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The Cult of The Professional/The Long Tail of Authority

lawyers- we trust them, right?
accountants – oh we were supposed to read those filings?
teachers – sure, we all respect teachers.
doctors – professionalism in healthcare is an unalloyed good (exception proving the rule)
journalists – the New York Times always checks its sources
broadcast TV – Paris Hilton, all the time
industry analysts – ha, not professionals

and so on. If the cult of the amateur is growing, its a direct response to the failures of said professions. As budgets are repeatedly slashed (we can’t afford to actually audit those accounts!) authority dissolves and ethics collapse. The grassroots pro-am revolution didn’t create these problems, its filling a vacuum. Why are giving Keen the oxygen again? He is so clearly trying to parlay his way to a Nick Carr position.

I think Chris Anderson gets it right though. Wikipedia is where you start your research, not where you finish it. Are we witnessing a break down of authority? Yes. But we’re also witnessing an explosion of creativity and knowledge. What are professions? I would argue they are a relic of economic scarcity, in Andersen’s terms, just as much as the hit-driven music business is. The long tail of authority? Absolutely.

A solid update to the debate from Mr Carr himself, whose stance on wikipedia seems to be softening:

“What’s happening here isn’t about amateurs and professionals. George Washington was an amateur politician. Charles Darwin was an amateur scientist. Wallace Stevens was an amateur poet. Talent cannot be classified; it’s an individual trait. What’s happening here isn’t even really about expertise or its absence. The decisive factor is not how we produce intellectual works but how we consume them. When Gorman says we must cherish “the individual scholar, author, and creator of knowledge,” I can wholeheartedly agree (as most people would) and still believe that he’s missing the point. The millions of people who consult Wikipedia every day are not pursuing any kind of anti-expert or anti-scholar agenda. Their interest is practical, not ideological. They go to Wikipedia because it’s free and convenient. They know its quality and reliability are imperfect, but that’s a tradeoff they’re willing to make as they hurriedly fill their market baskets with information. It’s our mode of consumption that is going to shape our intellectual lives and even, in time, our intellects. And that mode is shifting, rapidly and inexorably, from page to web.”

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21 Responses

  1. I don’t quite agree with the conclusion that UGC and the cult of the amateur is a result of the failure of various professions. I’d say that the lowering of barriers to accomplishment in various fields is more influential. There isn’t a vacuum created so much as there is a helluva lot of existing space that can be filled. For example, as others have pointed out, the delta between an amateur photo and a professional photo isn’t large enough in many cases to warrant the cost of hiring the pro. But that’s just on the economic front. We are generally a social bunch and we like to share and be recognized for our accomplishments, whether it be an easily-shared image, bit of writing, or beta on a mountain climbing route. I think that’s what it’s about. We can therefore we are.

    Chris KJuly 3, 2007 @ 8:37 pmReply
  2. Hi James,

    I t struck me that a “long tail of authority” is an oxymoron. That authority is by definition a scarce resource and thus concentrated. Social media helps to make authority more accessible, but that’s as far as it goes.

    I’ve posted a longer response here – http://www.influencer50.com/infuse/2007/07/long-tail-of-authority.html

    Cheers,

    Duncan

  3. Sorry Duncan but i don’t know what you mean. Authority can be distributed. let me read your post for a deeper response

    jgovernorJuly 4, 2007 @ 4:15 pmReply
  4. and Chris- you make some really solid points. i actually do think there is a vacuum, but also an ever expanding white space. good pushback

    jgovernorJuly 4, 2007 @ 4:16 pmReply
  5. James, right on the money man.

    except: the following.

    doctors – professionalism in healthcare is an unalloyed good (exception proving the rule)

    They dont deserve any more credit than any one else. Your plumber is likely to have as much compassion as your doctor. Also you can get a plumber to do a house call 24/7 try that with a doctor. (stole that bit from ‘SICKO’) One more, “and policemen never lie.”

  6. Authority always is–and always has been–a finicky thing. In 1565 William Humfrey wrote a letter to William Cecil, Queen Elizabeth I’s chief adviser and soon to be Lord High Treasurer. Humfrey and Cecil were trying to find an English mining expert for a new venture in Cumbria. The subject of the letter was a particular expert [analyst] named John Chaloner:

    “I have heard that Mr. Chaloner is well learned in Georgius Agricola as touching speculation, and therefore may talk or write artificially, but lacking experienced knowledge by daily working, Georgius Agricola is a present medicine to make a heavy purse light.”

    By “Georgius Agricola,” Humfrey was referring to De Re Metallica, one of the first texts on mining. Incidentally, the first English translation appeared in 1912. The translators were a young mining engineer [analyst?] by the name of Herbert Hoover and his wife Lou Henry Hoover. Herbert, of course, would go on to become the 31st President of the United States.

    So here’s the question: what is the source of authority? Is it the ability to “talk and write” (perhaps artificially) or is it “experienced knowledge by daily working”? Or does it even matter if the goal is simply to “make a heavy purse light”?

    I pulled the quote from a book called “Power, Knowledge, and Expertise in Elizabethan England” by Eric Ash. It’s a good read for anyone who wants to understand just how old the analyst game really is.

  7. A web 2.0 project requires the participatory audience to make it work. The reaction and direction of the audience determines the path of the project. And the programmers implement the next step. You cant, program the entire concept (unless its a simple ‘hello world’ type web 2.0 app.) in one shot without the users.

    the rest at
    http://opensourcecomputer.blogspot.com/2007/07/web-20-and-30-flaws-and-visions.html

  8. Leonard- its lovely to have you participating, old friend. maybe i do give doctors too much credit – example, a midwife may know more than any “professional doctor” about helping with a birth. Also hard for doctors to keep up with everything in their field.

    George- wow, bringing some scholarship to monkchips. very interesting. “So here’s the question: what is the source of authority? Is it the ability to “talk and write” (perhaps artificially) or is it “experienced knowledge by daily working”? Or does it even matter if the goal is simply to “make a heavy purse light”?”

    right on!

    jgovernorJuly 6, 2007 @ 7:09 amReply
  9. Leonard- is your second link on the right post?

    jgovernorJuly 6, 2007 @ 7:10 amReply
  10. “As budgets are repeatedly slashed (we can’t afford to actually audit those accounts!) authority dissolves and ethics collapse” gets my ummmm of the week for totally wrong cause and effect conclusion. Where’s the evidence?

  11. James, with due respect…all of us bloggers need to periodically perform reality checks. If more than 5% of our readers are execs with budget authorities over IT, audit, advertising etc dollars – “professional” spend, I would start to agree with you. They may be wary of the professionals, but don’t misread that as they have moved to the crowds…they are learning to better monitor the professionals. And professionals did not become professionals overnight – they have relationships, duarability and surely at least some credentials. They did not become established pros without ability to morph with the times…

  12. I’m convinced that the cult of the professional will be the considered view in the future. If this mismanaged world is the result of professionals there’s a lot of room for improvement.

  13. Good to see you Dennis. Good point on cause and effect. I would argue light touch has some issues. If company executives know the quality of the oversight is low, they are more likely to cook the books. that seems like classic cause and effect to me. your industry quite recently made the case that it needed to carry out both audit and consultancy, in order to make a profit, because audit wasn’t profitable enough.

    vinnie regarding the reality check, all i said was there some vacuums to fill. Professions are here for the long haul, just as broadcast TV is, but that doesn’t mean the businesses won’t change. You also really need to expand your world view to include influencers are well as buyers, to be more complete in your analysis.

    Charles- amen

    jgovernorJuly 9, 2007 @ 7:25 amReply
  14. James – The big frauds occur where there is collusion and deliberate attempts to hide or disguise transactions. That has little to do with oversight. I suggest you’ve fallen for the perception that audit is designed to detect fraud. It is not and never has been.

    Similarly, the profession may like you to believe that audit is unprofitable but that’s not true. No question that consulting is more profitable but that’s a different issue.

    It’s still possible to legitimately consult on issues that don’t have an audit impact – eg business strategy, location, product mix, profit optimisation etc. I’d argue that tax is treading into dangerous territory.

  15. “Similarly, the profession may like you to believe that audit is unprofitable” – perhaps you could drill into that?

    jgovernorJuly 10, 2007 @ 10:44 amReply
  16. James wrote “I think Chris Anderson gets it right though. Wikipedia is where you start your research, not where you finish it.”

    I neither start nor finish my research with Wikipedia. It’s simply another resource I occasionally visit as a form of entertainment. While I would never argue that my primary resources are 100% accurate and reliable, I have found Wikipedia to be unacceptably inaccurate and unreliable.

    Carr wrote “They go to Wikipedia because it’s free and convenient. They know its quality and reliability are imperfect, but that’s a tradeoff they’re willing to make as they hurriedly fill their market baskets with information.”

    Perhaps they should bookmark The Onion as well.

  17. @jqp Its a good point. The Onion is a good source of news and information too. Certainly better than some of the crap that passes for authoritative in our culture.

    jgovernorJuly 13, 2007 @ 9:20 amReply



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Continuing the Discussion

  1. […] I first read James Governor’s post entitled The Cult of The Professional/The Long Tail of Authority I was aghast. Who could possibly assert: As budgets are repeatedly slashed (we can’t afford to […]

  2. […] Howlett has written a long and considered response on his blog to a claim made elsewhere that claimed: If the cult of the amateur is growing, it’s a direct response to the failures […]

  3. […] James at Redmonk posts on Andrew Keen’s book The Cult of the Amateur. Keen’s point is, in a nutshell, that user-generated content is inferior to that of professionals. So we take risks by using social media sources as reference points – Wikipedia and its (allegedly) dodgy content is the oft-cited example. […]