Monday, 29 June 2009

Web forums and expertise

One of the fascinating things about web forums of all kinds - newsgroups, blogs, newspaper comment sites like CiF - is that no matter how much you know on a topic, if you make a comment in a forum you are publishing it in a way that anybody in the world might see it, and somebody might respond from a standpoint of greater expertise than your own.

Unless you really are the world's expert on a topic, it is always possible that somebody may respond to you who knows more, and even if you are the world's expert, it is still possible that somebody else has a fact or a new way of looking at things which you haven't come across before.

For many years I have been a Microsoft MVP, with a particular expertise in Microsoft Word. When I was first made an MVP back in 1997, there was a private forum for general chat available only to MVPs and those members of staff at Microsoft responsible for running the program.

It was great fun to participate in that group, because we all knew that everybody there was extremely knowledgeable on at least one topic, and often on several. Moreover, everybody who had been made an MVP had also demonstrated that they were willing to share their knowledge freely to complete strangers. All you had to do was ask. This meant that everybody knew that everybody else there was deserving of a great deal of respect, and everbody acted accordingly. There was of course teasing and joking, but in the early days at least it was always kept within respectful bounds. At the time I joined, it was quite a select group, there were only about 300 MVPs worldwide. As the programme grew (there are now several thousand MVPs across the world) and Microsoft changed the criteria by which they awarded MVPs, this mutual respect was diluted somewhat.

In the early days it was very entertaining to see the somewhat awestruck attitude of newcomers to the group, wondering how on earth what they thought of as their relatively paltry knowledge had been enough to qualify for membership of such a group. When answering questions in the Microsoft forums, it seemed that there was an eerie efficiency about the way all the questions seemed to get answered. What the newcomers took a while to realise was that everyone answering the questions answered the ones they knew best, and between them the MVPs covered just about all the questions in the forum. The newcomer was comparing his individual knowledge with the collective knowledge of all the others.

It was my experience as an MVP which really brought home to me that however much I might know, there's always somebody around who knows something I don't and which it would probably be useful to me to learn.

In a previous career I used to sit on international standards committees for telecommunications. I made some small contribution to the standards on how GSM mobile phones and their networks work. I rapidly learned how to distinguish those who really knew their stuff from those who didn't. Those who were really expert were prepared from time to time to say "I don't know" or "I hadn't thought about that". They were so expert because they were senior people in their profession and yet they were still learning. By contrast, those who rarely or never expressed uncertainty almost always turned out to be less knowledgeable, though they strove mightily to hide the fact.

Looking at the articles on Comment is Free in the Guardian, it seems to me that quite a few of the "above the line" authors have never really cottoned on to this idea. It seems that some (I'm not going to name names - you will all have your own candidates) haven't quite managed to understand the distinction between being in authority and being an authority.

Being in authority means that you have the right (real or imagined) to be obeyed and agreed with whether in fact you are right or wrong.

Being an authority merely means that you are right most of the time on a subject. If you are an authority, you have become one by spending a lot of time learning, and changing wrong ideas into correct ones.

But quite a few authors seem to think that their opinions are especially deserving of respect merely because they have been expressed "above the line". Moreover, in its editorial policies and community standards guidelines, the Guardian editors appear also to have some difficulty with this distinction.

But the fact is that the age of this kind of deference to authority is long gone, and certainly long gone from situations where authority cannot be imposed by threats such as losing your job. It is certainly not going to work on a newspaper comment site. Articles are going to be treated solely according to whether the author can reasonably be throught of as an authority - and in these days of web searches, people who try to claim more authority and expertise than they really have can very easily be found out. Almost all the most vociferous comment threads in recent times have come about in response to a strongly-worded but inadequately researched and justified above-the-line article.

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