Filters in the Age of Amateurs

Has the democratization of the Internet turned us all into Kafka-esque cockroaches? Andrew Keen argues yes in his debate with David Weinberger. From Keen’s perspective, the Internet has stripped away traditional filters and given a voice to the masses — and the resulting clamor shows the worst of humanity. Instead of having gatekeepers in the form of publishers and traditional media sources to groom experts and present us with the best, the unaware Internet user is bombarded by amateurs and their trash.


Image from Books by Audra.

Weinberger takes the opposing viewpoint that the traditional media filters were flawed, and the Internet offers opportunity for everyday experts and untapped talent. He’s not alone in his assessment. Philip Tetlock created the Good Judgment Project on the premise of nonprofessionals making more accurate predictions than established experts. Tournament style, the project identifies the top two percent of “superforecasters” who don’t have any particular credentials but are amateurs with a knack for making predictions. Through Web 2.0, these individuals are now able to connect and share ideas in a way that was inconceivable just twenty years ago.

Interestingly, most of the articles that I saw about everyone being an expert through the leveling of the Internet were from about five to ten years ago. After that, it stopped being news. Now, it seems that the voice given to the masses is assumed and taken for granted. The last decade has softened it from a potential catastrophe to now just an accepted part of culture.

The twist is that the Internet is both still reliant on traditional gatekeepers and developing new types of filters. As we’ve discussed earlier in this course, the more content is created, the more significant it becomes to navigate and find the right content. Jonathan Zittrain discusses how Google and other search engines have become a de facto filter as people attempt to find material online. Zittrain talks about the tension between “neutral” search algorithms and Google’s moral responsibility to present quality, or at least accurate, sources. His talk acknowledges that most people have a knee-jerk reaction against search engines serving as a “Big Brother” and controlling what you see, but also don’t like the specific examples of overtly wrong or biased sites being at the top of search results. Even though anyone can contribute online, search engines and other tools for navigating the web still provide some basic form of filtering. The questions is how much power should we give them?

Even in light of the massive amount of user-generated content and the new ways of determining what has value, there is still a role for traditional gatekeepers to help audiences from being bombarded. This is good news for Keen who sees “professional intermediaries [as] arbiters of good taste and judgement.” For me, the example that comes to mind is Wikileaks. On one hand, it embodies the ultimate democratization of all information being released to the public online. On the other hand, nobody reads the thousands and thousands of released leaks, and the general public hears about only the top few items of interest as reported by major media outlets. The gatekeepers are still serving to prioritize the information and tell people what they care about.


Wikileaks releases unprecedented amounts of information online, but still relies on traditional filters to make sense of it. The Guardian:

The New York Times just ran the article “WikiLeaks Isn’t Whistleblowing” that offers a scathing condemnation of the Wikileaks approach to “journalism” and argues that massive data dumps are inappropriate and counterproductive by not offering context for the information or discerning what is necessary to share. Tufecki writes, “Mass data releases, like the Podesta emails, conflate things that the public has a right to know with things we have no business knowing, with a lot of material in the middle about things we may be curious about and may be of some historical interest, but should not be released in this manner.”

Putting aside the other moral and privacy questions raised by Wikileaks, it serves as an extreme example of how the Internet enables a massive amount of content from all types of sources, while we’re still figuring out the role for filtering and gatekeeping. Keen warns that if we don’t find an answer, we’ll soon see the worst of ourselves reflected back in the Internet and discover our true cockroach nature.


Tufecki, Z. (4 Nov. 2016).  Wikileaks isn’t whistleblowing. The New York Times. Retrieved from

Good Judgment. Accessed 5 Nov. 2016

Posted on November 5, 2016, in Digital, Society, Technology and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.

  1. There aren’t enough filters by any site or search engine that can filter the best authentic results. If it’s up to the user to filter out the “crap”, more than likely we’ll get a different result. Even debating the issue, I have to filter what I believe and don’t believe. There’s much too much information being created and personally, I have to go with the sites I am familiar or that someone else whom I trust believes.

    10 years ago, the filters for top page search results were in the SEO metadata…if you understood how those worked, you could get a website ranked in the first 10 results, which at the time, meant your site was more credible than others. I’m not sure if this is still valid or not since I see so much junk and cloak sites.

    What would your ideal type of filter if you could create one yourself?

    • I appreciate your point about SEO. Even if we could agree on some sort of master filter to devise, it could still be tricked or manipulated by commercial interests or anyone else with a bit of computer savvy.

      I’m intrigued by the true democracy approach of filtering. No one individual (or one search engine) can know what is best, but we can actually leverage the very “masses” that Keen despises. Vote up good sites, vote down bad sites. Sure, some negative content will still end up at the top, but it could serve as an elementary filter — though crap detecting would still certainly be necessary. I guess I kind of see it as the Yelp approach. Out of all the restaurants in my city, one way to start choosing is to see what others like. What if we did something similar online? To some extent, popularity is already baked into most search algorithms but I think the process could be more transparent and consistent across sites.

  2. Internet has stripped away traditional filters and given a voice to the masses — and the resulting clamor shows the worst of humanity

    The moment I read this sentence, my mind unfortunately cannot stop thinking about the president-elect, alternative media outlets, and Twitter.

    I’m wondering how other places around the world are coping with this, for example in China there are major social media networks that act like Facebook because Facebook isn’t allowed there. I’m curious if their method of monitoring the Internet is good or bad, based on the opposite of what we have here. In some sense, it maintains social order and balance in one of the most populous countries on the planet, but does it allow people to freely think and question what goes on within their own borders?

    Lastly, which will be a social experiment if it ever happens: North Korea’s Internet access. In a country where media is tightly controlled and Internet monitored intensely, how will they approach using the Internet today? This may feel like very foreign for them, or not if they feel privacy doesn’t matter because they didn’t have privacy to begin with. This is something to think about if the current trend that we give away our privacy, giving it to people we believe are trustworthy, in exchange for free online access to services.

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