Long before Facebook or Foursquare, men like the late management consultant Martin Jay Levitt were connoisseurs of social networks. At the beginning of each new gig Levitt would have a client’s human resources director create detailed diagrams mapping the relationships between all employees, accounting for gossip, date of hire and pay, even details of his sex life, if any were known. Then, after immersing himself in the P2P logistical cartography of an enterprise, Levitt would ply the firm’s lowest-ranking supervisors for still more dirt, assuring each that whatever he revealed would be confined to that room. (“That, of course, was a bold and cruel lie,” Levitt later confessed.) Then he impressed upon them their unifying mission by invoking a time-tested analogy to humanize the threat they were being called to conquer:
I scanned the faces and focused on a young, blond, gentle-looking man:
“You married?” I asked.
“Yes, sir,” the man replied.
I moved in closer. “You love your wife?”
“You sleep with your wife?”
The man blushed. “Uh, yes, sir.”
“Well,” I continued, “how would you like it if your mother-in-law slept between you and your wife every night?”
The crowd broke out in laughter, and a voice from the back of the room hooted, “Not bad. You should see his mother-in-law.”
Like Levitt, Andrew Keen is a smooth-talking hired gun who blankets the country warning conference rooms full of middle managers about the straw-men dangers that await them if they share with one another too freely. A few years back he blogged that the nascent social-networking craze was “reminiscent of Marx”; today he broadcasts his Twitter handle on the cover of a book in which he likens the insidious grip of Web 2.0 to the “Summer of Love.” This time, Keen’s adversary is a “networked mob of 21st century small brothers” that in aggregate threaten nothing less than “the death of individual liberty.”
But while everyone in the room with Levitt knew what he was getting at—the workers had started a campaign to unionize, and the “mother-in-law” was invoked to represent the shop steward preventing supervisors from fucking their subordinates—Keen’s agenda is more mysterious. The book reads like it has been composed on the work-only Tweetdeck of a professional social-media aggregator who aspires to one day attend a TED conference, only the hyperlinks to all the vacuous content he aggregates have been swapped out for footnotes—637 in total, giving the reader innumerable opportunities to gasp at the gall required to title this maddening thing “#digitalvertigo.” It is such a distinctly displeasurable and unsatisfying read that I was forced to reconsider my initial assumption that Keen was just another wannabe Gladwell.
Keen’s career as a Web 2.0 cultural critic is premised largely upon his having founded a dotcom he immodestly remembers as “an early paragon of the online revolution” all the way back in 1995. But two 1999 Audiocafe.com press releases (and a few trade publication obits that ran upon the startup’s demise in April 2000) state that Keen founded the firm in November 1998. Keen will inevitably turn this little hoax into part of his schtick, since the whole reason he’s here is to sow doubt and distrust toward anything you read on the Internet. But the fact remains that, for all the networked mobs Keen claims to have incensed, if he posed a threat to anyone who mattered, this bit of résumé-fudging would have come up somewhere amid the thousands of reviews, rebuttals, and profiles information workers have squandered on the guy.
And yet it has gone unnoticed. The networked mobs Keen rails against intuitively recognize the truth in what he says. Social networking is ultimately unsatisfying, disorienting, and vaguely dehumanizing. Duh. But all that is an outgrowth of the fact that social networking as we now know it, from the 140-character limits to the desperately pointless decisions to “like” each and every comment posted about each and every new baby photo, is so gratuitously infantilizing. So in attempting to reconcile my ostensibly contradictory contempt for Keen and Web 2.0, I was forced to ponder whether it had to be that way.