I’m on the road and away from regular internet access for a few days, and I thought I would take the opportunity to post some thoughts on how notions of expertise and credibility are changing, or not changing, in the new media environment.
We often hear now that the rise of self-publishing has undermined the authority of some experts while elevating some new ones, making the political and media landscapes more complicated, but also more diverse, for readers. This is true, but it’s also important to take into account the ongoing institutionalization of blogging. This process has made some of the largest independent blogs into formal institutions with elaborate rules, organizational hierarchies, and community norms (see Daily Kos for one example), and it has brought a number of formerly independent bloggers under institutional umbrellas (such as Ezra Klein, now of the Washington Post, and Matt Yglesias, now of the Center for American Progress).
Independent voices can still make themselves heard in political debates without institutional support, and some writers can still establish credibility solely on the strength of their content, but the institutionalization of blogging means that formal credentials handed out by powerful organizations still hold tremendous sway in determining who counts as an expert. This certification process makes the world of new media fairly hierarchical.
In my area – American bloggers who write on foreign affairs – and within the blogosphere as a whole, new experts have emerged, and that’s a good thing. But many foreign affairs “experts” (old and new) claim expertise without possessing what I see as the key requirements for foreign affairs expertise, especially knowledge of local languages and local history.
This gives rise to questions that I confront in my own blogging: Can I speak credibly, for example, about places I have not visited, or peoples whose languages I don’t speak? (I usually decide to say whatever I can back up with reference to credible sources and my own background knowledge, and for the record I do not claim to be an expert on anything.*) I’m also constantly trying to evaluate the credibility of other bloggers. In some cases I have been thrilled to see independent voices taken seriously, in others saddened to realize which voices are marginalized due to perceived lack of expertise and, in a few instances, disturbed to see institutions certify bloggers whose claims to expertise I regard as dubious.
In some ways, academic bloggers have an advantage over other bloggers in the expertise competition because we can invoke our institutional credentials to legitimize our commentary. I imagine the fact that I’m in a Ph.D. program at a respected university increases many readers’ willingness to trust that I have some idea of what I’m talking about. The university’s “credentializing” power gives me a recognizable status and certifies various aspects of my public persona: I have passed language and subject matter exams, I’ve spent time overseas in the context of defined programs, and I have completed numerous courses on topics pertaining to my blogging. All this makes it easier for me to appear credible than if I were, say, a liquor store cashier with a deep interest in West Africa (which is what I was for six months in 2005). Academic bloggers also have potentially easier access to various web institutions than other bloggers might: several of the permanent bloggers at Foreign Policy are academics, for example, and with prestigious academic organizations like the Social Science Research Council now hosting blogs, academics have various venues in which to write.
Still, some academic bloggers have more influence than others, and – as with all foreign affairs bloggers – a big factor in determining influence seems to be whether bloggers receive backing from institutions, usually in the form of a think tank fellowship or a hosted blog at a news site or other institution. A blogger’s background, be it military, private sector, academic, or something else, does not necessarily mean as much as their relationship with the institutional arena as a whole.
This feature of the environment raises questions about how institutions go about credentialing experts. What viewpoints are promoted or excluded? What criteria are spoken or unspoken? Are some groups (men, for example) taken more seriously in areas like foreign affairs than other groups? The US, and the world as a whole, needs experts to help analyze and hopefully resolve problems. If the potentially democratizing power of new media has been limited by the continuing influence of institutions, we will lose out on needed expertise.
*One of my main goals with this blog is simply to fill gaps, and not to present my analyses as the final word on the topics I cover.