Credible Web? It's where we click most

Expertise is essential online, but the Internet's real 'killer app' is choice.

By , Columnist

Years ago, when I first started building websites for newspapers, many journalists told me that they saw the Internet as the end of reliable journalism. Since anyone could publish whatever they wanted online, "real journalism" would be overwhelmed, they said. Who would need professional reporters and editors if anyone could be a reporter or an editor?

I would tell them not to worry. While my personal belief is that anyone can be a reporter or editor, I also know that quality counts. And that the "viral" nature of the Internet means that when people find quality, they let other people know about it. Even nontraditional media sites online will survive only if the quality of their information is trusted. The future of online news and information will demand more good reporters and editors, not fewer.

So I was intrigued when Newsweek recently published a story called "Revenge of the Expert." It argued that expertise would be the main component of "Web 3.0."

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"The wisdom of the crowds has peaked," says Jason Calacanis, founder of the Maholo "people-powered search engine" and a former AOL executive. "Web 3.0 is taking what we've built in Web 2.0 – the wisdom of the crowds – and putting an editorial layer on it of truly talented, compensated people to make the product more trusted and refined."

Well, yes and no. Sure, it is important for people to trust the information they find online. And as the Newsweek article argues, the need for people to find trusted information online is increasing, thus the need for more expertise. But the article fails to mention the most important feature of the world of digital information. It's not expertise – it's choice.

In many cases the sites that people come to trust are built on nontraditional models of expertise. Look at sites like Digg.com, Reddit.com, or Slashdot.com. There, users provide the expertise on which others depend. When many users select a particular story, that story accumulates votes of confidence ("diggs" in the case of digg.com), which often lead other users to choose that story. The choices of the accumulated community are seen as more trustworthy than the "gatekeeper" model of traditional news and information.

Sometimes such sites highlight great reporting from traditional media. But often they bring forward bits of important information that are ignored (or missed) by "experts." It's sort of the "open source" idea of information – a million eyes looking on the Web for information is better than a few.

Jay Rosen, who writes the influential PressThink blog, says in an e-mail that he's seen this kind of story before, calling it a "kind of pathetic" trend reporting.

"I said in summer 2006, when starting NewAssignment.Net, that the strongest editorial combinations will be pro-am. I still think that. Why? Because for most reporters covering a big sprawling beat, it's still true what Dan Gillmor, the first newspaper blogger [said]: 'My readers know more than I do.' And it's still the case that tapping into that knowledge is becoming more practical because of the Internet."

J.D. Lasica, a social-media strategist and former newspaper editor, also says he sees no departure from the "wisdom of the crowds" model.

"I've seen very little evidence that the sweeping cultural shifts we've seen in the past half dozen years show any signs of retreating," Mr. Lasica says. "Young, tech-savvy people now typically rely on social networks ... to take cues from their friends on which movies to see, books to read.... And didn't 'Lonely Planet Guide' explore this terrain for travel and Zagat's for dining back in the '90s?"

In many cases, traditional media is still the first choice of online users because the reporters and editors of these media outlets have created a level of trust for many people – but not for everyone. When you combine the idea of expertise with the idea of choice, you discover nontraditional information sites that become some of the Internet's most trusted places. Take SCOTUSblog.com, written by lawyers about cases in the Supreme Court. It has become the place to go for other lawyers, reporters, and editors to find in-depth information about important cases.

The Internet also allows individuals to achieve this level of trust. For instance, the Scobleizer.com blog written by Robert Scoble. Mr. Scoble, a former Microsoft employee and tech expert, is widely seen as one of the most important people to read when you want to learn what's happening in the world of technology. He built his large audience on the fact that people trust his writing.

To me, it's the best of all possible information worlds.

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