Within the academy

Last week, I wrote "Cults of authority", a post that considered the extent to which online audiences had substituted the wisdom of friends for the judgement of acknowledged authorities. I noted:

"Authority is breaking out all over, and it's not a function of what your friends on Facebook say. People with experience, passion and perspective no longer have to work for TIME, or Newsweek or the New York Times to be heard. There's a forum at our fingertips. That doesn't make everyone an expert, but it does mean that the value of any magazine can be measured against a variety of information alternatives."

Speaking of art critic Robert Hughes, I went on to say, "In the current era, [he] would need TIME much less than was the case in the 1980s."

That same day, I came across a link to an hour-long talk (including questions) that NYU professor Clay Shirky gave at Cornell's 2012 Law Via the Internet Conference, which took place in early October. Shirky's presentation, "Authority in an Age of Open Access", explored the current and continuing tension between open access, which speeds the dissemination of knowledge, and perceptions of authority.

Shirky starts his talk with a small set of examples from which he discerns three patterns characteristic of open approaches:

  • Openness itself is a baseline characteristic or core value; everything else emanates
  • Openness produces both new and surprising kinds of results
  • The "serious" and the "silly" get all mixed up, and this will continue for some time

Of the second pattern, Shirky notes that the surprises are "why we are opening up access". It's not a top-down process: each project provides a way to discover value, not predict it.

Shirky claimed his third observation, that the "serious" and the "silly" co-habitate, presents the hardest hurdle for professionals to overcome. The tension between the two sets of results creates what he described as "an ad hoc feeling" that will get sorted out only over time.

Unfortunately, the professional community – what Shirky described as "the academy" – won't get the positive surprises without dealing with everything else. As Shirky says, "Any bias against mixing the serious with the silly results in a bias against using these tools as a whole." That diminishes the opportunity.

In this regard, Shirky cited MedPedia, a professional attempt to compete against Wikipedia's medical coverage. It failed, Shirky asserts, because "experts hate talking to amateurs."

If there's a lesson here, it is based in community and illustrated by Wikipedia: "Involving the general public as consumers works better when we involve the general public as producers." That's not a refutation of authority but a recognition that, in a social-media environment, authority has to learn to "go to the place where the public (community) already is."

Brian O'Leary

About Brian O'Leary

Founder and principal of Magellan Media Consulting, Brian O’Leary helps enterprises with media and publishing components capitalize on the power of content. A veteran of more than 30 years in the publishing industry and a prolific content producer himself, Brian leverages the breadth and depth of his experience to deliver innovative content solutions.