Andrew Keen finds himself in the eye of a storm. The Briton, who made his living from the hi-tech boom in California's Silicon Valley, has dared to challenge the assumptions behind the internet revolution which began there and swept the world. America's massed army of bloggers do not like it one bit.
Far from his birthplace in Golders Green, north London, Keen is now being labelled the nemesis of the new worldwide web. The author and entrepreneur has stunned his adopted country with a book that accuses bloggers and other evangelists for the web of destroying culture, ruining livelihoods and threatening to make consumers of new media regress into 'digital narcissism'.
Keen, who still lives in California and works in technology, questions the euphoria surrounding the rise of citizen journalism, online communities such as MySpace and user-generated websites including online encyclopedia Wikipedia and video-sharing site YouTube.
His book The Cult of the Amateur: How Today's Internet is Killing Our Culture and Assaulting Our Economy will be published in June, but early copies have become a rallying point for dissenters with nagging doubts about the revolution of blogs, wikis, social networking sites and podcasts.
Keen has been praised for applying the brakes to what seems to have become a runaway train: the idea that anyone can use technology to gain control of the media and change the world. The San Francisco Chronicle said: 'Every good movement needs a contrarian. Web 2.0 [the new era of the internet based around user-generated content and social networks] has Andrew Keen.'
On his own blog last week, Keen noted growing support for his views: 'It's game on. Now the fun begins.' Oliver Kamm, an author and columnist, has accused bloggers of 'poisoning debate'. Blogger Kathy Sierra called for an end to the culture of online abuse after going into hiding because of death threats on other blogs. Tim O'Reilly, who coined the phrase 'Web 2.0', and Jimmy Wales, the founder of Wikipedia, proposed a code of conduct including a stipulation that people not say anything online 'that we wouldn't say in person'.
As the internet grows, so do reports of faked identities and stalking on social networks such as MySpace and Facebook, deliberately misleading entries on Wikipedia, virtual vandalism in online world Second Life and accusations that YouTube is a forum for either copyright infringement or mind-numbing videos of skateboarding cats. Critics believe the trends may have reached their logical, horrific conclusion last month when Kevin Whitrick, a father-of-two from Shropshire, hanged himself in front of his webcam watched live by members of an internet chatroom.
Internet enthusiasts have been quick to hit back. Jeff Jarvis, blogger and New York new media academic, accused Keen of being 'militantly snobbish' and 'laughingly insulting'. He added: 'In Web 2.0, Keen sees the means of flattening culture. I see the means of the people speaking.'
Rafael Imas wrote on Keen's own site: 'It's quite notorious, that you're getting fame thanks to what you criticise. You've became [sic] the proof of your own theory.'
Keen, 47, presents a dystopian vision in which people endlessly Google themselves and expertise counts for nothing; online communities gather merely to confirm their own prejudices; internet television purports to showcase amateur talent but is dominated by corporate marketing; newspapers are driven to the wall by online advertising and news sites edited at the whimsical click of a mouse; and knowledge of history and literature becomes smothered by an avalanche of blogs from self-obsessed teenagers.
At the current rate, he writes, by 2010 there will be more than 500 million blogs, 'so dizzyingly infinite that they've undermined our sense of what is true and what is false, what is real and what is imaginary'.
Speaking to The Observer from his home in Berkeley, California, Keen explained why he is sceptical of a world where anyone can broadcast to an audience of millions via a webcam in their bedroom. 'What kind of media ecosystem is best to encourage, nurture and reward talent?' he said. 'I don't think this digital narcissism is it. People want to broadcast themselves rather than listen to what others are saying.'
He continued: 'I'm nostalgic for the world I grew up in where there was a clear distinction between author and audience. I'm not attracted or impressed by the idea of collapsing that distinction. It's hard to be good at what you're doing, it requires expertise. In the same way that not everyone should be doctors or teachers or astronauts, not everyone should be an author. Most people do not have anything interesting to say.'
Keen founded the internet business Audiocafe in 1995 but says that when the dotcom bubble burst, and Audiocafe crashed, 'I woke up.' He continues to work in the hi-tech industry but warns that there is 'a new great seduction in Silicon Valley'.
Keen criticises Web 2.0 sites such as Wikipedia for making it impossible to discern the important from the trivial. 'Wikipedia is going to become the internet,' he said. 'It does away with the distinction between the distinguished and the ordinary and becomes a bizarre compendium of information. The absence of editors means there's no way of determining whether something is important, so you get a longer entry for Pamela Anderson than Emmeline Pankhurst. I want to learn about Martin Luther's epiphany, not the epiphany of the 11-year-old who blogs next door.
He also insists that YouTube, the video sharing website, is not what it appears. 'The most successful videos on YouTube tend to be advertising, not real content. The idea is that anyone can be a Spielberg or Hitchcock, but it's actually a freeway to run ads. The big companies are the only ones who win because they dress up their marketing as amateur so that it's like one big commercial break.'
He is equally damning about the most popular social networking site. He said: 'MySpace does not generate a healthy culture. People of like minds congregate to confirm what they want and I don't see that generating new talent or a far-reaching community. MySpace is not a community we should be proud of.'