Where did all these experts come from?
I remember years ago listening to a publisher friend of my parents lamenting the invention of the modern word processor. He went on to elaborate what he saw as the major issue: the barrier to entry was now far too low to prevent bad writers from creating and sending manuscripts to every publishing house they could find. Add this to the list of things that our children will not understand; the concept of having to correct typing errors by applying liquid paper to the page will sound to them about one level more advanced than chiseling our cuneiform into clay tablets. The word processor allowed far more people to write rapidly, and reproduce endless copies of those documents at a low cost.
We’re facing a similar issue now in media; the rise of social media tools has lowered the barrier to entry for broadcasting your voice to the masses, and this is not necessarily a good thing. First, let me say that I am not against social media, nor do I deny the power of giving a voice to the people. The elections in Iran proved the value of social media in empowering people who previously did not have a voice, I am not disputing this.
What I am saying however, is that social media has allowed people to define their status without earning their status. This issue goes far beyond groups of facebook users suddenly calling themselves social media experts, to a complete collapse of our traditional methods of searching for and identifying experts or authorities.
In the past (“the past” being 2 or more years ago) when a person held a position of authority, there was a clear understanding about how they got there. A professor of Entrepreneurship with a Ph.D. followed a known path of study, published articles in peer reviewed journals, and defended their thesis before a panel of people that had followed that same path before. Without getting stuck in the mentality of doing something because that’s the way it has always been done, the reasoning behind going through all of these steps is more than just tradition, it is a method for establishing personal authority in a particular topic or course of study.
I have started my own company; I learned a lot about the mechanical and the personal effects of being an entrepreneur; does that mean, based on my experience, that I now teach a class on entrepreneurship? Should I start a consulting firm, and use my experience starting one company to advise others on how they should run their own firms? Yeah, probably not. I remember visiting the office of my grad school entrepreneurship professor. In addition to the degrees on the wall, he also had shelves of books that he had written (I remember he was working on his 26th when I visited his office) as well as displays showing all of the products produced by him and his partners (He invented the Crest SpinBrush, among other things). Suffice it to say, he had the credibility to back up the advice that he gave to us.
What is happening today in the social media space is a breakdown of these traditional avenues of expertise recognition; we have not yet established the social media equivalent of the peer-reviewed journal or the Ph.D. , as a result, some people are gaming the system, using social media tools to create a following or maybe execute one “big win” and then parlaying that into an implied expertise in whatever field it is that they are in.
In no way am I implying that social media is a bad thing or that the net impact of this increased communication is negative. As with many technological advancements, it is possible to for first movers to exploit the advantages given to them. What I am saying is that this breakdown of authority warrants increased scrutiny before we accept the work of these “experts”. There are plenty of people in positions of authority blogging, twittering or otherwise using social media, and there are even more narcissists speaking from a position of self appointed authority. The crazy guy in the street corner now has the ability to publish his writing for the world to see; that doesn’t make him any less nonsensical.