What is an expert?

It’s a simple enough question.  “An expert is someone widely recognized as a reliable source of technique or skill whose faculty for judging or deciding rightly, justly, or wisely is accorded authority and status by their peers or the public in a specific well distinguished domain”.  Ironically, this definition comes from one of the largest institutions of amateur contributors – Wikipedia.  Keeping this in mind, it is somewhat amusing to consider whether it was an expert or a group of experts that contributed to this definition, or just someone who felt they had something to say on the topic.  

Dr Axel Bruns explains that the struggle between experts and amateurs is not a matter of hierarchy against anarchy but rather “a struggle between two different systems of representing knowledge.”  The expert paradigm aims to “develop well-behaved, universally accepted, and internally consistent understandings of the world.”  Alternatively, the amateur paradigm “allows for multiplicity, conflicts of interpretation, and the existence of a number of alternative representations of extant knowledge which are accepted only by subset of the entire community…but are based on an interpretation of available evidence.”

So which is correct?  Given that we are moving into an age where produsage is being established as a credible model for content creation, is it really that important that experts are clearly distinguished from amateurs?  Perhaps it is.  One could argue that we don’t want just anyone to be producing content and passing it off as professional opinion. 

Alternatively, Charles Leadbeater explains, “for Pro-Ams, leisure is not passive consumerism but active and participatory, it involves the deployment of publicly accredited knowledge and skills, often built up over a long career, which has involved sacrifices and frustrations.”   With this in mind, I think it is fair to say that there is a place in society for this Pro-Am culture – particularly online.  I believe the co-contributions of experts, Pro-Ams to content makes for a healthy online culture.  On that note, it is also worth remembering that through diversity of contributors comes diversity in perspective and points-of-view.  This is highly important for the development and evolution of any culture.

Often we talk about produsage as being the gateway for people to become involved in the collating and publishing of knowledge – a way for Joe Public to contribute to collective pools of intelligence.  Surely, the Pro-Am culture is simply a side effect of produsage? 

Of course there is always the question of the reliability of information.  This is an issue that often gets raised around Wikipedia.  How do we, as laypeople, know when we are looking at the work of an expert, a Pro-Am, an amateur or someone who has no idea what they are talking about?  It is not always easy ascertain the credibility of online contributors.  However, is it not commonsense to always double check information?  What’s to say that the information being published by an apparent expert is any more or less correct than that being written by a self-titled Pro-Am?

I guess at the end of the day, my point is that society and particularly online culture is more than big enough for the both of them.  There always has been and always will be a place for professionals and increasingly, Pro-Ams and amateurs are finding their place in online culture.  This change in dynamics can only serve to better the collective pool of intelligence for everyone. 


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