s opinion — and those opinions are most often formed by what bloggers and twitterers read in the MSM. Just take a look at where they link.

    When the great news machine is gone, who will be the aggregators of history? It ain’t gonna be you and me.

    I respect your point about celebrity journalism. It’s been a huge problem. Remember the SCUD Stud of the first Gulf War? Sheesh! I’ve pretty much given up on television “infotainment.” Almost no one in that medium is doing serious reporting anymore. For what it’s worth, we have a couple of folks here at Kent State who are trying to fix that.

  5. D.M.O. says:

    If papers like the one I write for go under, there will not be anyone to report on small town corruption either before it is revealed by federal investigators OR after they hold their press conferences.

    Broadcast journalism is increasingly attention-deficit, chopped up into four- and five-second sound bites. And the MSM papers like Ohio’s “Big 8″ are not going to cover certain things in outlying counties like Portage, Ashtabula or Geauga. They already don’t. Remind me the last time the Beacon Journal had a reporter at a Kent City Council meeting? A Ravenna City Council meeting? A Portage County Commissioners meeting? Because I don’t know and can’t say.

    We’re educating more and more future journalists, too. But what jobs will exist for them?

  6. Bill Sledzik says:

    Wish I had an answer for you. News organizations are too important to lose, but they also don’t seem to have the business sense to find a revenue model that works. They had too many decades of making way too much money, so they stopped innovating.

    I think their biggest mistake was to put it all on the Web for free, and then not protect their copyrighted content when others stole it. But that horse is outta the barn.

    On the bright side, the world has always needed good storytellers. Sadly, there is no tradition of compensating them well. It’s not shaping up to be a great year, is it?

  7. [...] Just so you know, I don’t REALLY blame Steve Jobs for the proliferation of amateurish content online. If anything, Apple has raised the bar. But the parallel to desktop publishing — a technology enabled by the Apple computer — is one I …[Continue Reading] [...]

  8. At work, I’m drowning in a sea of designers and programmers who are waving their fists in anger at ugly, cluttered, glittery websites that look like they were designed by a 13-year-old girl. But, people like what they like and the wonderful thing (in my mind) about social media, website builders and other tools is that you have the option to do whatever you want. That’s the beauty of the Web today!

    In regards to social media for PR, it is scary because anyone MAY do it. But not everyone CAN do it, and I think once you play the game for a bit, you can quickly tell who can’t cut it. The PR people who are only jumping in to participate in conversations with comments like “CooL, check out my blog!” rather than adding value are the people who either didn’t graduate from PRKent (you know I’m right!) or who just seriously missed the ball and aren’t cut out for the new age of PR.

  9. Bill Sledzik says:

    Thank you, Melissa, for that dose of social-media optimism. And good luck with the launch of zooloo. You’ve done a masterful job creating buzz around, well, whatever it is.

    Regarding design, we’ve learned, particularly with many GenX and GenYers, that cluttered, busy graphics appeal to many. Look at Wired magazine. Great content, but the design could give anyone over 40 a headache. But then, it was a stretch for me to use sans serif type on this blog. I’m all about readability.

    Regarding those “amateurs,” you make a point I hear many times from the true believers of social media. Sure, we all have access to the tools, but only the talented among us (that’s you and me for sure, eh?) know how to use them. Eventually we have to hope it shakes out and that the amateurs that Keen warned us about fade into the woodwork. I hope you’re right, but I’m gonna worry for both of us if that’s OK.

    Thanks for the Kent State plug. In leiu of a check, I’m gonna send you a bushel of snow, FedXed to Scottsdale.

  10. marketingsociologist says:

    Bill:

    Sorry, believe it ’85 you saw Springsteen. I have the backstage pass. It was all dark blue with a black image of Springsteen’s profile.
    07-Aug-85 Municipal Stadium, Cleveland, OH
    09-Aug-85 Soldier Field, Chicago, IL

    Now, was Clarence Clemmons in all white or a blue checkered shirt with a vest?

    Richard Kelleher

  11. rene says:

    The book now not only has a title and subtitle, but also a cover.
    It will be called THE CULT OF THE AMATEUR: How Blogs, Wikis, Social Networking, and the Digital World are Assaulting our Economy, Culture and Values.
    I love what Doubleday/Random House have done the cover of the book. It shouts out, in the most electric of oranges, the imminence of the cultural and economic crisis engendered by the digital revolution. There’s not much time left, that symbolic hourglass suggests, until our whole culture is swept away by the dire consequences of Web 2.0 egalitarianism.

  12. Bill Sledzik says:

    Thanks for the clarification, Richard. That’s why I said, “I think.” I’m fairly certain most of the brain cells from 1984 or 1985 are long since dead.

  13. CT Moore says:

    Bill, you just got me to read not only a post in its entirety, but a lengthy one. So kudos…

    About worry “that too many PR types will place client interest ahead of public interest, expediency ahead of ethics,” what’s new? PR types are in business, and business wants to make money by selling shit. I don’t think it was ever their mandate to be ethical beyond honest invoicing.

  14. Bill Sledzik says:

    All depends on your view of the biz, Chris. I don’t view the task of PR as solely to “sell s*%#.” I’m one of those Pollyanna types who thinks PR can contribute to the overall relationship an organization has with its publics. This would account for my fascination with social media, as it’s a tool that just may help us do this if used responsibly. Unfortunately, I think most people see social media as a way to sell S*%#, which I guess is the point of the passage you quote.

  15. David says:

    Bill, you don’t think news can be effectively crowd sourced?

  16. Bill Sledzik says:

    I can only assume your question is dripping with sarcasm. It’s tough to tell online.

    Of course news can’t be crowd sourced. Gathering, assembling, editing and analyzing news requires judgment and skills crowds simply don’t have. Crowd sourcing has its uses, but serving as watchdog on government? Don’t think so.

  17. David says:

    Bill: Agreed although I am beginning to rethink ‘breaking news’. I think the channels in which events fly at us have definitely changed. Plane lands in the Hudson: post a twitpic. Capture an earthquake on video: post it on YouTube. What was it like on the inside when Bear Sterns blew up: blog about it. Would you agree that for MSM the ‘gathering’ element for some news has gone beyond waiting for the city desk phone to ring with a tip? Often times news is broken to me in very nontraditional means. Raw, dangerous I have to wait for the professionals to glean and clean.

    As an aside, I am curious what you think of the printcasting project and if it changes or stems what is going on in print journalism these days. http://www.printcasting.com

  18. Bill Sledzik says:

    I can’t disagree with a word of that, David. Certainly the availability of social media tools makes all of us potential witnesses to breaking news, thus part of the reporting. Remember those text messages sent by the students at Virginia Tech — and the cell phone video from another student? It adds to the mix, and to our understanding of it. Bloggers and citizen journalists often are the first to release information.

    But the fact remains, the system of news gathering and information necessary to protect a democracy simply cannot be based on an army of folks with blogs and iPhones. I welcome their input, to be sure. But I rue they day they become our primary source of news.

    Will check out the link shortly. I’m headed back to classes tomorrow for the first time in 6 months. My schedule is pretty intense.

  19. David32767 says:

    William: I stand corrected. I have to revist this with this article in mind: http://www.businessweek.com/bwdaily/dnflash/content/mar2009/db2009039_236056.htm I have confused ‘news gathering’ ( Journalism), with the way it is broadcasted to me. You are correct, we need professionals. I confused traditional old school CHANNELS of media with blogs etc etc and assumed old school can’t get new school. I now understand that what I call traditional media(MSM) must distribute its news in what I call non-traditional channels to ‘survive’. Excuse my transgression.

    Keep sledding as the first pitch of opening day will be upon us soon !

  20. [...] rise of the amateur—Bill Sledzik’s interesting post about the impact of technology as it relates to amateurs delving into areas that were previously [...]

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