Andrew Keen wants to be the web's Simon Cowell

Matthew Taylor set it up as real scrap, but tonight’s RSA lecture by controversial author Andrew Keen and conservative blogging figurehead Tim Montgomerie was nothing of the sort. I had hoped to have my views challenged by Andrew, and to get an insight into Tim’s leading-edge thinking. In the end, I didn’t get either, and I left frustrated.
Looking back at my notes, I see a succession of points made by Keen, which are hard to argue with. People increasingly believe that they have a right to free ‘content’. But if the only people making any money from ‘content’ are the advertising platforms, who’s going to invest in producing the extra-high quality stuff? If the only people willing or able to do so are advertisers, where does that leave us?
If his argument were purely based on the problems facing the entertainment business’s business model, I don’t think there would be an argument – visit your local Fopp for details. But tonight at least, the other half of his argument – the assault on ‘the amateur’ – wasn’t so well formed. He mentioned YouTube numerous times, and I can think of numerous reasons why you might point the finger at Google/YouTube: failure to tackle nefarious SEO tactics, failure to weed out copyrighted video material. But Keen didn’t follow through.
His pitch wasn’t helped by his embarrassing and frankly unforgivable failure to play a video clip as part of his presentation, which clearly put him off his stride. Tim Montgomerie was hastily called forward to offer a counterpoint, when the original point wasn’t especially clear, and inevitably his response fell disappointingly flat.
Keen wore plain black, he spoke with a languid Brit-in-California tone, and he was on a mission to tell people that most of us are talentless. Remind you of anyone? Once the thought entered my mind, I couldn’t escape it. He was trying to be the Simon Cowell of new media. He had words of praise for those who had a gift, and the training to perfect it. For those with neither, the words were inevitably harsh.
And as Cowell has done in the past (but doesn’t do so much now), he went out of his way to cultivate the Mr Nasty image. On several occasions, he became unnecessarily aggressive in answering questions: when the MD of Encyclopedia Britannica asked a question from the floor, Keen was close to exploding, despite the fact that Mr Britannica was basically agreeing with him.
But isn’t that the point? As in the music world, as in reality TV, so on the web. ‘The X-Factor’ encapsulates the problem, and proves it isn’t inherently the internet’s fault. So many people showing up saying yes, they are definitely good enough to win. Then opening their mouths, and sounding like a cat in agony. And it’s over to Cowell and co to break the awful truth to them.
Andrew Keen is not the antichrist, nor is he a Nazi – an accusation which clearly hurt him. He believes some are more able than others, which is a statement of fact. And in the final moments, he admitted that the blogosphere was a ‘great supplement’ to the newspapers we rely on, and that he was optimistic in the long term. But lest we forget, he has his own business model: he has a book to sell.
Quick update: interesting… I’m not the first person to make the connection with Cowell, not even today.

2 thoughts on “Andrew Keen wants to be the web's Simon Cowell”

  1. I too was frustrated by the event. It reminded me that talking about the impacts or choices of technologies without being specific about the setting and users is a waste of time. I believe people went in for similar broad brush generalisation about the impact of photography, radio, cinema,TV etc. It all depends.
    The most telling comment for me came from (I think) Phil Harding who said it was a false debate – we need a mix of different media to suit whatever we are trying to do.
    The 18th century format of the RSA Great Room lecture theatre/platform/chairperson didn’t help. In a discussion about user generated content putting your hand up to ask for permission to speak is … well … frustrating. I couldn’t stick it to the end.

  2. I never made it along to the event because I watched the Keen vs Weinberger video and came to similar conclusions as those who attended this talk – the fundamentals of his argument seem worth hearing, but his delivery falls massively short through his lack of clarity and aggressive negativity.
    I wanted to hear a man argue coherently and passionately, and potentially have me challenge my own views – but instead, since he is turning himself into a sensationalist cowell-esque brand as you rightly mentioned, I think I would only gain frustration.
    How high was his trouser line?? 🙂

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