Saturday, April 26, 2008

"Fan" is short for "Fanatic"

A subtext of the current trial of the fan who published a Harry Potter-related book is that there's a difference between being an admirer of something and doing it professionally.

The line has always been blurry; the distinction between amateur and professional can be an ambiguous one, a situation made more so by the Internet. But back in the days of my music promotion-guy
career, I was stunned when I discovered that many (if not most) musicians started out as fans or collectors. Same thing with sales, promo and a&r people. Some were now (like me) working music that wasn't exactly their favorite stuff. For example, I respected The Carpenters, Styx and Pablo Cruise as professionals, but wasn't interested in them as a fan, though I later came to like some of their music. But professionalism transcends being a fan. It has to.

To be a writer, you must be a reader. And as a reader, you may have favorite authors, genres, subjects, styles etc. If you emulate any of it, the danger is that it could become a pastiche, rather than something original. Nothing wrong with that, if it's intended, but if not, watch out for the critics — and the lawyers.

But fans — amateurs — are increasingly performing the tasks of professionals, thanks to the enabling powers of the Internet. The results are mixed, but the reaction of the status quo is predictable. In the case of journalism, the "mainstream media" disparages it, though a growing portion embraces it as a means of survival. (More about this in a future post.)

It's interesting, though, that the booming Internet-enabled democratization of news and commentary is so frequently disparaged and ridiculed. Two books in the past year astrongly criticized the phenomenon and were themselves
disparaged and ridiculed — not only by bloggers but by print journalists, as well.

Andrew Keen's "The Cult of the Amateur" and Lee Siegel's "Against the Machine: Being Human in the Age of the Electronic Mob" were broad attempts to paint citizen-journalists, bloggers, fans and just about everyone else using the Internet to present facts or express opinions as a mob.

Larry Lessig, a Stanford Law professor, derisively "lauded" Keen for exposing the speciousness of his argument by exhibiting all the qualities he accused the Net's "amateurs" of: "sloppiness, error and ignorance."

Siegel is another case. Just Google his name and the term "sock puppet," and you'll see. (It's hard to criticize something when you don't have clean hands to begin with, though contrition and redemption are possible.)

It's hardly revelatory to say that some people write and post things without knowing very much about the subject — or knowing less than a professional. But being a fan of something doesn't automatically devalue what they say, either, or make it less authoritative.

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