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Blogs and Expertise

A few weeks ago, a friend of mine asked a question I could not answer: “How do you maintain such a high level of expertise on so many subjects?” It seemed like a ridiculous question as I never really considered myself an expert on that many subjects. Sure, I do know a few things about a lot of subjects but I never thought of it as expertise. After several days of wondering about the question, I think I finally have an answer.

Before moving on, let me state that I do not consider myself an expert on that many subject. For example, I can probably talk about the intricacies of XHTML and WAI but I do not consider myself an expert in those areas as far as I see it: I do understand the specifications, do know how to implement them, and know what most hardcore geeks would know about them. Because of the people I surround myself with (my social network (more on that later)), I consider myself literate in the subject but would defer to other people if looking for true expertise.

What’s expertise?

Dictionary.com says that an an expert is

A person with a high degree of skill in or knowledge of a certain subject

. Under that definition, an expert could generally be seen as someone who knows more than the average person about a particular subject. So, in order to be an expert, one has to be on top of a subject and, if that subject evolves, on top of changes in that field or subject. Such a definition seems to point to the need for proper information gathering and the creation of a continuous loop to keep on top of data. So the question then becomes “How do you get information about different subjects and stay on top of latest developments in those subject areas?”. To answer this, one must analyze the patterns of information he/she processes and define sources.

Information gathering

On a day to day basis, we are receptors for a lot of information. For example, I get my pointers from print publications, radio, books, weblogs, news sites, email lists, personal email messages, and RSS feed on a daily basis. I rarely watch television as the broadcast model is one that often disturb me (it does too in terms of radio) because it requires that I be in a particular location at a particular time in order to catch a program. PVR system like Tivo are interesting in that they allow for some level of time-shifting but I’m finding that as far as return on time investment, video does little compared to text. As a result, I am living in a world where text is king, mostly coming to me in the form of digital bits going through my browser.

My information tools are relatively simple:

  • Email: I use several email clients throughout my day, ranging from browser-based clients like the one offered by Spamcop to the one available on my Treo, to the one available on my computers. Important to me in terms of email is the ability to sort messages by threads so I can follow the progression of discussions at a glance, a very useful feature if you are dealing with several hundred pieces of email daily.
  • Aggregator: For the longest time, I went back and forth on RSS aggregators as I find most of them to be lacking in some way or other. Most of my problem arose from the simple concept of synchronizing data. Tools like Radio Userland and Net News Wire are great if you are using a single computing device throughout the day but fail if you are switching back and forth between multiple ones. As a result, I’ve now settled on Bloglines, a great web-based aggregator that allows me to keep all my feeds organized in different folders and keeps me up on changes across all of the feed. This has been a huge time-saver, probably cutting 3-4 hours out of my daily routine of looking for new information.
  • Instant Messaging: I have yet to find a solution that actually works well in terms of instant messaging as I have problems finding a solution that could work on my work computer, home computer, and mobile device (yes, my Treo is part of what I consider the information universe I live in). What I would look for is something that would allow me to recall any conversation I’ve had in IM and search all that data. For now, I still consider IM to be a black hole in my information universe.

Those tools, however, form the basis of what I call the information universe. They are, if you want, the plumbing that allows me to get my info.

Social Networks and Expertise

Step two in analyzing my information diet is to figure out what the sources are. The tools I listed above are great in an of themselves but completely useless if no traffic goes into them. This is where social networks tie in. Over the years, I’ve been lucky enough to meet a number of very smart people at different Internet conferences. Those people now represent the first rung on my social network when it comes to technology. Talking with them over email and IM, I can now get a good idea as to what they are up to, what they consider important, and what they see as issues coming up over the horizons. Weblogs, however, are going one step further, allowing me in some way to extend my social network.

Blogs and expertise

Because blogs are largely based on conversations, they increase the level of interactivity one has with interesting people. Using the plumbing provided by RSS (Thanks to the efforts of people like Dave Winer), one can get a good idea as to what’s going on in the blogosphere. With services like Technorati, people can track who is hot in the blogosphere. With services like Blogdex,Daypop, and Popdex, one can track what is hot in the blogosphere.

What those services allow you to do is basically mine the collective minds of thousands of bloggers and, much in the same way Google has used PageRank to figure what were the best URLs for a given keywords or set of keywords are, figuring out what people are talking about. While Clay Shirky may argue that the power laws distort those results, one could argue that looking at the sourcing of links is often as interesting as looking at what links are pointed to. From there, one can find some interesting commentary. Because of the ease of use of RSS aggregators, one can then try out a new commentator for a few hours, days, weeks and then decide whether that person is worth following.

So what does this have to do with expertise, you might start asking. Well, for starters, I’ve gone through and identified a few people who are considered interesting by the blog world (ie. the blogerati). Those people in turns can turn you on to other people who cover similar topics. For example, a big thing in the blog space is political blogs. I personally don’t care that much for them so those blogs are not among the ones I read. However, I do read a fair amount about technical issues and some of the people I read do speak about the intersection of politics and technology, a subject that does interest me. Over time, I have developed a list of bloggers I do read frequently, people whom I trust as experts on a particular subject. For example, I read Adrian Holovaty’s blog to get a better idea of what good newspaper sites are doing, and I read Alan Reiter’s blog to get info on development in wireless. Because of reading those two blogs, my knowledge on two very narrow fields is increased. And because I use an aggregator, I get notified only when changes are happening to their sites.

Blogs and new experts

Similarly, when a new subject crops up, I first do a Google search but, more and more often, I now also do a Feedster search in an attempt to get more context. The secret sauce in all of this is RSS, a small easy to use protocol that sits at the core of the weblog world. Where it not for this tool, I would still have to visit sites one by one and go through thousands of Google pages to find the proper page. Because blogs are based largely on linking and commenting on links, the blog worlds provides me with some context about a particular link. This, in turns, allows me to more quickly grasps new concepts.

I am not alone in this. This kind of concept sits at the core of what the blog world is about. Because blogs generate conversation amongst bloggers, pockets of expertise are arising. The mass media are now being surprised by the rise of people who are moving from blogs to mainstream media but shouldn’t be. After all, the deep secret of many in traditional media is that expertise is something that one acquires over time by covering a particular subject. The links one makes with sources are established by doing story after story in a particular area of expertise. That’s exactly what bloggers are now doing and that is why blogs are representing such a revolutionary thing in information dispersal and in expertise building.

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