Ian Burrell: The internet Antichrist who is converting online evangelists

Media Studies:
  • @iburrell

Andrew Keen, the British-born and self-styled "Antichrist of Silicon Valley", has a problem. The internet evangelists who once heckled and abused him for his heretical questioning of the accepted wisdom of the digital future are now starting to agree with him. Keen is a strange concoction. Based in Santa Rosa, California, amid the cream of the world's technological innovators he has long been a lone voice, warning of the potentially corrosive effects of the internet.

In his 2007 book The Cult of the Amateur he claimed that a medium that had created opportunities for everyone to become film-makers and writers and to obtain all the music they wanted for nothing was ruining our culture by undermining the industries that support professionally-produced material. He became a hate figure. "I was accused of being an elitist and a reactionary," Keen told me over tea in a London hotel last week.

His latest tome, Digital Vertigo, highlights what he sees as the insidious nature of social media, which he believes is actually destabilising personal relationships rather than strengthening them. Suddenly he has found some unlikely supporters.

"I made a speech in Belgrade about three weeks ago to an audience of real hardcore internet activists. It was packed and I thought when I give this speech they are going to eat me alive. But afterwards there was this massive applause and hundreds of people came up to me and said 'I agree with what you said'."

In spite of his unfashionable views, Keen gets listened to because he talks with the authority of a Silicon Valley maven. His supporters include Sir Martin Sorrell, a supreme enthusiast for digital advertising, who says Digital Vertigo might be one of the few books that in 20 years time "will be seen to have got it right".

The current furore around the Facebook initial public offer (IPO) has come at a good time for Keen. He claims that Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg was never really trusted by the more altruistic internet activists. "Zuckerberg is disliked and the company is disliked by more and more people who care about the internet and see it as a vehicle for freedom and justice and improving the world. There are very few people that think Facebook is improving the world and it's not just this stock [market] thing."

The growth of social media is "the most wrenching cultural transformation since the Industrial Revolution", says Keen. In his book we find him back in Britain, eating grilled kippers, drinking bitter and returning to his alma mater of University College London, where he gazes on the cadaver of Jeremy Bentham preserved in its glass case, according to the wishes of the great 19th-century social reformer. "Like the corpse locked in his transparent tomb, we are all now on permanent exhibition," reflects Keen.

He is an avid consumer of news products and believes newspaper businesses must charge for their content. He admires The New York Times' soft paywall that allows him full access to digital content for his $25 a month subscription to the Sunday newspaper. He is also a fan of the Wall Street Journal's more restrictive model. "[Rupert] Murdoch gets a lot of flak for not knowing what's going on but I think he's done a pretty good job with the Wall Street Journal. They have adapted as well as anybody to digital."

And he notes with amusement that Facebook co-founder Chris Hughes has recently bought the classic American publication The New Republic (founded 1914).

"It's very ironic that the people who are supposed to be revolutionaries in media – who have made a lot of money out of rather fly-by-night schemes like Facebook – then reinvest their capital in buying old media products."

Brooke says digital-first and free approach 'unsustainable'

Heather Brooke, the freedom of information campaigner who helped uncover the MPs' expenses scandal, has emerged as an unlikely critic of The Guardian's strategy of being digital-first and free.

"I'm very much against what The Guardian is doing and the reason I say that is because originally I was probably a fan, but now I just see it as a fail," the author of The Revolution Will Be Digitised told an audience in Sydney. "It's an unsustainable model to give away news for free, because news is not free it's expensive," she said.

"It's expensive both in terms of resources of the journalist's time and also legal risk, getting sued." She noted that "The Guardian is haemorrhaging cash at a colossal rate". Such sentiments would find favour with News International executive Richard Caseby who, according to an article on The Guardian's financial problems in GQ magazine, has sent an obscene message and toilet paper to his Fleet Street rival. The loo roll, says Guardian investigations editor David Leigh, came with a note saying "This is for [Guardian columnist] Marina Hyde to wipe her a*** with".

The GQ piece, headlined "Could the newspaper that broke hacking scandal be the next to close?", features editor Alan Rusbridger defending the paper's loss-making approach, underwritten by the Scott Trust. "We're not a pampered trustafarian," he claims.

Feisty Fox has already been unearthed

Fleet Street Fox, the feisty Twitter personality and blogger, will publish her "diaries" in August. Her publisher explains that the writer of these "acerbic, hilarious and honest" insights into the national press uses the pseudonym "Lilly Miles" because "if she were named the chances are she would be sacked".

Yet the Fox – Susie Boniface – has been outed several times and no longer has her den in Fleet Street, having taken redundancy from the Sunday Mirror two months ago.