I am really interested in the whole idea of what makes someone “worthy” of expressing opinion on the internet, and the issue of credibility of sources. Here are a couple incidents from the past few days that bring this issue up in different contexts, but they all share the same common denominator- what makes your voice worthy of consideration?
(And let me say this before you get all upset-I think every voice not only counts, but should be heard in any way or with any medium they choose to share it.)
My friend Chris Brogan, blogged about the differences between bloggers and journalists and why we (should) care. Journalists tend to have editors and codes of ethics to follow- they have someone to answer to, where bloggers have none of this, on the whole. So who gives any of us bloggers the right to express any old opinion? And why should anyone care what we have to say?
At Educon 2.0 this past weekend, I attended a great session by Sylvia Martinez. Sylvia writes at the Gen Yes blog, all about empowering students with technology, and she presented a session on Student Voice that also brought up the question about who can speak and to what in a school setting. Should students have meaningful input on what teachers are hired in a school? Why or why not? Where is the “license” or where do the qualifications come from to talk about subjects? Do we often talk about giving students a voice in schools, but does it end up being token? Do we really trust the judgment of young people to have a say in how their education is “delivered” to them?
This topic was also featured on a recent Canadian Podcast Buffet episode, where my friend Mark Blevis talked about the hate mail he gets from time to time for his wonderful podcast, Just One More Book. Apparently, some people think he and his wife, Andrea, are not “qualified” to discuss what children’s books they like and the books their daughters enjoy, because they do not have an advanced degree in critical literature or children’s literature.
Long tail of Ideas and Filters- the economics of ideas
In the old days, to widely spread your ideas, you needed to go through a series of filters. You could get asked to speak at a conference. You could write for a magazine, or try your hand at freelance work. You could become a broadcast journalist, or write for a newspaper. You could write a book. You could teach at a college.
All of these “venues” allowed you to voice your opinion to others, but most everyone else was stuck whining to their friends at the water cooler, convinced their voice and opinion, even if unique or insightful, was unlikely to have a wide enough impact to change hearts and minds. To get access to bigger venues, you had to go through filters or gatekeepers, people who passed judgment on the quality of your work, demanded research, fact checking and the like. The gatekeepers used their own tastes and a list of rules to determine what ideas were worthy and which were not.
Now, along comes the internet. Now everyone can have an opinion and a viewpoint. Everyone can broadcast their point of view for the world to hear. It makes the world a much noiser place, but at the same time, the marketplace of good ideas has gone from a place selling a limited number of brands to Amazon.com. The marketplace for ideas now has a long tail.
This long tail for ideas means that there is an ebay-like perfect balance between a supply of ideas and the market demand for them, balanced by the search engines and your ability to tag effectively. This means your ideas will achieve an audience that is interested, especially if you are good at telling them where to find your ideas through good tagging.
Walls or Membranes?
So this gets back to the ideas put forth in the Cult of the Amateur book- is the lack of filters on the ‘net for worthiness or validity of ideas and opinions a good thing or a bad thing? Can you look at it in this black and white dichotomy way at all?
The walls that kept people from having their voice heard and valued haven’t been destroyed, so much as having become a permiable membrane. The wall has dissolved away so that it resembles those hippy, beaded curtains where you can’t always see what’s on the other side, but you know something’s there. You can’t test its form and shape until you get to the other side, but what’s over there is intriguing. In this tortured analogy, opinions and voices can be heard through this barrier, but you can’t always see and judge the people who are talking.
This in and of itself has positive points and negative ones. People are being valued for the quality of their ideas and who they are, rather than by how they look, or if they are charismatic in person. So the ideas speak for themselves, disembodied.
You can’t sum up a person just by their writing, you can’t know them completely. And unless they take pains to tell you about themselves, or you ask questions or look to find out more about them, you have no idea of the biases, training, education, experience or anything else about the voice you hear. The validity of their assertions, determining truth from fiction, becomes a rather fluid thing.
Bloggers aren’t journalists, but it doesn’t mean they don’t have anything to add to the conversation. Parents aren’t teachers, but they can have valid opinions on education schools should listen to. Kids may not have lots of experience, but they have valid opinions and voices about who they want to work with, and their voices should be heard and considered. And people have opinions all the time on the things they like and don’t like, and it’s up to you to decide if your values align enough to use them as your personal filter for information.
Worthiness is no longer a checklist to go over. It’s a wide open, personal filter, and remember, you are always free to make the choice to stop reading, stop engaging and walk away, just like with any other message in your life. Including this one.