In a recent episode of the 538 podcast, Nate Silver, responding to a listener question about how voter turnout figures into his political forecasting model, points out that voter turnout is a concern for the pollsters and that they have methods for figuring how likely voter turnout should be represented in polling data. His work, he points out, is the aggregation of polling data. Silver argues that it is not a particularly useful conversation for him to critique the relationship between voter turnout and polling because that’s sophisticated work, and it’s not his area of expertise.
His comments remind me of another recent incident in the gaming industry. Jessica Price, a game developer for Guild Wars 2, was fired after a Twitter exchange with a fan. The fan suggested some “easy” fixes for a particular game design problem Price analyzed in a series of tweets, and Price called him out for mansplaining her own field to her.
Each of these moments spotlights the relationship between expertise and new media. The interactive, democratized world of new media encourages more conversation between “experts” in various fields and gives people a platform to both respond and be responded to publically in ways that really weren’t possible previously, unless you were the proud owner of a printing press and some number of avenues for distribution. Plenty of people write about the democratizing benefits of new media, and plenty of people excoriate this brave new world for its annihilation of civility.
New media allows information to operate like a wildfire, propagating and spreading without any authorities capable to containing that information, outside of a few firetrucks from traditional media outlets. There are pros and cons to information wildfires; on the one hand, the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson would not have been widespread news without Twitter. On the other hand, conspiracy theories peddled by all kinds of bad faith actors are also possible because of new media outlets.
What is the role of expertise in the world of new media then? Silver is a rare mitigating voice, an expert himself unwilling to comment on a technical detail that he hasn’t fully studied. Price’s story is more common; her expertise was questioned by a person who had no sense of his own ignorance on the topic. In the public discourse, it was not the fan’s ignorance that was punished but Price’s lack of civility. This story highlights not only the way expertise is understood in new media but also the ways in which expertise is gendered or otherwise privileged.
This tendency toward interactivity flattens, in many ways, the voices of experts. We all have Twitter accounts, so all of our voices are equally valid. Or at least people who have similar numbers of followers should be similarly valued. And this drowning out of expert voices is completely understandable. What role have experts traditionally played? Sources that grant authority to some voices have always privileged the already-powerful. Universities have long been the province of white men, white men still comprise the overwhelming majority of faculty at US universities, and the voices of people of color and women remain silenced. Education, though one way of establishing expertise, also requires membership in the dominant discourse.
With new media, there is a new class of public intellectual. Podcasters, bloggers, and YouTubers, most of whom are under-credentialed by the academy, are fully credentialed in terms of the number of followers they toll on various new media platforms. Upon my baptism in the waters of LeftTube, my initial observation was the way in which many LeftTubers engage with the writings and rhetoric of the alt-right. In traditional media, the ideas of the alt-right are rarely engaged, except as side notes after Charlottesville or a self-professed incel murderer. LeftTubers, however, are experts by the same method of popularity as the alt-right figures with whom they engage. The stakes of that discourse are important because, if expertise is not a factor, how then shall we value ideas?
In the 2004 film The Incredibles, the villain enacts a scheme to provide technology to all people in order to negate the need for superheroes. “Because when everyone is super,” he argues, “no one will be.” He’s wrong, though, and not just villainously so. His definition of superpowers does not actually differ from that the heroes against whom he rails. In fact, equally wrong are the Incredibles themselves and other proponents of superheroes, who long for the “good old days” when superheroes could just do whatever they wanted. It’s clear why the traditionally powerful might long for days of unchecked authority, but the benefits for the rest of us, born without the superpowers of cishet white maleness and/or inherited wealth, are murkier.
Democratization of ideas and information doesn’t have to look like widespread flattening. We don’t have to value all ideas in the same way or not at all. The opportunity afforded us by new media is the ability to bypass traditional barriers to knowledge, barriers that excluded marginalized and oppressed voices of all varieties. This new system doesn’t require the erection of new barriers; instead, we have the opportunity to imagine a new ideology that values the expertises each person has by disconnecting knowledge from capital.
Coming soon: Is New Media Liberatory? Part II: Disconnecting Knowledge from Capital