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M/C Journal, Vol. 11, No. 4 (2008) - 'publish'

Andrew Keen Vs the Emos: Youth, Publishing, and Transliteracy

  • Volume 11
  • Issue 4
  • August 2008
  • 'publish'

This article is a comparison of two remarkably different takes on a single subject, namely the shifting meaning of the word ‘publishing’ brought about by the changes in literacy habits related to Web 2.0. One the one hand, we have Andrew Keen’s much lambasted 2007 book The Cult of the Amateur, which is essentially an attempt to defend traditional gatekeeper models of cultural production by denigrating online, user-generated content. The second is Spin journalist Andy Greenwald’s Nothing Feels Good, focusing on the Emo subculture of the early 2000s and its reliance on Web 2.0 as an integral medium for communication and the accumulation of subcultural capital. What I want to suggest in this article is that these two books, with their contrasting readings of Web 2.0, both tell us something specific about what the word “publishing” means and how it is currently undergoing a significant change brought about by a radical adaptation of literacy practices. What I think both books also do is give us an insight into how those changes are being interpreted, to be rejected on the one hand and applauded on the other.

Both books have their faults. Keen’s work can fairly easily be passed off as a sort of cantankerous reminiscence for the legitimacy of an earlier era of publishing, and Greenwald’s Emos have, like all teen subcultures, changed somewhat. Yet what both books portray is an attempt to digest how Web 2.0 has altered perceptions of what constitutes legitimate speaking positions and how that is reflected in the literacy practices that shape the relationships among authors, readers, and the channels through which they interact. Their primary difference is a disparity in the value they place on Web 2.0’s amplification of the Internet’s use as a social and communicative medium. Greenwald embraces it as the facilitator of an open-access dialogue, whereas Keen sees it as a direct threat to other, more traditional, gatekeeper genres.

Accordingly, Keen begins his book with a lament that Web 2.0’s “democratization” of media is “undermining truth, souring civic discourse and belittling expertise, experience, and talent … it is threatening the very future of our cultural institutions” (15). He continues,

Today’s editors, technicians, and cultural gatekeepers—the experts across an array of fields—are necessary to help us to sift through what’s important and what’s not, what is credible from what is unreliable, what is worth spending our time on as opposed to the white noise that can be safely ignored. (45)

As examples of the “white noise,” he lists some of the core features of Web 2.0—blogs, MySpace, YouTube and Facebook. The notable similarity between all of these is that their content is user generated and, accordingly, comes from the position of the personal, rather than from a gatekeeper. In terms of their readership, this presents a fundamental shift in an understanding of authenticated speaking positions, one which Keen suggests underwrites reliability by removing the presence of certifiable expertise. He looks at Web 2.0 and sees a mass of low grade, personal content overwhelming traditional benchmarks of quality and accountability. His definition of “publishing” is essentially one in which a few, carefully groomed producers express work seen as relevant to the wider community. The relationship between reader and writer is primarily one sided, mediated by a gatekeeper and rests on the assumption by all involved that the producer has the legitimacy to speak to a large, and largely silent, readership.

Greenwald, by contrast, looks at the same genres and comes to a remarkably different and far more positive conclusion. He focuses heavily on the lively message boards of the social networking site Makeoutclub, the shift to a long tail marketing style by key Emo record labels such as Vagrant and Drive-Thru Records and, in particular, the widespread use of LiveJournal (www.livejournal.com) by suburban, Emo fixated teenagers. Of this he writes:

The language is inflated, coded as ‘adult’ and ‘poetic’, which often translates into affected, stilted and forced. But if one can accept that, there’s a sweet vulnerability to it. The world of LiveJournal is an enclosed circuit where everyone has agreed to check their cynicism at the sign on screen; it’s a pulsing, swoony realm of inflated emotions, expectations and dialogue. (287)

He specifically notes that one cannot read mediums like LiveJournal in the same style as their more traditional counterparts. There is a necessity to adopt a reading style conducive to a dialogue devoid of conventional quality controls. It is also, he notes, a heavily interconnected, inherently social medium:

LiveJournals represent the truest and easiest realization of the essential teenage (and artistic) tenet of the importance of a ‘room of one’s own’, and yet the framework of the website is enough to make each individual room interconnected into a mosaic of richly felt lives. (288)

Where Keen sees Web 2.0 as a shift way from established cultural forums, Greenwald sees it as an interconnected conversation. His definition of publishing is more fluid, founded on a belief not in the authenticity of a single, validated voice but on the legitimacy of interaction and communication entirely devoid of any gatekeepers.

Central to understanding the difference between Greenwald and Keen is the issue or whether or not we accept the legitimacy of personal voices and how we evaluate the kind of reading practices involved in interpreting them. In this respect, Greenwald’s reference to “a room of one’s own” is telling. When Virginia Woolf wrote A Room of One’s Own in 1929, Web 2.0 wasn’t even a consideration, but her work dealt with a similar subject matter, detailing the key role the novel genre played in legitimising women’s voices precisely because it was “young enough to be soft in [their] hands” (74). What would eventually emerge from Woolf’s work was the field of feminist literary criticism, which hit its stride in the mid-eighties. In terms of its understanding of the power relations inherent to cultural production, particularly as they relate to gatekeeping, it’s a rich academic tradition notably lacking in the writing on Web 2.0. For example, Celia Lury’s essay “Reading the Self,” written more than ten years before the popularisation of the internet, looks specifically at the way in which authoritative speaking positions gain their legitimacy not just through the words on the page but through the entire relationships among author, genre, channels of distribution, and readership. She argues that, “to write is to enter into a relationship with a community of readers, and various forms of writing are seen to involve and imply, at any particular time, various forms of relationship” (102). She continues,

so far as text is clearly written/read within a particular genre, it can be seen to rest upon a more or less specific set of social relations. It also means that ‘textual relations’—that is, formal techniques, reading strategies and so on—are not held separate from ‘non-textual relations’—such as methods of cultural production and modes of distribution—and that the latter can be seen to help construct ‘literary value.’ (102)

The implication is that an appropriation of legitimised speaking positions isn’t done purely by overthrowing or contesting an established system of ‘quality’ but by developing a unique relationship between author, genre, and readership. Textual and non-textual practices blur together to create literary environments and cultural space. The term “publishing” is at the heart of these relationships, describing the literacies required to interpret particular voices and forms of communication.

Yet, as Lury writes, literacy habits can vary. Participation in dialogue-driven, user-generated mediums is utterly different from conventional, gatekeeper-driven ones, yet the two can easily co-exist. For instance, reading last year’s Man Booker prize-winner doesn’t stop one from reading, or even writing, blogs. One can enact numerous literacy practices, move between discourses and inhabit varied relationships between genre, reader, and writer. However, with the rise of Web 2.0 a whole range of literacies that used to be defined as “private sphere” or “everyday literacies,” everything from personal conversations and correspondence to book clubs and fanzines, have become far, far more public. In the past these dialogue-based channels of communication have never been in a position where they could be defined as “publishing.” Web 2.0 changes that, moving previously private sphere communication into online public space in a very obvious way.

Keen dismisses this shift as a wall of white noise, but Greenwald does something equally interesting. To a large extent, his positive treatment of Web 2.0’s “affected, stilted and forced” user-generated content is validated by his focus on a “Youth” subculture, namely Emo. Indeed, he heavily links the impact of youthful subcultural practices with the internet, writing that

Teenage life has always been about self-creation, and its inflated emotions and high stakes have always existed in a grossly accelerated bubble of hypertime. The internet is the most teenage of media because it too exists in this hypertime of limitless limited moments and constant reinvention. If emo is the soundtrack to hypertime, then the web is its greatest vehicle, the secret tunnel out of the locked bedroom and dead-eyed judgmental scenes of youth. (277)

In this light, we accept the voices of his Emo subjects because, underneath their low-quality writing, they produce a “sweet vulnerability” and a “dialogue,” which provides them with a “secret tunnel” out of the loneliness of their bedrooms or unsupportive geographical communities.

It’s a theme that hints at the degree to which discussions of Web 2.0 are often heavily connected to arguments about generationalism, framed by the field of youth studies and accordingly end up being mined for what Tara Brabazon calls “spectacular youth subcultures” (23). We see some core examples of this in some of the quasi-academic writing on the subject of “Youth.” For example, in his 2005 book XYZ: The New Rules of Generational Warfare, Michael Grose declares Generation Y as “post-literate”:

Like their baby boomer parents and generation X before them, generation Ys get their information from a range of sources that include the written and spoken word. Magazines and books are in, but visual communication is more important for this cohort than their parents. They live in a globalised, visual world where images rather than words are universal communication media. The Internet has heightened the use of symbols as a direct communicator. (95)

Given the Internet is overwhelmingly a textual medium, it’s hard to tell exactly what Grose’s point is other than to express his confusion over new literacy practices. In a similar vein and in a similar style, Rebecca Huntley writes in her book The World According to Y,

In the Y world, a mobile phone is not merely a phone. It is, as described by demographer Bernard Salt, “a personal accessory, a personal communications device and a personal entertainment centre.” It’s a device for work and play, flirtation and sex, friendship and family. For Yers, their phone symbolizes freedom and flexibility. More than that, your mobile phone symbolizes you. (16)

Like Keen, Grose and Huntley are trying to understand a shift in publishing and media that has produced new literacy practices. Unlike Keen, Grose and Huntley pin the change on young people and, like Greenwald, they turn a series of new literacy practices into something akin to what Dick Hebdige called “conspicuous consumption” (103). It’s a term he linked to his definition of bricolage as the production of “implicitly coherent, though explicitly bewildering, systems of connection between things which perfectly equip their users to ‘think’ their own world” (103). Thus, young people are differentiated from the rest of the population by their supposedly unique consumption of “symbols” and mobile phones, into which they read their own cryptic meanings and develop their own generational language.

Greenwald shows this methodology in action, with the Emo use of things like LiveJournal, Makeoutclub and other bastions of Web 2.0 joining their record collections, ubiquitous sweeping fringes and penchant for accessorised outfits as part of the conspicuous consumption inherent to understandings of youth subculture. The same theme is reflected in Michel de Certeau’s term “tactics” or, more common amongst those studying Web 2.0, Henry Jenkins’s notion of “poaching”. The idea is that people, specifically young people, appropriate particular forms of cultural literacy to redefine themselves and add a sense of value to their voices. De Certeau’s definition of tactics, as a method of resistance “which cannot count on a ‘proper’ (a spatial or institutional localization), nor thus on a borderline distinguishing the other as a visible totality” (489), is a prime example of how Web 2.0 is being understood. Young people, Emo or not, engage in a consumption of the Internet, poaching the tools of production to redefine the value of their voices in a style completely acceptable to the neo-Marxist, Birmingham school understanding of youth and subculture as a combination producing a sense of resistance.

It’s a narrative highly compatible within the fields of cultural and media studies, which, despite major shifts brought about by people like Ken Gelder, Sarah Thornton, Keith Kahn-Harris and the aforementioned Tara Brabazon, still look heavily for patterns of politicised consumption. The problem, as I think Keen inadvertently suggests, is that the Internet isn’t just about young people and their habits as consumers. It’s about what the word “publishing” actually means and how we think about the interaction among writers, readers, and the avenues through which they interact. The idea that we can pass off the redefinition of literacy practices brought about by Web 2.0 as a subcultural youth phenomena is an easy way of bypassing wider cultural shifts onto a token demographic. It presents Web 2.0 as an issue of “Youth” resisting the hegemony of traditional gatekeepers, which is effectively what Greenwald does. Yet such an approach has a very short shelf life. It’s a little like claiming the telephone or the television set were “youth genres.” The uptake of new technologies will inadvertently impact differently on those who grew up with them as compared to those who grew up without them. Yet ultimately changes in literacy habits are much larger than a generationalist framework can really express, particularly given the first generation of “digital natives” are now in their thirties.

There’s a lot of things wrong with Andrew Keen’s book but one thing he does do well is ground the debate about Web 2.0 back to issues of legitimate speaking positions and publishing. That said, he also significantly simplifies those issues when he claims the problem is purely about the decline of traditional gatekeeper models. Responding to Keen’s criticism of him, Creative Commons founder Lawrence Lessig writes,

I think it is a great thing when amateurs create, even if the thing they create is not as great as what the professional creates. I want my kids to write. But that doesn’t mean that I’ll stop reading Hemingway and read only what they write. What Keen misses is the value to a culture that comes from developing the capacity to create—independent of the quality created. That doesn’t mean we should not criticize works created badly (such as, for example, Keen’s book…). But it does mean you’re missing the point if you simply compare the average blog to the NY times (Lessig).

What Lessig expresses here is the different, but not mutually exclusive, literacy practices involved in the word “publishing.” Publishing a blog is very different to publishing a newspaper and the way readers react to both will change as they move in and out the differing discursive spaces each occupies. In a recent collaborative paper by Sue Thomas, Chris Joseph, Jess Laccetti, Bruce Mason, Simon Mills, Simon Perril, and Kate Pullinger, they describe this capacity to move across different reading and writing styles as “transliteracy.” They define the term as “the ability to read, write and interact across a range of platforms, tools and media from signing and orality through handwriting, print, TV, radio and film, to digital social networks” (Thomas et al.). It’s a term that perfectly describes the capacity to move fluidly across discursive environments.

Here we return to Greenwald’s use of a framework of youth and subculture. While I have criticised the Birminghamesque fixation on a homogeneous “Youth” demographic enacting resistance through conspicuous consumption, there is good reason to use existing subculture studies methodology as a means of understanding how transliteracies play out in everyday life. David Chaney remarks,

the idea of subculture is redundant because the type of investment that the notion of subculture labelled is becoming more general, and therefore the varieties of modes of symbolization and involvement are more common in everyday life. (37)

I think the increasing commonality of subcultural practices in everyday life actually makes the idea more relevant, not less. It does, however, make it much harder to pin things on “spectacular youth subcultures.” Yet the focus on “everyday life” is important here, shifting our understanding of “subculture” to the types of literacies played out within localised, personal networks and experiences. As de Certeau has argued, the practice of everyday life is an issue of “a way of thinking invested in a way of acting, an art of combination which cannot be dissociated from an art of using” (Certeau 486). This is as true for our literacy practices as anything else. Whether we choose to label those practices subcultural or not, our ability to interpret, take part in and react to different communicative forums is clearly fundamental to our understanding of the world around us, regardless of our age.

Sarah Thornton suggests a useful alternate definition of subculture when she talks about subcultural capital:

Subcultural capital is the linchpin of an alternative hierarchy in which the aces of age, gender, sexuality and race are all employed in order to keep the determinations of class, income and occupation at bay (105).

This is an understanding that avoids easy narratives of young people and their consumption of Web 2.0 by recognising the complexity with which people’s literacy habits, in the cultural sense, connect to their active participation in the production of meaning. Subcultural capital implies that the framework through which individuals read, interpret, and shift between discursive environments, personalising and building links across the strata of cultural production, is acted out at the local and personal level, rather than purely through the relationship between a producing gatekeeper and a passive, consuming readership. If we recognise the ability for readers to connect multiple mediums, to shift between reading and writing practices, and to seamlessly interpret and digest markedly different assumptions about legitimate speaking voices across genres, our understanding of what it means to “publish” ceases to be an issue of generationalism or conventional mediums being washed away by the digital era.

The issue we see in both Keen and Greenwald is an attempt to digest the way Web 2.0 has forced the concept of “publishing” to take on a multiplicity of meanings, played out by individual readers, and imbued with their own unique and interwoven textual and cultural literacy habits. It’s not only Emos who publish livejournals, and it’s incredibly naive to assume gatekeepers have ever really held a monopoly on all aspects of cultural production. What the rise of Web 2.0 has done is simply to bring everyday, private sphere dialogue driven literacies into the public sphere in a very obvious way. The kind of discourses once passed off as resistant youth subcultures are now being shown as common place. Keen is right to suggest that this will continue to impact, sometimes negatively, on traditional gatekeepers. Yet the change is inevitable. As our reading and writing practices alter around new genres, our understandings of what constitutes legitimate fields of publishing will also change.



Brabazon, Tara. From Revolution to Revelation. Aldershot: Ashgate, 2005.

de Certeau, Michel. “Practice of Every Day Life.” Cultural Theory and Popular Culture. Ed. John Story. London: Prentice Hall, 1998. 483–94.

Chaney, David. “Fragmented Culture and Subcultures.” After Subculture. Ed. Andy Bennett and Keith Kahn-Harris. Houndsmill: Palgrave McMillian, 2004. 36–48.

Greenwald, Andy. Nothing Feels Good: Punk Rock, Teenagers and Emo. New York: St Martin’s Griffin, 2003.

Grose, Michael. XYZ: The New Rules of Generational Warfare. Sydney: Random House, 2005.

Hebdige, Dick. Subculture: The Meaning of Style. London: Methuen and Co Ltd, 1979.

Huntley, Rebecca. The World According to Y. Crows Nest: Allen and Unwin, 2006.

Keen, Andrew. The Cult of the Amateur. London: Nicholas Brealey Publishing, 2007.

Lessig, Lawrence. “Keen’s ‘The Cult of the Amateur’: BRILLIANT!” Lessig May 31, 2007. Aug. 19 2008 ‹http://www.lessig.org/blog/2007/05/keens_the_cult_of_the_amateur.html>.

Lury, Celia. “Reading the Self: Autobiography, Gender and the Institution of the Literary.” Off-Centre: Feminism and Cultural Studies. Ed. Sarah. Franklin, Celia Lury, and Jackie Stacey. Hammersmith: HarperCollinsAcademic, 1991. 97–108.

Thomas, Sue, Chris Joseph, Jess Laccetti, Bruce Mason, Simon Mills, Simon Perril, and Kate Pullinger. “Transliteracy: Crossing Divides.” First Monday 12.12. (2007). Apr. 1 2008 ‹http://www.uic.edu/htbin/cgiwrap/bin/ojs/index.php/fm/article/view/2060/1908>.

Thornton, Sarah. Club Cultures: Music, Media and Subcultural Capital. Oxford: Polity Press, 1995.

Woolf, Virginia. A Room of One’s Own. Frogmore: Triad/Panther Press, 1977.