Some Scott Karps are better than others

Scott Karp at Publishing 2.0 is getting on my nerves again. Scott, who works at the company that publishes The Atlantic Monthly, removed that fact from his “About Me” page because he didn’t want all that “old media” baggage to colour the way people perceived his blog. And maybe it’s a good thing he did, because I can’t help but think of it when I read some of the stuff he writes — which is almost always very thoughtful and well-considered, and quite often wrong.

Take his latest post for example, which is entitled Audiences Are Not Created Equal. As he often does, Scott is talking about the reams of information on the Web, and how people need filters and so on. He talks about Matt McAlister’s post on “What will be the next PageRank” and so on. So far, so good. Then he gets to his main point, which is that someone — traditional media, he suggests — needs to find a way of getting the RIGHT people to filter things. He says:

There’s an egalitarian sensibility among Web 2.0 and participatory media evangelists that says any participation is good participation. But as anyone who works in media ought to know, all audiences are not created equal.

Scott then goes on to talk about how and are useless because they are so random, and does what many people who make this argument do, which is to pick a random list of headlines from each and make fun of them (I actually found more than half the links in each of his lists to be interesting, which I think is a pretty good signal-to-noise ratio, but I digress). In other words, the people who filter through stuff and post it to Digg are morons, and what we really need are people who read The Atlantic Monthly and/or agree with Nick Carr to filter things for us.

Scott says he often gets “accused of being elitist” and then we see why — because he is elitist. As he puts it:

“The collective intelligence of some groups of people is more intelligent than that of other groups. Why? Because on certain topics, and in general, some people are smarter than others.”

As I often say, being an elitist is great provided you are one of the elite, but it kind of sucks for everyone else. And yes, obviously some people are better basketball players than others, although what that has to do with filtering information on the web is beyond me. What Scott’s post boils down to is that he wants the New York Times and other old media to do a better job of getting their readers to filter things, so that he doesn’t have to read all the crap the morons on are always posting. I would much rather have the best of both. We in the old media need to get past the idea that we are always smarter than our audience.


I seem to have made Scott Karp mad, as you can see if you read the comments on this post. He thinks I’ve missed the point, and been disrespectful to boot – please read my apology after his comment if you have time. Pete Cashmore of has also responded with some thoughts both here in the comments section and on his own blog in this post, and I think he and I agree that Scott is still trying to argue that old media should define audiences somehow, instead of allowing them to define themselves. But I could be wrong (it has been known to happen). Scott has updated his post to respond to Pete’s comments, but so far no response to mine. I guess I’ve been banished from the discussion 🙂

16 thoughts on “Some Scott Karps are better than others

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  4. Mathew, I had intended to put the following disclaimer on my blog, but until now it has not been necessary:

    I removed the name of my employer because I was too often being cited as the company’s public representative, which I’m not — it’s not a secret where I work, but it’s my hope that the views expressed on Publishing 2.0 can stand or fall entirely on their own, and not as a function of my resume. Whatever risk I assume in publishing my view should not be shared by my employer, who has no association with this site. While it may be useful to know that I work in publishing, if you’re inclined to agree or disagree with me, you should do so regardless of what my day job is. (I’m no a lawyer, so that’s my best shot at a disclaimer.)

    So thank you, Mathew, for unnecessarily dragging the Atlantic into this. You of all people should have understood and respected the liabilities involved. Your failing to do so has lead me to lose a lot of respect for you. What’s to be gained, really, in beating people with a stick — even Dave Winer? You can debate without getting personal.

    And it’s a shame, because it did little to help you in completely misconstruing what I said (but I can always depend on you for that).

    You are a master of selective reading and quoting, so let me add in a key piece of what I wrote that doesn’t conveniently fit with your rant:

    “Or if that’s too “highbrowâ€? and “elitist,â€? I’d say that USA Today’s audience can probably generate more value through participation than the random users of some Web 2.0 apps. This is more true as you get more niche — I’d trust BusinessWeek readers on business and Vogue readers on fashion. And I’d trust the readers of New Media brands, including blogs, that have established a clearly defined audience by providing them with clearly defined value.”

    My point, which you entirely missed, was about having a clearly DEFINED audience, which Digg and Reddit do not have. It’s about knowing who your audience is and how to create value for them. Each of the individual headlines on Digg or Reddit may be very interesting and worthwhile, but TOGETHER they have no coherence, and THAT’S what I was making fun of.

    I also said “To be clear, I’m not saying that the people who RUN the New York Times, USA Today, BusinessWeek, Vogue or any Old Media brands are smarter — my critique points to a failing of BOTH Old Media and New Media.”

    So although it doesn’t suit the purposes of your superficial rants to acknowledge it, I think Old Media is plenty wrong (although perhaps not as wrong as you are) and I have no reason to defend it.

    So please, get off your egalitarian high-horse — before someone knocks you off with a stick.

  5. Scott:

    Thanks for the comment — although there’s a little more talk of beatings with sticks and so on than I might like 🙂 If I’m doing anything with a stick, it would more likely be prodding or poking, never beating. And that goes for DaveWiner too.

    As for the Atlantic, I didn’t drag them into it to embarrass them or you, but because I thought your position there colours your thoughts about the Web and therefore I felt it was relevant. Maybe you should mention that you work for a magazine publisher, but avoid saying which one.

    Anyway, I don’t want to tell you what to do, and if it irritates you that I mentioned the Atlantic — which it clearly does — then I apologize. And if it causes any problems with your boss, just tell him I take full responsibility.

    I didn’t miss your point, by the way — the one about defining your audience. I totally got that. But why do you have to define your audience at all? That’s an old media view if I ever heard one. Why not let them define themselves, and then ask them what they want? Or try to find common threads in the zeitgeist that comes out of Digg and Reddit, and build an audience that way. In any case, you don’t get to define them I don’t think – they are more likely to define you, and the result might surprise you.

    In any case Scott, I don’t want this to get personal, and so if I offended you unnecessarily I would like to say I’m sorry. I enjoy the chance to debate these kinds of things, and I would hate to lose you as a sparring partner. As for the egalitarian high-horse, that would be quite an animal — almost an oxymoron, even. I would be happy to ride one if you could find one.


  6. Firstly, my egalitarian horse is neither higher nor lower than that of the next man – as far as I’m concerned, egalitarian horses are all created equal. 🙂

    I think Mathew hints at what I was getting at with this post and this one – it’s not the job of old media companies to define the audience, because the audience defines itself. And being “smart” isn’t the same thing as choosing the news stories that people will be interested in. Digg users don’t know much about the stories they vote on, but they do have an understanding of what will appeal to other Digg users.

    Still, when creating a website it helps if you define your audience in *some* way. Digg defined itself as a tech news site, but the current user-base largely consists of a certain type of technology enthusiast (ie. it’s different from the Memeorandum set). You can start out by trying to define an audience, but that audience will evolve of its own accord.

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  8. Thanks for the comment, Pete. I think you and I agree that audiences can define themselves, they don’t need old media companies to do it for them — and I think Scott still sees it as the job of a media company to create a niche and then market to it, and perhaps he’s right. He hasn’t responded to my email or my comment — although I notice he responded to your post in the meantime — so I think maybe he’s still mad at me. I guess I shouldn’t have brought up the whole Atlantic thing. My bad 🙂

  9. Mathew, I wasn’t offended, just annoyed because I’m trying to shield my employer from any association with my online activities — and any potential liability. If you read my About, I do clearly state:

    “Publishing 2.0 is published by Scott Karp, who is also the Managing Director of Research and Strategy for a publisher of print and online publications.”

    I think my place of employment is clouding your perception of me more than it is my thinking. And yes I’m interested in exploring how Old Media can avoid extinction. But that doesn’t make me anti-New Media or an Old Media apologist.

    In any case, I let me state clearly that I think the future of media is up for grabs — Old Media has its advantages and New Media has its advantages (one of the main points of my post), but I don’t think it has to be a zero sum game.

    I’m all for empowering people to define their own niches, but the theme I keep coming back to is that people need do need HELP. You can’t just say to people — here’s the power, now go figure it out. Life is difficult and complicated, and while I don’t want someone to figure it out for me and shove it down my throat, I could also use some guidance from smart people.

    I think there needs to be the right balance between hierarchy and empowerment — everything I read (including here) seems to suggest that it needs to needs to be one or the other.

    But I just don’t subscribe to the black and white theory of the universe. There needs to be a BALANCE.

    As an aside, I find it fascinating what a lightning rod the term “smart” can be, even among smart people 🙂

  10. Thanks for the comments, Scott. And hey — if I can’t get you to agree with me, at least I can get a laugh 🙂

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