"a fish, a barrel, and a smoking gun"
for 4 October 1999. Updated every WEEKDAY.

Caveat Expert



On the Internet, nobody knows

you're an amateur. You can share

your previously unheralded

knowledge in an arcane field

with an audience of millions,

and you don't have to run the

gantlet of graduate school,

peer review, or production of

otiose publications in order to

win some small crumb of acclaim

— or failing even that, your

own news show on Fox. All it

takes is a Web site and a knack

for prolific punditry. But how,

oh how, do you direct other

people to your canonical works?

If you're a reader, how do you

evaluate one mountain climber's

advice relative to another's? That

is, aside from taking care to

avoid those sites that read,

"I'll update again after the

compound fracture in my femur

has healed."


The answer is to turn to another

level of expert — one who

specializes in identifying

experts. Finding experts on

experts seems to be precisely

the same kind of meta-wanking

the Web is infamous for, but if

you recycle an idea enough

times, it just might work.

Epinions.com employs reader

reviews of the reviews of

previous readers (got that?) to

help users determine which

self-appointed expert is the

most likely to get you up and

down the mountain and which is

likely to leave you in a state

of oxygen-deprived

mummification. The idea is that

the most trustworthy and

reliable reviewers will

eventually attract their own

followings, who can be confident

in their gurus' views on

everything from messenger bags

to hangover cures.



The idea has attracted quite a

bit of attention, but if we seem

less than bullish on Epinions,

it's not so much that we've seen

it done before as that the

site's structure seems not to

recognize what is valuable about

its free-form exchange of ideas.

Right now, Epinions' users have

to settle for reading different

reviews of Jon Krakauer's Into

Thin Air (such as a user-rated

Very Useful Opinion: "The story

is one of loss. Risk. Death.

Beauty. And in my epinion, sheer

stupidity") and writing "DON'T

DO THIS" in the margins of their

own copies. With its attempts to

establish a web of trustworthy

reviewers, Epinions makes the

mistake of assuming that we're

as interested in the reviewers

themselves, or even in the

products under consideration, as

we are in the process of ballot

stuffing and schoolyard beatings

that separates the merde from

the bull.


Think about it. When you read

the customer reviews at Amazon

or elsewhere, what seems more

reliable — the trenchancy of


observations or the speed with

which those observations get

screeched down by a barrel of

Web monkeys? To take one

example, observe Deja.com's

rating of long-distance service

providers, where the top spot is

occupied not by AT&T, Sprint,

MCI, or even such suckers'

favorites as Working Assets but

by Excel Communications, an MLM

organization that garnered a rating

of 4.2 stars (not quite the same

as a 4.2 GPA at McDonald's University,

but still impressive) mostly on

the strength of shills located

somewhere near the base of the

company pyramid. No sooner had

Excel rolled triumphantly into the

online "community," however, than

it was given the Reginald Denny

treatment by an angry mob of

netizens. In the melee, picking a

particularly trustworthy critic was

like choosing your favorite looter.

As always, abuse is the Web's

real killer content app.


Those who have fallen out of

love with the idea of a mass

media truly being written by and

for the masses will grumble

about the lack of credentials

attached to these various

opinions, pro and con, and might

even consider Epinions'

methodology of MiningCo-style

filtration ("untamedkb

recommends it saying, 'Great

interior, great visibility, lots

of room.'" ... "WolverineLaw

agrees, adding 'Great looks,

High Seating Position, Smooth

Ride'") a step in the right

direction. But chances are high

that these are the same people

who would let a little thing

like "prior conviction

nullification" stand in the way

of enjoying the latest Ashley

Judd movie. In other words,

they're embittered academics

trying to justify the student

loans, toadying to department

heads, and grimly realizing they

could have completed

tautological boot camp in a lot

less time had they just swapped

their 4Cs convention time for

obsessive posting on




Once again, the joke is on them.

A poorly held secret to

expertise is that it's usually

the result of centuries of

intellectual logrolling. One

PhD-endowed authority gets his

credentials by invoking previous

PhDs, who refer to previous PhDs

and so on back down the line

through the ages. Scratch a

bacterial pathologist and you'll

find six degrees of citation

leading to a 16th-century

counterpart speculating on bad

vapor-bleeding as a treatment

for leprosy. Through repeated

citation, one becomes a

better-recognized authority. So

the smartest thing to do is

learn early whom you should cite

and whom you should beg to cite

you. Although the overall idea

is supposed to be that you're

testing your intellectual rigor,

it's really just a reference

librarian's version of hazing.

As if the hunt for footnotes

with legs (so to speak) weren't

enough, a putative expert then

has to submit his work to a

panel of PhDs still nurturing

vendettas against their

tormentors, let them pick it

apart, and then spend the rest

of his life trying to prove that

somewhere amidst the jargon, he

committed an original idea. Or

not, depending on whether he's a

postmodernist or a classicist.


Compared to that slow torture,

becoming an online expert would

seem to be simple. But one look

at the book reviews on Amazon

proves that when it comes to

attention to detail and

historical research, even

Pynchon scholars are pikers

relative to the average William

Gibson fan. After one fan ripped

seminal cyberpunk novel

Neuromancer as "fraught with all

the typical clichés," he

was roundly refuted by readers

telling him, "This book may seem

clichéd, but that's only

because it created the universe

of cyberpunk.... When this book

was first published in the

mid-1980s, it way ahead of its

time." The lapse between

criticism and refutation —

39 days. In Net years, that's

forever; but compared to the

glacial process of academic

publishing, the refutation, the

counter argument, and the

discrediting took place

instantaneously. Readers'

attention to detail ("The

places: Chiba City, the Rue

Jules Verne"), attempts to

establish credibility before

offering counter-doctrinal

argument ("I knew most of the

cyberspace buzzwords since I had

bought a collectible card game

based on the cyberspace

concept"), and reiteration of

others' theories ("Gibsons world

as social commentary of

the Information Society we are

in the progress of becomming")

all reproduce an academic

argument freed from the

constraints of jargon or lengthy


lags. Best of all,

they manage to distill the

ideas while still retaining one

historic relic: What else is

hyperlinking but another form of




When the digital Darwinism works

so well, why do we need outmoded

concepts like trust and

dependability? Once user

opinions reach critical mass,

the content writes itself,

bringing ideas directly to the

audience. One can even argue

that the work on Epinions really

speaks to its audience —

which is a really lucky thing

since it's relying on its

audience to write the content.

And it's hard to imagine that

it'll have to worry about the

public holding back. In the end,

opinions are like turds only in the

sense that you can render them again

and again and again.

courtesy of Vixel Pixen

[Purchase the Suck Book here]