J-School: Educating Independent Journalists

“If tools could make anyone who picked them up an expert, they’d be valuable indeed.” Plato, The Republic

What Counts as Authority Online?

Posted by chanders on December 28, 2008

A discussion of whether or not Twitter feed should be sorted by authority– defined originally as the number of followers someone has– has turned into an interesting discussion of what authority means in the digital world. This is a topic that I have a particular interest in (see here, here, and here) and so I wanted to follow up one of my earlier comments with a more extended discussion of what counts as authority online.

Most of the discussion about measuring authority on Twitter centers around what an accurate measure of “Twitter authority” might be. I feel like the comment that best sums the discussion up is this one: “I think everyone is missing the forest for the trees. It is not about defining authority, but about creating a tool that allows users to filter data in ways that are meaningful to them. At it’s core this is a data analysis issue.” In other words, what authority means in this context is relatively unproblematic, and all need is a better “tool” that allows people to filter data in ways that are meaningful to them. I’ve found that this sort of tool-centric attitude is unfortunately pervasive on the web, not surprisingly, as it is full of very smart people who feel like we can solve our problems by building better digital tools.  Unfortunately, ideas about power and authority are probably some of the most complex and misused / misunderstood concepts in all of social “science” (indeed, Quentin Skinner’s recent book on Hobbes and changing definitions of liberty just goes to show how long this debate has been going on, and how little of it has been settled). For me, an understanding of authority revolves, first, on distinguishing between power and authority, and second, understanding how we arrive at a definition of the right or legitimacy that is inherent to concepts of authority.

Let’s focus the discussion a little bit and look at questions of media power.

Media power (the power of the media) can be defined as:

“the multi-dimensional capacity to control the symbolic process whereby reality is produced, maintained, repaired, and transformed.”

I’ve found that a really useful definition for media authority (especially, though not only, occupational media authority is):

“the right to control the symbolic process whereby reality is produced, maintained, repaired, and transformed (from James Carey); the right to intervene in the course of events, to influence the actions of others and indeed create events, by means of the production and transmission of symbolic forms (from John B. Thompson).”

Thus,  inherent to questions of authority are questions of right. Power can be based on force, or on right, and if its based on right, we call it authority. Right involves some notion of power’s “legitimate exercise.” In other words, most of us would agree that both the state and an armed highway robber have the power to take my money, but only the state has the authority to take my money in the form of taxes. The question then, is, where does the RIGHT inherent to authority come from?

Authority ultimately stems from three sources: the regular performance of a particular activity, a knowledge claim about what you need to know in order to do that activity properly, and a social definition about what the proper discharge of that activity actually is. All three of these actions kind of meet together in a big circle, and that’s what I think creates authority. In other words, understanding how Twitter authority can be defined is more than simply a question of filtering and designing the proper tools. Its a question of a) knowing what Twitter is “for,” b) claiming that you know how to Twitter in the ways that it is meant to be used, c) and then demonstrating your proper knowledge of how Twitter should be used through regular work.

The problem is that all three of these definitions build off each other. For instance, there is no proper use of Twitter in and of itself. The proper use of Twitter is not inherent to the nature of Twitter. People like Jay Rosen think that Twitter should be used as a way to share good links and focus a conversation. Other people might think that Twitter is a way to sell soap. One of these definitions eventually becomes the “proper” way to use Twitter (maybe), and the people with the most Twitter authority are the people who either share links or sell soap properly– ie. who can demonstrate an expertise in Twittering (selling soap or sharing links).

Now, how do we come to a social understanding of the “proper” way to use Twitter? Through the act of twittering! See what I mean, its all a big loop (these loop is called, in sociological literature, a jurisdictional claim.) We can apply a similar thought pattern to blogging, to journalism, or the internet in general. Journalistic authority can be seen as a jurisdictional claim: a claim to know how to “do journalism,” to do it regularly, and to do it in a manner that is seen by society as properly “journalistic.”

I suppose the point of all this is just to encourage people to keep in mind that authority is a complicated topic, that having authority is different from having power, and that who has authority is defined, in large part, by the ability to claim expertise or knowledge of the proper way to do something, a claim that is ultimately ratified through work, as is our understanding of what proper work is in the first place.

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2 Responses to “What Counts as Authority Online?”

  1. In the ultimate proof that history repeats, I recall the exact same discussions about authority in regards to the blogosphere in 2002-03, and how would you “rank” authority – note that Technorati uses “authority” in describing blogs.

    In a “snarky” note, i always thought authority was just what you claimed for yourself when you became a pundit or blogger. ;-)

  2. kelly, Liz said

    I love your observations and how journalism is also tied into this “discussion”. Thanks for letting me learn! Twittering & Bookmarking it!

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