What are the requisites to be seen and recognized as a subject matter expert? In the previous decades, it used to strongly rely on credentials. But the new experts don't need a diploma or academic recognition anymore - they live on the internet.
Matthew Walker is a professor of neuroscience and psychology at the University of California, Berkeley. His book "Why We Sleep" was published in September 2017, and was praised by The New York Times, The Guardian, NPR.
After publishing the book, Walker gave a TED talk, a talk at Google, and appeared on Joe Rogan’s and Peter Attia’s podcasts. A month after the book’s publication, he became a sleep scientist at Google. A thought leader, right?
Two years later, the book received heavy criticism by Alexey Guzey, an independent researcher, in an essay entitled "Matthew Walker's 'Why We Sleep' Is Riddled with Scientific and Factual Errors".
It turns out Walker failed to disclose numerous meta-analyses and was accused of "research misconduct". Numerous academic colleagues admitted the book contains misleading information and Walked was forced to write a blog post retracting himself, promising to correct issues for future editions.
Guzey, the independent researcher, didn't need a multitude of publications or third-party endorsements to debunk the book. All it took was a single, well-researched blog post and a social media account to share it.
Information is generated and spread on the internet at a lightning speed. Academic and government institutions can't keep pace. In this new world, people are not looking at universities and institutional research as their first source of expertise - but individuals.
This doesn't mean there's no value in academic programs. Expertise has been built and created in those in the past and is likely to continue to do so. But the internet is now an institution of its own and is reshaping who can become an expert, how they share their expertise, and the ways they can monetize it.
In this context, two ideas come to my mind which would need more exploration.
First, monetization. As experts increasingly use the same online channels as content creators, they can be compensated the same way: through an audience. They can use subscription platforms to make a living, without relying only on consulting, book deals, and media appearances.
By doing so, however, it becomes harder to tell the difference between an expert and an excellent educator or entertainer. An excellent communicator can build a trusted audience while lacking in-depth or specialized knowledge. I don't think of this as something negative, but as a challenge to price expertise.
Second, decentralized trust. The move from “institutional expert" to “public expert” provides more visibility, but under the cost of much bigger scrutiny. More fans mean more fact-checkers. Unethical behavior and disinformation are quickly called out, just like Walker's book was.
The fast feedback and constant dialogue with the audience allow experts to sharpen, simplify, and update their ideas more quickly. In this sense, "expert” becomes a title that has to be continuously earned throughout your career. And can be quickly lost.