Authority on the web: Être et Avoir

This is what the Oxford English Dictionary says about the word ‘authority’:

noun 1 the power or right to give orders and enforce obedience. 2 a person or organization having official power. 3 recognized knowledge or expertise. 4 an authoritative person or book.

ORIGIN Old French autorite, from Latin auctor ‘originator’

In a BBC interview, Sir Tim Berners-Lee, the father of the-web-as-we-know-it, expressed concern over how the web was being used to spread disinformation. Not an untimely concern, especially in the week after the Large Hadron Collider was fired and despite CERN’s attempts to communicate clearly about the experiment, fear-mongering was rampant. Sir Tim announced the formation of the World Wide Web Foundation which, amongst its goals to make the web truly global and open, also aims to find ways to help people determine the trustworthiness and reliability of information on websites.

The preceding means that Chris Brogan’s post on how the web defines authority is well-timed. He starts with a reference to the familiar adage about how on the web, nobody knows you are a dog. He then sets out a working definition of authority as “a blog or website or even an individual person and their credibility, knowledge, and reputation on the Web” and presents an overview of some of the tools that can be used to determine a person’s authority on the web. These include, amongst others, Google, Technorati, Alexa and a great new tool called Website Grader. These may also include social networks on websites such as Twitter and LinkedIn. He then asks some pertinent questions about if this is a numbers game, how organisations may begin checking on who’s who on the web and more importantly, if you would trust someone you knew solely from the web.

All good questions indeed.

‘Authority’ on the web is difficult to establish – and even more difficult to maintain – for several reasons.

One needs to be consistently authoritative in one’s views; this suggests that it is, über alles, a game of ‘content‘ or ‘substance‘.

One needs not just to be substantive but regularly substantive; one needs to be not a passive observer and a reporter, but a participant-observer who is not afraid to share knowledge, raise questions, initiate and promote debate, and do all of this gracefully. One’s opinions need to demonstrate one’s ability to ask questions, make connections, dig data and substantiate one’s points of view. This takes up a lot of time and if someone is consistently investing the time, then it can be seen as a proxy measure of that person’s commitment and potentially, his or her authority. This is the ‘être’ aspect of authority.

Further, authority is nothing without a “fan following”, which means that it is also a ‘numbers‘ or ‘marketing/ PR‘ game – but with an additional qualification. This is the ‘avoir’ aspect of authority.

Being present and being active on the web are preconditions to creating this “fan following” and it does not come easily or swiftly. This numbers game can get tricky because it spawns some odd behaviour, which an anthropologist would find interesting. For instance, not too long ago, some people on Twitter referred to themselves as “weblebrities” which tickles my ironic sense of humour but may put clients off. Earlier in the summer, Twitter had a problem and the cries of ‘Dude, where are my followers?’ from otherwise perfectly reasonable people was a tad embarrassing.

The additional qualification is the ‘quality‘ of the interaction, which is trickier to judge for a casual observer. One needs to set one’s own criteria to assess. For instance, I recently culled my ‘following’ list on Twitter to retain only those people who meet at least two of these four criteria: ‘informative’, ‘interesting’, ‘dialectical’, ‘original’. The list rapidly went down but each person is now meaningful for my professional purposes. Such personalisation of preferences on the web also means that Sir Tim’s Foundation will have a hard task setting widely-agreed guidelines for determining reliability.

The ‘numbers’ game is trickier, if one is paying attention to the quality of it. The open dialogue that is possible in the web’s 2.0 avatar means that things chop and change quickly, and even if broad criteria remain the same, quality content may come from unexpected quarters. Remaining engaged, and remaining fluid and flexible are both crucial.

In the end, however, it does not matter how much of an authority one is, nobody likes to deal with an arschloch. Mean streaks are really difficult to hide especially if one participates copiously on the web. On the other hand, it is possible to be perfectly nice and be seen as an ‘authority’ of which Dharmesh Shah (of OnStartups and Website Grader) and Guy Kawasaki are brilliant examples.

So what does all this mean?

Well, like all else, we begin with the end in mind. The eventual goal of being seen as an authority is to be able to help shape discourses in customers, companies and communities. Much life goes on not on the web, but off the web, in the real world. My view is that the real world and the virtual world of the web are not as separate as we like to imagine, and that the statuses of a person in the two worlds should be conflated, not disparate.

Achieving this unity of ‘positioning’, not as an authority but as a person and a professional is a harder trick to master amid the deafening noise on the web. In the end, clients deal with persons, not with personas.

After all, on the web, one could be a dog and remain a dog, but in the real world, one does get found out!

Related reading:

Trust in the internet God, but…

11 Replies to “Authority on the web: Être et Avoir”

  1. Shefaly

    Reputation is difficult to judge on a face to face level as well as online. To often we accept people on face value.

    The problem with any reputation engine such as Alexa is that as with Search Engine Optimisation is that they can be manipulated. I can remember when I was a member of Ecademy being SPAMED by the founder to improve the sites Alexa ranking. All the time that the ranking was rising the more he would promote the fact in an effort to raise his profile, once the ranking started to fall he stopped talking about it.

    You might want to read some of the things that Ajit has written about reputation, at one stage it was going to be the cornerstone of his PhD. Here is what he had to say about the use of a Thomas Power using 3rd parties to write his blog, http://opengardensblog.futuretext.com/archives/2007/07/reputation_iden_1.html.

  2. Brilliant article Shefaly!
    However does one necessarily set out to be an authority? Does that need to be an objective? I know you will say on a professional blog one needs to have this objective. But my feeling is that authority comes automatically if one’s approach is right. I don’t know if I am sounding confusing.

  3. Lots of interesting things to think about here. Thoughts:

    1. Some of us are following some web “authorities” almost in a soap opera way, because they are actually a bit fraudulent and/or silly, and it’s just rather entertaining to watch (yes I feel a bit bad about that!)
    2. We may be able to create ways to improve our identification of people with true as opposed to apparent authority on the internet, but we can’t stop being and acting like dumbasses ourselves. There are always plenty of stupid readers giving fame and fortune to utterly pointless nonsense. (Um, see 1. above…) 🙂

  4. Shefaly, a very well-written and insightful article. Although I must tell you that for me, the most prominent takeaway from this post is “She cussed!” So what if she cusses in German.

    And lest you take umbrage, may I add – it was informative, interesting and original. The dialectical bit, of course, is not just your burden to bear. Though at this point, such is your authority, that I cannot think of how to contribute to that aspect.

    Trust this is not too facetious for your work-blog.

    🙂

    Cheers,

    Quirky Indian
    http://quirkyindian.wordpress.com

  5. I agree with Alice as an “authority” has only as much authority as the authority of its readers. Difficult to judge when many readers are anonymous but the principle is right.

  6. Having second thoughts about what I wrote. For example if I follow a blog on technical issues (written for dummies) and if a lot of other readers of the blog are technical dummies like me, does that take away from the authority of that blog?

  7. Excellent post Shefaly – this raises all sorts of questions, not only about networking, authority and how that maps onto the real world, but on (and off) line identity and how others relate to that identity. There are hundreds of excellent bloggers who choose to use obscure pseudonyms – The Necromancer is one example – I use one myself for a ‘fiction’ blog. My observation was that people preferrred to communicate with the ‘real’ me – an interesting since at least 90% of the readers have never met or spoken to me!

    The second observation I would make is one that I bring from an earlier career in the music industry. There was a maxim in the 70’s that when an artist started to believe in their own publicity, the end was not far away… I see a this behavior in the online community – especially Twitter with its ‘followers’ – The ‘welebrities’ tag may be another symptom – it betrays an arrogance that is unattractive in both personal and virtual relationships.

    Hmm I think I’ll go and write this up on my own blog – Shefaly – you’re an inspiration!

  8. @ Ian: Thanks for the fascinating reading suggestion. I agree that ‘reputation’ is a complex construct and hard to assess both on-line and in face-to-face interactions. But I think if the two are consistent, it helps immensely whereas dissonance definitely would confuse people. Some kinds of dissonance may be less damaging than other kinds e.g. if I write about food adventures versus if I write in support of the KKK.

    @ Nita: I don’t think one can set out “being an authority” as one’s objective, even on a professional blog. That can at best be the outcome of the process of presenting one’s views, being able to present consistently good and reliable material and engaging in debate and discussions with one’s community. I also think that the readership does not necessarily reflect on the blogger. I do not censor dissent and besides one can hardly control, on the web, who reads one’s writing. No? What do you think?

    @ Alice: Can’t disagree with your wry but spot-on observation about the nature of the web. As for the kind you describe in 2., it is worth considering whether the ‘celebrity-dom’ of the web people came first or the followers did. At any rate, I do not conflate celebrity with authority. You, as a long-time blogger, also do not, right?

    @ Quirky Indian: If that be your take-away, I am keen to hear if it damaged my ‘authority’ in your eyes. 🙂

    I believe there is a time and a place for swear words when only they would suffice to convey the puissance of the sentiment. Otherwise, they are a poor substitute for limited vocabularies and bad expression. Thanks for your comment!

    @ Chris: Thanks for your comment.

    In my experience, pseudonymous bloggers are two kinds – those who are happy to reveal their true selves in off-line communications (such as The Necromancer, who I agree is a consistently good blogger) and those who are happy to remain pseudonymous (such as Quirky Indian above).

    But on the point about believing one’s own PR, well, touché! As I mention to Nita, I think “authority” is an ongoing process, not a static destination. Believing one’s PR suggests one thinks one has arrived and the process stops. In the technology field, at least, I see few resting on their laurels. So far. Who knows how it may change? I shall check your post later too. Thanks for your kind words.

  9. I was going to say two things about this write-up, one of which QI has already said.

    The other thing I was wondering was about how many people actually set out to establish authority status on the web? And how effective is this attempt? Unless I knew this ‘authority’ person very well, and even if I knew the person very well, I would try to get required information from sources like wikipedia. I know that the authority of even such websites is suspect in some cases, but I like to believe that the control structures in place ensure that the quality of ‘popular’ content is reliable. In other words, is it possible for an entity like wikipedia, effectively a being with collective intelligence, to replace a single ‘authority’ entity?

What do YOU think?