What makes someone an expert? In the days of the internet, it seems like it’s gotten much harder to tell.
Social media and the instant expert
Social media makes it possible for anyone to have a platform, and that’s given rise to the phenomenon known as the instant expert. These self-appointed authorities on everything from federal policy to last night’s episode of This Is Us can hop on Twitter and share their hot takes in a multi-Tweet thread in the time it takes most people to make a sandwich.
If it’s a title almost anyone can claim, has the meaning of the word changed?
What did expert used to mean?
The word expert has been in use since the 1300s … long before social media was a thing.
It comes from the Latin expertus, meaning “to try” or “experience.” But in modern times, expert applies specifically to “a person who has special skills or knowledge in a particular field.” An expert is typically someone who specializes in a subject, to the extent that they are considered an authority. They’re someone who can engage with a subject from multiples angles and who has developed their knowledge over time, through a combination of research and experience. That cultivation takes time, lots of time, to develop.
But when the internet came along, it changed the way we think about expertise. Now, anyone can give their opinion on an issue (and go viral for it), anyone can start a website, anyone can post a review of a movie, restaurant, or product. That transparency has been a good thing in the sense that it’s given more people a voice, even some legitimate experts who were being crowded out of the arena. But it also poses the risk that the voices of actual, legitimate experts sometimes get crowded out instead.
Why does everyone think they’re an expert now?
An article on Glassdoor.com promises to teach anyone how to become an expert in digital media. Step one? “Find something you’re passionate about, and start blogging about it.” Supposing someone follows the steps laid out in that piece, does additional reading, or maybe even takes an online course in SEO, are they then qualified to, say, weigh in on the recent layoffs of more than 1,000 journalists by HuffPost, Buzzfeed, Gannett, and Verizon media?
It’d be elitist to say that all experts must have formal education and decades of experience. Not everyone has the privilege of being able to afford a university education, has special training, or has even been alive long enough to have had a decades-long career, and that doesn’t make their experience or knowledge less valid. There are real self-made experts who revolutionize their fields. It’s just that the internet and its armchair experts don’t always make it easy for people to know which voices can and should be trusted.
Are armchair experts a bad thing, though?
The internet has created a platform for the so-called armchair expert. This phrase describes “someone who asserts their knowledge of a subject without having a real understanding of it.” Need an example? When the trailer dropped for the Ted Bundy movie, Extremely Wicked, Shocking, Evil and Vile, it launched a huge debate on social media about how the director chose to portray Bundy.
Major news sources quickly picked up the story that the biopic had been accused of glamorizing a serial killer, which caught the attention of even more people. Now, a quick search of “Ted Bundy trailer” on Twitter yields a complex conversation about character development, film making, the portrayal of criminals by the media, and how to properly cut a movie trailer. And it’s average people, not experts, who are doing the majority of the talking.
This is not necessarily a bad thing, though. In fact, the actor Dax Shepard has actually found a unique way to capitalize on conversations between non-expert individuals that can often yield truly complex and meaningful results. He hosts a hit podcast called Armchair Expert, where he interviews celebrity guests about their own careers, personal struggles, and unique life experiences. “I will attempt to discover human ‘truths’ without any laboratory work, clinical trials or data collection,” he says of the podcast’s premise. “I will be, in the great tradition of 16th-century scientists, an Armchair Expert.”
And, armchair experts are just that: Experts who dole out the sort of information one can develop sitting in their own armchairs.
The underlying problem is misinformation
The problem comes when the exchange of ideas spreads misinformation that is not challenged because “anyone can be an expert.” As Washington state battles a huge measles outbreak at the end of January 2019, the anti-vaccination experts are out in force, including Larry Cook, a California naturopath who used the outbreak as an opportunity to fundraise to spread his anti-vaccine message to more parents.
The doctors and health officials promoting vaccination have extensive knowledge and experience in the medical field. Many of the people who are speaking out against vaccines do not. And yet, someone like Cook has over 21,000 followers on Facebook, many of whom are spreading his beliefs as fact.
In many ways, our expanding ideas about expertise have led to meaningful thought and discussion on a scale that was previously unimagined before the internet or social media. But with large platforms comes great responsibility. And the knowledge that almost anyone can claim authority on a given subject should encourage us to think critically and often about what it really means to be an expert. Maybe we all have to step up to become experts in weeding through the infinite information now at our fingertips.