How researchers get heard

Experts Don’t Get No Respect (on the Internet)

As Ben Thompson argues, Twitter killed blogging by democratizing it and making it instantly accessible, conversational and never-ending. When Twitter works (which is increasingly rare these days), it — as well as TikTok, Instagram and probably Clubhouse — “leverage the sheer scale of user-generated content to serve you far more compelling content than anyone — even a professional — could ever generate,” Thompson writes.

But while Twitter killed blogging, some individual blogs — and, now, Substack and its like — are still thriving. If they deliver enough value to maintain and build authority with their audiences. For instance: About 350,000 of them, in the case of Heather Cox Richardson.

Which brings us to experts vs. pretenders, or however you look at them. Because Twitter, in a weirdly analogous way, has also damaged expertise — at least, the old way of deferring to it.

You’re not going to get deferred to now just because you’re an expert. Experts get hearings — and audiences, and authority — by consistently delivering valuable insight.

This December tweet storm from Yale epidemiologist Gregg Gonsalves exemplifies how some experts deal with that loss of deferral. Gonsalves was irritated that pundits were questioning drafts of the federal public health guidelines for distributing COVID-19 vaccines. Instead of making an argument, he went ad hominem, accusing the pundits of racism and privilege. This tack looked even worse when the guidelines were revised a day or so later … in favor of the pundits’ argument.

Everybody says that nobody respects expertise anymore. But not many people truly bemoan that state of affairs — because the experts aren’t doing a good job of convincing us the decline is of expertise is a problem. Of turning their expertise into authority.

Experts should go into the public arena expecting to be challenged — especially unfairly — no matter how deep and how credentialed their expertise. This is a feature, not a bug, of life lived digitally.

The internet is about abundance, not scarcity (again, per Thompson). Pundits, experts from other fields, and randos are going to cross into your lane all the time. Especially if your lane has become one of rising public importance. Especially if there’s an expert consensus based on assumptions they don’t understand or quite buy. And especially if you are not vigorously defending those assumptions.

The internet is also about stickiness (as Matthew Hindman defines that term): small little advantages — a slightly faster load time, a slightly more frequent voice of analysis — that eventually compound into insurmountable leads. Stickiness is what made Google Google, Amazon Amazon, Facebook Facebook. And entrepreneurial pundits understand its importance, too. They create stickiness by taking on a variety of topics with frequent hot takes and creating audience lock-in on platforms they own (Substack) and rent (Twitter). They’ve been doing it for years. If you’re just gearing up to combat something Nate Silver or Matt Yglesias or Ezra Klein said, you’re going to have a long day.

Takeaway: More than ever, expertise doesn’t automatically confer authority. Check out my “Getting Started” series for a step-by-step guide to begin building your or your organization’s research expertise into authority.