Is Online Participatory Culture Doing Away With Experts?



  1. A person with special knowledge or ability who performs skillfully
  2. Adept: having or showing knowledge and skill and aptitude
  3. An expert is someone widely recognized as a reliable source of knowledge, technique, or skill whose judgment is accorded authority and status by the public or their peers

Online participatory culture has demanded society to rethink what it means to be “an expert”. Some of you might be familiar with Andrew Keen’s book, The Cult of the Amateur, which addressed (like an arrogant teenage boy, chalk full of angst) the effect of participatory culture on how we perceive information in the current prevailing inter(con)ne(c)t(ed) world. Although I disagree with much of what Keen says in his book, he’s dead on concerning one particular point: how will the concept of an expert change as information is distilled into communal forms (for example, wikipedia)?

The public and governmental regulatory bodies rely heavily on experts to tell them how to go about their daily routines. They’ll tell you smoking tobacco or pot will kill you, or kill others around you, or kill no one at all. They know how much mercury is too much mercury, how many glasses of milk to drink a day, and what your poop should look like. Pragmatically speaking, experts are pretty useful.

Interestingly, experts have become the ultimate purveyors of truth in public discourse, sustaining our need to be sure of the future. Wielding logic and rational thought, experts make all your persistent fears go away. Of course, we lap it up, our minds placated, our burnt tongues soothed as experts fill our communal dish with another quart of creamy information. Mmm.

The problem is, there are good experts and bad experts, which implies that bad experts are hardly reputable experts, right? Lets not get ahead of ourselves: what is an expert, anyways?

As the above three definitions suggest, skills and knowledge are, without a doubt, necessary attributes of any good expert. I once saw a doctor performing brain surgery on television, and while tinkering inside the patient’s brain he said, “Ask me to fix a brain, I’ll do it. Ask me to build a birdhouse, I wouldn’t know where to start.”

However, the third definition provides a crucial premise onto which I will further define what I think (and I’d like to know what you think) an expert should encompass: reliability. I will define an expert as “being reliable” to mean the ability of an expert to provide rational predictions of future states or events, based on the wholly inclusive historical knowledge base of that area of study.

My definition requires an expert to be as much of an historian as they are familiar with the currently valued information and practice in their respective field. Experts must prod and poke through the development of ideas, theory, and practice in their field; experts must have the capacity to contextualize information within this framework to be reliable in predicting future states or events. Therefore, a biologist, physicist, carpenter, or mechanic could be an expert, as long as they fulfill the above requirements.

Then, who isn’t an expert?

My definition appears to encompass all arenas of knowledge, so how can it possibly tend to sifting out the gems from the silt? Luckily, my historical requirement for an expert nicely weeds out non-experts. For example, an expert “creation scientist” is by its very nature not an expert, as doing so ignores the developmental steps towards modern day science (i.e. as close as possible to an unbiased reference point of reality). The same rationale can be used to argue against any number of mystical experts, from psychics to astrologists.

Alright, nuff’ said. Now, back to the task at hand: how will our notion of “expert” change in the coming years as the way we get information changes? Have wiki’s replaced expert opinion and society’s need for them?

Immediately, one may claim that communal forms of information are less likely to be reliable, and therefore we assume a priori that participatory users are not experts. Intuitively, this seems true, since anyone can edit and post content in such communities. However, according to a study carried out by the scientific journal Nature in 2005, on average there is only 1 more error per science article on Wikipedia (4 per article) than the online edition of Encyclopedia Britannica (3 per article). Of all the errors, only 8 were fundamental misinterpretations of the facts (four in both sources), while the others required only minor revisions.

Interestingly, the information cited by many Wikipedia science articles is primarily from sources originally published by experts. Lets take something I’m familiar with: thermohaline circulation in the ocean. Scrolling down to the referred works (7 of them) and footnotes (5 of them), they include two textbooks, four peer reviewed journal articles, two UN websites, and a blog post at RealClimate. The same is true for the Biological Pump (8 peer reviewed journal articles), or the Endosymbiotic Theory of the evolution of plant and animal cells (a mix of textbook and peer reviewed material).

So, the question outlined above, namely, “How will participatory media change the way we view expert opinion?” appears to hardly be a question at all. The more apt question is, “Should we place more or less value on knowledge gained from participatory media than we do on expert opinion?” Or, is there reason to trust information straight from the horses mouth less than from a complete stranger regurgitating textbook information written by the horse’s hoof?

I think it to be fairly obvious that, “Yes, experts are a necessary part of participatory culture – but no, they will never be replaced, for the participant culture itself relies on them to verify the information and ideas they share.”

What do you think? Is the way information is being shared (as outlined above) more worrisome than the way individuals interact with the medium itself? I think the latter question is intuitively bothersome for many, since we have no a priori reason to trust the information we get from communal sources because we know its possible for it to be incorrect.

That said, Wikipedia could started a project where once an expert reviews an article, it becomes immortalized – locked away from busy little wiki editors, editing wars, flaming, spamming, and their ilk into its then current form. Maybe then, current “experts” won’t be as hesitant to endorse it.

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Dave Semeniuk spends hours locked up in his office, thinking about the role the oceans play in controlling global climate, and unique ways of studying it. He'd also like to shamelessly plug his art practice: