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!

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