This change in the way we think about expertise stems from a few sources. The first is a weakened trust in institutions or companies or government. Some contend this started in the 1980s and 90s, though, as measured by the Edelman Trust Barometer, trust took a serious dip in 2007. The second is due to what Net brainiacs call “disintermediation,” or the disappearance, due to the Web, of the grinning middlemen who previously connected one institution to another. In the case of journalism, a perfect example of “disintermediation” is that experts used to be mediated and selected by journalists, but now experts themselves may well present their expertise online, like Orac, or the twenty-three-year-old hurricane blogger Brendan Loy, a self-described “weather nerd” in Indiana who predicted Hurricane Katrina days before it occurred, yet another “expert” emerging from the crowd without the usual vetting or filtering.
This is a two-sided thing. On one hand, it’s great that an expert can go straight to the people. On the other, if that expert is an autism-vaccine connector or a climate-skeptic blogger like Anthony Watts, whose claims have been disputed by scientists, it’s pretty clear that mediation is needed. But who should the mediator be?
Dave Winer, a visiting scholar at New York University’s Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute, would say no one. He has argued that experts and amateurs with expert-level knowledge should go directly to readers rather than relying on journalists as mediators. He calls it “Sources Go Direct.” (So direct that Winer dislikes being quoted by journalists, as an expert or otherwise.) “The sources who no longer trust the journos, or aren’t being called by them . . . are going direct,” he has written. “This is what replaces journalism.” I see Winer’s logic. If people want expert opinions on film, they might well look to the Internet Movie Database’s flock of amateur reviewers. These IMDBers are true film buffs. Their often expansive, obsessive reviews should be part of a new definition of expertise, a place beyond the ordered (and American-centered) ornamental gardens of New Yorker reviews.
I spoke to some people who are trying to make sense of this dilemma—call them experts on expertise or institutional authorities on the end of institutionalized authority—and they were helpful, as experts often are. Most of these people were interested in making more space for a kind of expert-journalist who improves upon our previous incarnation as jolly generalist. (For an insightful essay on the need for journalists to report their way toward their own expertise, click through to Brent Cunningham’s “Re-thinking Objectivity” from the CJR archives and fork over the $1.99 to download it.)
I imagined that many of the up-to-the-minute digital journo types I knew would cast a cold eye on experts and the need for journalists as intermediaries, choosing Web-enabled amateurs over the authorities that have so damaged themselves in the last decade—the experts championing failing wars, for instance. Nicco Mele, who once ran Howard Dean’s Internet campaign and is a lecturer at Harvard’s Kennedy School, sounded happy when he said that “classic institutions are fading as arbiters of expert reputations” and Google, Twitter, and Facebook are taking their place.
But Dave Cohn, the founder of Spot.us, had a more complicated take. A Web community may revolt against traditional experts and anoint its own, based on a different criterion of expertise, he says. But this Web community can be even more capricious in how long a person gets to be a community expert. It can “redact a positive opinion of you. It’s sort of like getting fired,” says Cohn.