From the Boidem - 
an occasional column on computers and information technologies in everyday life

May 35, 2007*: Just who do you think you are?

Though the specific impetus for this particular column is recent, the subject itself is, I suppose, among the oldest on the internet. Ordinarily, anonymity on the internet is understood as meaning that nobody has to know that we're not really experts in our chosen fields and that instead we're just adding our own two cents (if that) to what is already considered by many a very small-change network. That same anonymity, however, can also be the basis for not being recognized as the experts that we may perhaps be.

Posting to a web site was never particularly difficult, and with the advance of time and technology it's become easier and easier. We can, perhaps, relate to the web as a veritable invitation to amateurs to assume an aura of authority by making their opinions (and sometimes even their knowledge) available online. Pretty much since the web first sprang into our experience, examples of situations such as this have been fruitful and have multiplied. As long ago as a decade elementary school pupils had been hired to design web sites for businesses in their community - until they showed up at a meeting of a company that hired them. Once their age was "found out", the school district forbid them to contract out their work. Not much later, a marketer who communicated with her entrepreneurial bosses via email realized that the reason she couldn't reach them during the day was because those bosses were high school students who had to keep their laptops closed in their lockers during school hours, and thus couldn't answer their mail. And of course there are numerous examples of kids who have offered expert advice on a plethora of issues, ranging from technical topics to health issues - both on their own web sites and on discussion forums. And since nobody knew (nor, for that matter, cared) that these were "only" kids, their opinions were frequently accepted. What was important was the advice itself, rather than the credentials of who was offerrng it.

So nobody really knows that we're dogs ... or at least amateurs. But nobody knows that we're experts, either. To the same extent that kids can pass themselves off as experts (and I see no reason why they shouldn't at least try), experts can easily be overlooked or disregarded. There are numerous examples of Wikipedia entries submitted by experts and/or authorities in their fields (or people who at least know what they're talking about) being "corrected" by people who aren't, or don't. Jaron Lanier writes that whenever he would edit out the reference to his being a film director in his Wikipedia biography, someone would inevitably log in to edit it back in. Since few of us are authorities on a wide range of subjects, we tend not to be aware of how often this sort of thing takes place.

These musings started coalescing into this column after a friend contacted me with a complaint about my Hebrew web site. That web site houses, among other items, articles that I've written about the internet and education. This friend, who teaches various aspects of that subject, including information literacy, on the college level, told me that his students often access these articles (probably getting to them via Google searches) and then try to determine whether they can safely quote me as an authority. The problem is that my site contains very little information about me that would help them identify me as an authority worthy of being quoted. Of course it was possible to read between the lines on that site and in that manner, with a relatively limited number of clicks, find enough information about me to reach the conclusion that I have passable credentials. But it wasn't a cut and dried affair - there were no clearly marked links to an email address, and even my full name wasn't displayed anywhere obvious.

Was this a logical way to establish myself as an authority? Certainly not. Did it show that I wasn't an authority? It didn't do that either. Frankly, I'm quite unsure as to what readers, or simply people who stumbled onto those articles, might have assumed. I readily admit that a legitimate assumption might have been that, since no credentials were clearly displayed, this guy wasn't an authority (though why, particularly in Hebrew where the readership is rather limited, would someone go to all the trouble of posting all those articles?). Strangely, however, that didn't seem to be the case. Instead the assumption seemed to be that I'd designed my web site in a dysfunctional manner. And a corollary to that conclusion was that I was making life difficult for my friend's students, and for any other readers who might find me, by presenting such important information seemingly so clandestinely.

But there was (trust me, there was) method in the madness. I've been clicking on web sites for well over a decade. I've been an observer of the various ways in which the educational community has related to those sites, from the early days of asking whether material on the web was accurate, or trustworthy, or even believable, through the various attempts to instruct web users on how to determine the accuracy or the efficacy of materials they might encounter on the web. Programs of that sort can still be found, but it's a fair guess that most of these are now quite a few years old (at the least). Though numerous institutions still host tutorials of this sort, few of these seem to have undergone much updating since first being posted - years ago. This isn't, however, because whoever prepared them reached the conclusion that it's an impossible task, but instead because the best of these have realized that other than a couple of distinctly web-related pointers here or there, the steps involved in trying to determine the accuracy of a web page are no different than those involved in establishing the accuracy of other types of sources.

An additional aspect is at work here as well. In my own writing I strive not to write the obvious. Of course just what "the obvious "entails is open to question or at least interpretation. Boidem columns, because they clearly reflect a personal take on matters, are almost by definition non-obvious. This, however, isn't necessarily true for articles prepared for publication. Articles of this sort (and these are the articles which tend to be accessed by my friend's students) attempt to be objective (or at least to appear to be objective). They even attempt to present their arguments in a logical, even linear, manner. Though they're far from being pristine examples of academic writing they're at least partially grounded in quotation and public experience. As such, as opposed to Boidem columns, much of their content can be considered "obvious".

When I write I hope to convince others (if they read me), but hopefully I do so not by any outside authority that's been bestowed on me, but because what I write makes sense to my readers. Certainly there's such a thing as acquired authority. In its essence, that "authority" finds expression as the willingness of readers simply to continue reading. If they've read what you've written in the past and decided that you haven't made too much of a fool of yourself until now, then perhaps, illogical as it may seem, they'll conclude that what you're now writing still deserves serious consideration. We grant this sort of authority every day in just about everything we do. We do this when, sight unseen, we buy a book or a disk by an author or musician whose work we've enjoyed in the past. We do it when we accept a friend's suggestion for a tasty restaurant. It happens pretty much all the time. Frankly, it's quite unclear to me why we feel as comfortable as we do accepting authority of this sort in so many aspects of our daily lives, but somehow hesitate to do so when we find material on the web that we want to use in a bibliography. Information literacy isn't only knowing how to run a search on Google. It's being able to trust our intuitions about what we find. Those intuitions are built up through the accumulation of more and more experience - experience that's continually refined, and ultimately converted into a set of rules that's useful for us. Though my readers apparently ask who I am, it seems to me that the real question they should be asking is who they are, whether they trust themselves as readers. If and when readers learn to reflect (and rely) on their own information skills, the question of my own credentials becomes secondary, or perhaps even inconsequential.

That's it for this edition. Reactions and suggestions can be sent to:

Jay Hurvitz

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