The astroturf Cassandra

Why hacks like Andrew Keen really fear the social Web
May 15, 2012

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?”

“Yes sir.”

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“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 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.

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.

But what if Web 2.0 had followed the Friendster model? What if everyone who participated in social networking was obliged to draw some distinction between their real friends and their marketing alliances, and everyone could access the map that would be generated from the aggregate of our mutual trust? The transmission and absorption of true knowledge could become markedly more efficient if networks of individuals who trusted one another’s judgment could establish standards for policing the borders between speech and fraud.

And what of professional bullshitters like Keen? Ideally, he would either have to settle for his day job (whatever it is) or start adhering to the old saw about writing what you know—as opposed to writing what you think a consumer segment will deem appropriate or convincing or contrarian. Perhaps some of them would be shamed into reforming, as Martin Jay Levitt was when he was forced to survive in a trust-based community in a rehab facility for his alcoholism.

“I come from a very dirty business,” he finally wrote in Confessions of a Union Buster. “The enemy is the collective spirit. A campaign against a union is an assault on individuals and a war on the truth.” Do not bother with Levitt’s Wikipedia page; he died eight years ago but the mercenaries are still at it, slaughtering truths and exorcising collective spirits and exploiting information asymmetries more profitably than ever from the comfort and safety of alter egos and avatars. As long as they are still trying to propagandize it out of history books and bullshit it off the trending topics, the truth lives, somewhere, and the collective spirit has only begun to recognize the power of merely reminding the world it still exists.

Maureen Tkacik is (still) a writer who lives in New York.