Continuing on wiki-bricki differences: The role of the “expert”

I am intrigued by the regular convergence of comments on aspects of social software on to a single, critical topic: The role of the expert.
Whether I look at the “quality” comments, the lowest-common denominator ones, the “dumbing down” ones or for that matter the questions on the ontology of encyclopaedias, somewhere in my head they are all the same.
It’s all about the barriers we raise about being “qualified” to be an “expert”.

Imagine a world where venture capitalists refused to fund a start-up unless the founders all had university degrees. Know any large companies founded by college dropouts? :-)

Imagine a world where you couldn’t be a musician unless you’d done your time at the right academy or ecole. Know any talented musicians who had no formal training? :-)
History is littered with examples of prodigious talent without formal qualifications. Qualifications yes. But not formal ones. The world is richer as a result.

Too often “expertise” is associated with (a) formal qualifications (b) years of experience (c) the weight of being “published” and (d) various tests for competence and ability covering intelligence and emotion and cognitive ability and what-have-you.

These are all good indicators of expertise. Some are very good indicators of expertise. But they should not be considered necessary, or, for that matter, sufficient, conditions for being considered an expert.

Know any experts who turned down the Beatles? Know any experts who said that Fred Astaire couldn’t sing or dance? Know any experts who forecast a world market for maybe five computers? Know any that did not believe that a home computer was a good idea? Or that the internet was a passing fad?  :-)

There is no magic formula for talent or for expertise. But passion and motivation and perseverance and  access/enfranchisement go a long way. Every one of us is, or can be, a student for life, and a teacher for life. We all have a responsibility to ensure that the passion and motivation are allowed to be fruitful, and for that we need to ensure open access.

Ontologies can create unnecessary anchors and frames. Subjective elements creep in whenever we try and define expertise, particularly in the study of society. Too often definitions turn out to be dinosaur defences. There is a consilience taking place, a battle between the disciplines. Let’s not behave like the monarchs and priests and doctors and lawyers, and for that matter, IT professionals, of old, did.

As I said earlier, academic qualifications and experience and publishing history and test scores are all good indicators. In many cases they are very good indicators.

But they are not the only indicators. And should not be used to raise the wrong barriers.


Many years ago I used to watch Hill Street Blues regularly (I know, I’m sad that way….). So as we enter a phase where we’re all going to participate in, learn from, implement, iterate and adopt and iterate again the right governance standards for social software, I’d like to quote Sergeant Phil Esterhaus, played by the late Michael Conrad:

Hey, let’s be careful out there.

8 thoughts on “Continuing on wiki-bricki differences: The role of the “expert””

  1. JP, you are certainly right that we are never going to define expertise in terms of some set of necessary and sufficient conditions. This is due, at least in part, to the fact that there is no such thing as a STATE of expertise; and necessary and sufficient conditions tend to break down when we try to apply them to anything that is not static. At the end of the day, expertise is what experts DO, rather than what they HAVE; and, as a Supreme Court Justice once put it, “I’ll know it when I see it.”

    You are quite right about formal training, but you reminded me of my favorite story about Miles Davis. Unfortunately, I cannot remember who told the story, just that it was a “young pup” trying to get involved in playing jazz. The way he told the story, he ran into Miles performing in some remote location, introduced himself, and worked up the courage to ask to sit in with the group. Unfortunately (for him) Miles allowed him to play. He could follow the tune without any trouble; but, when Miles let him take a solo, he froze. Miles apparently muttered something like, “just run up and down the scales;” but the kid could not do it. So the kid slinked off with his tail between his legs; and Miles’ last words were, “Come back when you’ve learned to play your scales!”

    Personally, I believe in the play-in-my-yard rule of thumb: If you want to play in my yard, you have to respect my rules. If you do not like them, you can play in any numer of other yards. This kid lacked the “expertise” to play in Miles’ yard; and I have no idea if he ever redeemed himself in Miles’ eyes.

    Let me refer you back to my initial comment about “wiki-bricki” at:

    Note that I never said anything about expertise! The closest I got was “authority,” which is quite another beast (probably Boyg-like)! Since you are an economist, I would have expected you to take more of a cost-benefit approach to this issue, which is why I am becoming a bit of a broke record over the CUI BONO question. The good news is that the Internet has gone a long way towards finding a dialectical synthesis, supporting both the benefits of Wikipedia and those of world-view-based encyclopedias. Isn’t that just what you want out of it?

    By the way, there is no reason to apologize for watching HILL STREET BLUES. I doubt that I shall ever watch reruns with the same interest I bring to HOMICIDE; but, unless I am mistaken, it may have been the first television series to convert ethnography into drama. (Both HOMICIDE and THE CORNER were based on ethnographic documents, as you may know; and I think that Dick Wolf continues to solicit stories from professionals for his scripts.) Now that we accept drama-from-ethnography as stock-in-trade, it is no longer a big deal; but we owe a lot of thanks to HILL STREET for getting us there!

  2. Understood, Stephen. It wasn’t what you said that made me go down the “What is an expert” path. It was the way I interpreted the comments I was seeing and hearing, and not just on my blog either.

    I need to understand more about the Boyg, the only one I remember is from Peer Gynt, and I’m not sure that is what you mean. I am sure you told me in one of your comments, but it did not stick.

    I think it is particularly because I studied economics that I avoid the Cui Bono question. Make of that what you will :-)

    I have a fear that for most social sciences, we try and create measurable definitions very early and then build all these wonderful models from the definitions. Houses of cards. Empty of life yet humanly fragile.

    In the 27 years since I graduated, I have tried harder and harder not to define things too soon, just to observe and absorb. Stay model-free for as long as possible. “Let us assume that” is probably the most dangerous four-word phrase I know.

    We have enough of personal bias in everything we do, without having to make things worse by seeking to formalise and extend our biases. I suspect that is what Stephen Jay Gould meant by reification, and why most social scientists hated him for it.

  3. JP, yes, I mean Ibsen’s Boyg (and not some sub-Boyg of she-Boyg-an)! I was referring to my comment in the first wiki-bricki exchange at:

    In that comment I compared Wikipedia to the formless Boyg because Wikipedia lacks a world-view (by design). I decided to elaborate further in one of my own postings today at:

    The Boyg is best known for telling Peer Gynt to “Go roundabout;” so I riffed on the value of this advice to the Information Age.

    As far as CUI BONO goes, we all need some mysteries surrounding our character! I was taught that the “formal” translation of CUI BONO is “to whose good;” so I have tended to elide that into “who benefits,” which has more of a sense of value than the Latin word BONO. So this may be more about my abuse of Latin than about your study of economics!

    Another source of my education happened to be the composer John Cage passing on what he felt were the most important things he learned the Suzuki lectures of Zen at Columbia. John cast one of those learnings in the motto, “Try to change the world, and you’ll only make matters worse.” For my part I have a great appreciation for the Zen position that the world does what the world wants to do, regardless of what we may try to do to it through our own agency. This is just as true of the social world as it is of the physical world. (Looking back on my formative years, I now wonder how many TWILIGHT ZONE episodes were setting of stories with just that punch line in the social world!)

    I am less concerned with the extent to which making assumptions ties us down to models than I am with the extent to which keeping our assumptions tacit impedes achieving understanding in social settings. What makes five-card so interesting is that each player has only one card concealed; and all the betting takes place as more face-up cards are placed on the table. On the basis of the company I have kept in the IT world, I would say that the most dangerous phrase has five words: “Wouldn’t it be cool if!”

  4. Hi JP, very interesting post and discussion. I am reminded of:

    another Suzuki story, which I’d posted at

    and the quote on the mast-head of:

    “. . . the answers and the reasons are anyone’s guess.
    Try not to seek after the true.
    Only cease to cherish opinions. —Hui-Neng”

    I found a blog yesterday which I thought you would share worldview with, at:


  5. It seems like wikis are becoming the new “blogs” this year. It’s not entirely clear what people are thinking about when they put up Wikis, They are good for certain things — mainly collaborative efforts toward a certain goal. Also a creative business card.

  6. Too often “expertise” is associated with (a) formal qualifications (b) years of experience (c) the weight of being “published” and (d) various tests for competence and ability covering intelligence and emotion and cognitive ability and what-have-you.

    The first three of these are pretty good indicators that you are able to complete a task you have set yourself. In the VC context that is not a bad thing to look for.

    Ideas are dime-a-dozen; the ability to follow through on the idea and bring it to fruition is not.

    In the context of writing an encyclopeadia, the key difference is the deadline. Encyclopaedia Britannica has to complete the next edition in time for the print run while Wikipedia has no such restriction.

    If _you_ had a deadline to meet, wouldn’t you want to work with people who had proven their ability to deliver on time?

    While I agree in principle that everyone should be considered on his merits and have a chance to demonstrate his capabilities regardless of formal education, the fact is that there are over six billion people on the planet and I can interview them all. It is just not possible in the real world. I need shortcuts, even if it sometimes means I miss good opportunities. I have no choice. Formal qualifications is one such shortcut.

    Interestingly, in “the old days of the internet” another one, at least for technical competence, was to check the relevant usenet groups for your postings. Were you a recognized expert by the community?

    These days many google other people before they meet them. Unfortunately, Wikipedia edits do not show up in search results, whic is my only real gripe with the platform.

    Anything that lowers the barriers for you to prove that you *are* an expert, regardless of qualifications, is a Good Thing. Google, Six Apart, YouTube, and MySpace are all good.

  7. Allan, I tend to agree, but as you would expect with a few provisos. As with continual assessment in education and “daily delivery” of software in an agile, iterative manner, there are many things where the deadline can be disaggregated. People who can work with repeated and incrementalist deadlines are as valuable as those who meet Big Bang deadlines, yet society, particularly business, does not always appreciate that. In fact, we already know that megaprojects run better when decomposed into smaller deliveries with smaller teams.

    We need to get beyond the Big Bang budget/team/deadline approach. Too often the outcome is political rather than pragmatic. And many large successful institutions seem to get away with failed megareleases and significant delays, again because of the sham politics.

    I prefer to build trust by looking at the small things, not just the big.

    I also agree with you about the need to filter from the six billion, and the various indicators of expertise and reliability are good for this, But the best filter I know is “trusted domain” recommendation. Someone I know and trust says “This person is good and can deliver”; there is nothing to beat that.

    When I look at startups I tend to focus first off on how the team got together. Did they room together at university? Did they grow up together at school? Ideas may be a dime a dozen (by the way, then why not keep them FREE!) execution is worth a lot, but what I care for is sustainability. Character is shown in the hard times, not in sunshine markets.

    The key to me is to find ways of reducing search costs for takent: talent in ideas, in leadership, in executing, in teamwork and in sustaining. And sometimes we focus too much on the “formal” at the expense of other valuable insights.

    As with most things I discuss, I don’t expect digital black-and-white yes/no answers. In fact I don’t want them. I want people to understand that “mu” is an acceptable answer as well.

Let me know what you think

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.