Who you gonna call? Expert or amateur?

Posted on June 13, 2008 8:56 am by | New Media | Social Media | Wikis

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:

Shel Holtz

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. 


06/13/08 | 11 Comments | Who you gonna call? Expert or amateur?



  • 1.I wonder if there's a reason one of Wikipedia's cofounders launched Citizendium to be more "reliable"? :)


    As you said, there's merit in both approaches. I haven't read his writing, but I hope Tim Bulkeley isn't asserting his own form in tyranny in suggesting the free-wheeling Wikipedia approach is the only way to go.

    Mike Keliher | June 2008 | St. Paul, MN

  • 2.I'm glad to see Britannica finally moving toward user contributions. As a former customer, I used the physical Encyclopedias in the same way that I now use Wikipedia, as a first point of reference when I was looking for information. I don't recall ever reading an article in EB that struck me as muddled, however. I've run across several in Wikipedia that I should have edited.

    And you can't be an expert in anything without pointing to a string of failures. Amateurs just haven't failed enough. Tyranny comes from not wanting to try new things, or a fear of failure.

    Britt | June 2008

  • 3.My interpretation of tyranny of "experts" hinges on the quotes around experts. Perhaps the implication is that there are those who have been ordained as experts by people with a motive other than expertise (eg: politics, money, power).

    One litmus test for expertise is whether or not someone is capable of shaded distinction, rather than black or white opinion. The former indicates an investment of thought and debate; the later is demagoguery.

    All organizations have a natural interest in protecting and elevating the demagogues who serve it's purpose. Perhaps those are the tyrannical "experts" Bulkeley refers to?

    If that is the case, then I definitely agree with him -- I would rather engage in a cacophony of discussion than listen to a shill, regardless of the rhetoric.

    Peat Bakke | June 2008 | Portland, OR

  • 4.A crowd will likely be wiser than a single expert, but a crowd of experts will trump a crowd of just plain folk any day of the week.

    In my mind, the tyranny occurs in how the label of 'expert' is granted and not with the expert themselves.

    Say the Loyal Order of Bottle Cap Collectors begins a campaign to assert membership in their organization as the only measure of bottle cap expertise. Arguments surrounding bottlecaps are begun with an appeal to authority, "What do you know, you're not a life-long member of LOoBCC?" "Sure, you say that bottle cap is worth a nickel, but what does LOoBCC's guide say it's worth?" "I don't want to hire a Director of Bottle Caps unless they have a membership in LOoBCC."

    Expertise at that point ceases to be about an individual's knowledge, experience and wisdom on a subject but is reduced to the whims of the tyranny allowing membership.

    Shel, you've pointed out in the past how DMOZ played gatekeeper to the way information was to be presented. In a sense that was a tyranny of 'experts'.

    Wikipedia is pretty open, but the politics and back channel dealings of the site editors could quite conceivably lead to a tyranny of sorts.

    Rob Clark | June 2008

  • 5.Great points, Rob, but my argument about DMOZ was that these were NOT experts asserting themselves as gatekeeper. The owner of a business category was an environmental activist, which is how he was able to slot business URLs into a category of "allegedly unethical companies."

    Maybe we need a new label: The tyranny of gatekeepers.

    Shel Holtz | June 2008 | Concord, CA

  • 6.So, Peat, would you be the first to drive across that bridge? For what it's worth, a grammar expert might inform you that "who serve it's purpose" should be "who serve its purpose" -- without the apostrophe. Is that demagoguery? As Rob points out, the problem doesn't reside with the experts themselves, but with institutions that leverage expertise to their own ends.

    Shel Holtz | June 2008 | Concord, CA

  • 7.It's about time somebody stood up for experts! Thanks, Shel.

    Like you, I think I'll take a "both sides of the fence" position. Just like the Senate protects small states from the tyranny of the majority in the House, or the way Congress, the President and the judiciary buttress against each other in a system of checks and balances, the natural tension between experts and masses is a good thing. We need both...and new media give the masses a voice they've been lacking for a long time. Still, the role of educated, experienced, vetted professionals is as vital as vox populi.

    Of course, I'm an idiot, so I'd probably drive across that rickety bridge...just because nobody else will.

    Scott Hepburn | June 2008

  • 8.Gee, Scott, I thought the House protected the people from the tyranny of the land-owning class. ;-)

    Shel Holtz | June 2008 | Concord, CA

  • 9.... haha, no, I wouldn't classify apostrophe correction as demagoguery, unless it was portrayed in absolute terms, as how it should always be. That's debatable.

    Of course, there are exceptions to the black/white test. It's (cough) hard to paint things like basic mathematics in shades of gray.

    Regardless, it takes two to tango. Sometimes institutions make the experts, sometimes experts make the institution, and tyranny can come from either direction.

    I think the "tyranny of gatekeepers" phrase is more accurate. Cheers. :)

    Peat Bakke | June 2008 | Portland, OR

  • 10.Expert: To use or not to use? I recently sought feedback on the use of this label with a LinkedIn question:


    The answers were eye-opening for me and very welcome. The consensus? The label of expert must be earned, rather than touted. The masses (Thanks, Scott Hepburn, for saying the ?masses? instead of ?ordinary? or ?regular? or ?little? people, all of which I hear all too often now during these political times?Grrrr.), customers, and peers must grant (yes, as you said, Rob Clark) the label of expert.

    Also, Encyclopaedia Britannica (EB) cannot possibly have a relationship with every expert, editor, and scholar in the world. Therefore, there may be experts, editors, and scholars who are unaffiliated with EB who ultimately contribute from this new ?reader/user? community.

    Examples: I know an editor who is a prodigy who never worked for a major publishing house and didn?t have a degree in journalism. I also know a Labor Union expert who has never been published or given a speech on the topic.

    But I?d bet on both in any head-to-head match with EB?s ?experts.? See how easily the quotes have a tendency to wrap around that label? Hmmmm?

    Indeed, ?expert? is in the eye of the beholder. Just like a company?s brand is developed by public perception, so, too, is a person?s label of ?expert.?

    If there?s one thing that the Social Sphere has taught me, it is this: There are many ?experts? out there ? including those who are humble, fly under the radar, and/or do not work professionally in the field in which they are an expert.

    What do you think about ?specialist?? I?d hire one and heed one any day of the week? ;-)

    JP | June 2008

  • 11.That's an interesting set of answers you got, Jaculynn. I'd be willing to bet most of them satisfy the definition of an expert as "a person with special knowledge or ability who performs skillfully;" they're just being humble.

    To be sure, Britannica does not have a claim on all the experts in the world, nor do they claim to. One of the reasons they've opened the process is to get more experts -- along with the masses -- involved in the contribution/collaboration of content.

    While it may be true for some, I would question most who don't work in a field and claim to be an expert -- at least, under the definition that requires them to "perform skillfully." I know an expert guitarist who works in the association world. On the other hand, I know several people who claim to be experts in a field in which they don't work, when in fact they're just enthusiasts.

    Shel Holtz | June 2008 | Concord, CA

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