Who you gonna call? Expert or amateur?2008-06-13
I’m on a real “new media doesn’t kill old media” kick this week.
There has been a lot of interesting commentary in the wake of Encyclopaedia Britannica’s announcement last week. (Disclosure: Britannica has been a client.) In case you missed it, Britannica is broadening its collaborative features, allowing both experts and readers to contribute content without diminishing the authoritative, edited content at the core of its offerings.
One post I read has had me thinking about the issue of experts versus the crowd. Tim Bulkeley, writing in Sansblogue, says…
This reads to me dangerously like the tyranny of “experts” that every successful totalitarian regime in the 20th century ensured. Give me the “cacophony of competing and often confusing viewpoints” over the bland, expert unitary point of view - but then I believe truth is more important than “standing.”
(Note: Bulkeley cites Britannica President Jorge Cauz’s post when referencing the “cacophany of competing and often confusing viewpoints.”)
The phrase “tyranny of experts” is what I’ve been stewing over. I’m not sure when experts—people with special knowledge or ability who perform skillfully—became tyrants, absolute rulers wielding oppressive and unjust power. But enough of dictionary definitions.
In a recent episode of his excellent podcast, “Managing the Gray,” C.C. Chapman resisted being labeled a social media expert, insisting that we’re all still learning this stuff. I sent him an audio comment arguing that, because he focuses full-time on the use of social media for business, because he studies it, that he has special knowledge and ability that allows him to perform skillfully. You’re more likely to get solid, measurable results working with C.C. than with somebody who has a blog and a Facebook profile. C.C. should fly his expert flag proudly. Why else would anyone want to hire him?
Similarly, I wonder with Mr. Bulkeley would feel comfortable driving the first car over a suspension bridge designed by the cacophony of competiting and often confusing viewpoints. I bet he’d be a lot happier driving over a bridge designed by an expert.
In his wonderful new book, “Here Comes Everybody,” Clay Shirky suggests that , most of the time, “the internal consistency of professional judgment is a good thing—not only do we want high standards of education and competence, we want those standards created and enforced by others of the same professional, a structure that is almost the definition off professionalism.” Whether that professional is about to perform surgery on you or repair your television, the fact that he or she has special training increases our comfort in their ability to do the job right.
This is not to suggest that experts always have the answers. Shirky makes the point that professionals often have a worldview that gets in the way of the truth, pointing to the music industry’s professionals as an example. Today, he says, “the problems of production, reproduction, and distribution (of music) are much less serious. As a consequence, control over the media is less completely in the hands of professionals.”
Companies like Wikipedia—because of those same issues of production, reproduction, and distribution (of knowledge, in this case)—was able to ensure that experts provided content that was reviewed by other experts and subjected to rigorous editing before publication. The Net and social media have enabled anybody to publish in Wikipedia, which means control of knowledge is, as Skirky says, less completely in the hands of experts.
Which is fine. Great, in fact. In his post about Britannica’s move, Cluetrain author David Weinberger notes, “Editing and expertise add value. They slow things down and reduce the ability to scale, but Wikipedia???s process makes it possible to read an article that???s been altered, if only for a minutes, by some devilish hand. It all depends on what you???re trying to do, and collectively we???re trying to do everything.”
In other words, the fact that knowledge is less completely in the hands of experts does not mean there is no value in knowledge produced by experts. Wikipedia’s any-anonymous-source-as-contributor model has enabled the encyclopedia to grow to 2.5 million articles in English, including one (as one blogger noted) about the Klingon language. As Weinberger suggests, you won’t find such an article in Britannica because the editing-and-expertise model requires decisions about the topics on which the encyclopedia should focus its resources.
But those topics that Britannica has included are being opened to the crowd. Britannica is opening its model so that readers can contribute to the body of knowledge. It’s not a wiki; contributions are still subject to editing and will be clearly differentiated from the official content, per the screen shot below, in which reader-added content is included by clearly identified as such with the name of the contributor included:
The fact that we have both the experts-and-editors model and the everyone-can-play model is a good thing. I can get information on the Klingon language from Wikipedia and learn about neurology from Britannica. Sure, there’s a neurology section in Wikipedia, but I have no clue who wrote it. The article may have achieved neutrality—the holy grail, in Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales’ view—but that neutrality may have been brokered among a group of contributors none of whom have real expertise in the subject. Because they’re anonymous, we’ll never know. They could all have agreed to a muddled explanation of the science. And a good editor, as I’ve noted before, can only improve a document’s readability.
And, to return to the point, I just don’t see how having a person who has received special education, acquired special skills, and is able to perform professionally, becomes a tyrant by virtue of those desirable characteristics.
So which model will win? Both, I suspect; they will co-exist nicely in a world that is rarely black-and-white, either-or. (Contrary to some commonly held beliefs, Britannica is doing just fine, thanks.) Why, in some people’s minds, the world of knowledge must become entirely amateur-driven is an idea that eludes me.