Monday, July 9, 2007

On Authority, Opinion and the Cult of the Amateur

The genesis of today’s posting was Hamilton Nolan’s analysis (June 11, 2007) in PR Week (subscription required) – “Opinions Vary on Editorial Page’s Outlook” – which I found to be a very useful launching pad to consider the value of opinion and authority in the PR profession.

For most of my career, a positive editorial in a leading national newspaper or targeted local one was a critical beachhead.  Written by trained journalists and experienced professionals, editorials have had the authority to shape public opinion and influence legislative outcomes. I don’t minimize their influence, but I recognize their grip is loosening.  

Newspapers themselves are having to work harder to shape public opinion.  Fewer people read them, and now legions of blogs provide alternative forums for public debate.  Once more, the whole notion of opinion is changing.  Opinions mean much more with increased opportunities for exposure, but the notion of definitive source for opinion is becoming anachronistic – a victim of the so called “wisdom of crowds” effect.  In an effort to remain relevant, I am sure newsrooms across the country are engaging in healthy discussions about the importance of objectivity and editorial influence.

In an age that seems to value opinion and subjectivity over fact and objectivity, how ironic is Wikipedia’s ever widening readership and influence.  Consider Jonathan Dee’s observation in a recent New York Times Magazine article:

“Wikipedia may not exactly be a font of truth, but it does go against the current of what has happened to the notion of truth. The easy global dissemination of, well, everything has generated a D.I.Y. culture of proud subjectivity, a culture that has spread even to relatively traditional forms like television — as in the ascent of advocates like Lou Dobbs or Bill O’Reilly, whose appeal lies precisely in their subjectivity even as they name-check “neutrality” to cover all sorts of journalistic sins.”

A quick and easy information source, Wikipedia, the six-year old, global online encyclopedia, can be edited by and added to by anyone. You need not be an authority to submit – an opportunity for wide and varied discussion, but maddening for PR professionals.  I am a frequent user, but its single-minded focus on neutrality limits my ability to edit or add submissions about the company that employs me.  I am an authority, but not the right authority. I personally think the wikipedia community should be confident enough in its position to tolerate a wide array of opinions and postings – even by those who get paid for having or making them and as long as they are honest, accurate and fair.

Wikipedia brings me to my final point today:  Andrew Keen’s new book, The Cult of the Amateur. 

This book about the value of user-generated content, social networking and interactive sharing has certainly generated a lot of discussion and heat, including AleratiGeektronica, P2PFoundation, and Corante.

Challenging the wisdom of crowds, Keen argues that the “Web 2.0 revolution is really delivering superficial observations of the world around us rather than deep analysis, shrill opinion rather than considered judgment.”

I am not sure if my personal blog, reflecting 20 years of professional experience, constitutes amateur hour, but Keen, no matter how provocative or inflammatory, raises some interesting points about the limits of authority and the impact on public discourse and traditional media.

With Web 2.0, egalitarianism replaces expertise and speed to publish often counts more than thoughtful deliberation.  Sources like Wikipedia and YouTube don’t escape his examination or criticism. 

Is Keen an elitist?  Is Web 2.0 the threat he suggests?  Perhaps.  I don’t share his level of concern.  But it is a great deal harder to point to a definitive source and in the age of anonymity, more difficult at times to even identify the source itself.

So where is a PR person to turn to for validation?  Should I pine for the days when an editorial written by a “professional” held primacy, making my job either infinitely easier or difficult with the morning edition?  Or do I revel in a world where a multiplicity of viewpoints – some grossly misinformed – rule the day? 

Certainly the low cost of entry makes the Web 2.0 world appealing.  But while traditional media is losing its influence, I believe the changing nature of opinion and authority puts the PR profession in a better place to play a pivotal role in interpreting and, yes, shaping it.

The reality: I can’t change the new model or public opinion making; I can only play by its rules — continuing to court editorial boards as I spend more resources reaching out to bloggers. 

Let me get back to you.

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Posted by Dan Greenfield in 16:41:56 | Permalink | Comments (2)