Which is how I came to reconsider a relic of a halcyon age when the Internet briefly seemed as though it might become a force for something other than nihilism, narcissism, and derivatives trading: Friendster, the first major social networking site. With two simple innovations, Friendster engendered all the trust and sense of community the Internet today seems poised to destroy: one, its software would furnish, on command, an intricate diagram of the degrees of separation between you and any given user; and two, the “wall” was designated for more formal “testimonials” to the user’s friendship abilities, which generally read something like uncensored wedding toasts. For each friend you had access to hundreds of friends-of-friends’ testimonials, and when a stranger tried to friend you there was a complex web of accountability to help you assess the degree to which you could trust him.
It occurs to me now that Friendster’s checks and balances, combined with its transparency, could have threatened the secretive hierarchy of entrenched organizations that assigns power and maintains the status quo. Men like Levitt invented diagrams like Friendster’s to bust unions; they could have just as easily been deployed in the service of starting one. Corporations use social networking data to exploit consumers, smear critics, and infiltrate opposition movements, but mostly it’s the information asymmetry they maintain, rather than the information itself, that makes them powerful. With Friendster, friendship and its defining element of “trust” briefly became more accessible and efficient. And then Tila Tequila and Mark Zuckerberg came along, and friendship was suddenly an acquisitive pursuit, an enterprise built upon leveraging one’s brand.
Neither social networking sites nor Web 2.0 content will tell you much about Andrew Keen; his old blog’s preposterously vague “Keen on Keen” page contains almost no dates or personal details. He seems to have had virtually no public profile prior to 2006, when he launched himself into tech pundit ubiquity with a blog, online video show, and Weekly Standard “manifesto.”
It seems likely that Keen was at least initially an astroturf prophet sent to deliver Americans from the tyranny of “network neutrality” regulations, a cause for which Internet, cable, and wireless corporations racked up a nearly $200 million lobbying bill that year. Tellingly, his online video program AfterTV billed itself not only as a “public media service” designed to give voice to “visionaries and pioneers from all corners of culture, media, marketing and technology,” but a provider of “private and proprietary intelligence” and “innovation services” to companies “interested in gaining a competitive advantage”; also that year AfterTV was acquired by an outfit run by one William E. Gordon III, former president of the Road Runner broadband subsidiary of Time Warner/MediaOne.
Whatever the case, Keen seems determined to keep the information asymmetry working toward his own competitive advantage, demagoguing in public about the dangers Facebook poses to democracy while delivering private “Masterclass” tutorials to the business and government elites of Oman, in which he argues that data will soon replace oil as “the most valuable commodity of the 21st century.”
In his first book, Cult of the Amateur, Keen cited an ostensibly homemade YouTube video produced by a K Street lobbying firm in an effort to discredit Al Gore’s documentary An Inconvenient Truth as an example of the dangers of Web 2.0. He did not, however, disclose the role that a technology-commentary website wholly owned by that same K Street firm played in advancing his career. But from his inaugural essay in The Weekly Standard to the chapter he contributed to a 2011 book published by the telecom-funded astroturf think tank Tech Freedom, Keen’s personal brand was created and largely sustained by the same clique of corporate shills that invented climate change denialism and supply-side economics.
In fact, I would bet that if you mapped the guy’s uncensored social networking data there wouldn’t be too many degrees of separation between Keen and Ed Wegman, the statistician who, in 2008, purported to use social network analysis to undermine the scientific consensus on climate change. Massive hunks of Wegman’s paper—and the 2006 report to Congress on which it was based—were discovered to have been plagiarized, and a computer scientist named John Mashey has devoted much of the past five years to detailing and diagramming the petrodollar-soaked networks that promoted (and continue to defend) Wegman’s phony scholarship. Many of Mashey’s early findings are documented in the book Merchants of Doubt, which traces the careers of the most visible group of academic climate change skeptics back to gigs downplaying the risks of tobacco and acid rain during the eighties.