I was listening to Dr. Moira Gunn’s podcast interview of Andrew Keen – author of “The Cult of the Amateur: How Today’s Internet Is Killing Our Culture” – and was struck not only by how Keen’s arguments ate themselves, but how he failed to grasp the internet’s emerging trust economy.
Keen is the new internet contrarian. He argues that the anonymous nature of the internet makes it impossible to trust what anyone says. For example: How do you know this blog really is written by David Eaves? And who is David Eaves? Is he even real? And why should you trust him?
According to Keen, the internet’s “cult of anonymity” creates a low-trust environment rife with lies and spin. But the real problem is how this erosion of trust is spilling over and negatively impacting the credibility of “old media” institutions such as newspapers, news television, movie studies, record labels, and publishing houses. With fewer people trusting – and thus consuming – their products, the traditional “trustworthy” institutions are going out of business and leaving the public with fewer reliable news sources.
Let’s put aside the fact that the decline of deference to authority set in long before the rise of the internet and tackle Keen’s argument head on. Is there a decline of trust?
I’d argue the opposite is true. The more anonymous the internet becomes, and the more it becomes filled with lies and spin, the more its users seek to develop ways to assess credibility and honesty. While there may be lots of people saying lots of silly things anonymously, the truth is, not a lot of people are paying attention, and when they do, they aren’t ascribing it very much value. If anything the internet is spawning a new “trust economy,” one whose currency takes time to cultivate, spreads slowly, is deeply personal, and is easily lost. And who has this discerning taste for media? Generation Y (and X), possibly the most media literate generation(s) to date.
The simple fact is: Gen Yers don’t trust anyone, be it bloggers, newscasters, reporters, movie stars, etc… This is why “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart” is so popular. Contrary to popular opinion, The Daily Show doesn’t target politics or politicians – they’re simply caught in the crossfire – the real target of Stewart et al. is the media. Stewart (and his legions of Gen Y fans) love highlighting how the media – especially Keen’s venerable sources of trustworthy news – lie, spin, cheat and err all the time (and fail to report on the lying, spinning, cheating and errors of those they cover). In short, The Daily Show is about media literacy, and that’s why Gen Yers eat it up.
In contrast, what is being lost is the “blind trust” of a previous era. What Keen laments isn’t a decline in trust, but the loss of a time when people outsourced trust to an established elite who filtered the news and, assessed what was important, and decided what was true. And contrary to Keen’s assertions, those who struggle with this shift are not young people. It is rather the generation unaccustomed to the internet and who lack the media literacy is being made transparent – sometimes for the first time. I recently encountered an excellent example of this while speaking to a baby boomer (a well educated PhD to boot) who was persuaded Conrad Black was innocent because his news source from the trial was Mark Steyn (someone, almost literally, on Black’s payroll). He blindly trusted the Maclean’s brand to deliver him informed and balanced news coverage, a trust that a simple wikipedia search might have revealed as misplaced.
Is there a decline in trust? Perhaps of a type. But it is “blind trust” that is in decline. A new generation of media literates is emerging who, as Dr. Gunn termed it “know that it’s Julia Robert’s face, and someone else’s body, on the Pretty Women posters.” And this skepticism is leading them on their own quest for trust mechanisms. Ironically, it is this very fact that makes Keen’s concerns about old-media unfounded. This search for trust may kill off some established, but untrustworthy “old media” players, but it will richly reward established brands that figure out how to create a more personal relationship with their readers.