If you feel like NSW Government was negligent in its handling of the pandemic, there’s an expert to confirm your view. If you feel like Victoria is too heavy-handed in its approach to the pandemic, there’s an expert to confirm your view. Neither expert will point to any actual data or evidence, and they certainly won’t acknowledge that other viewpoints are rational or reasonable. It’s a frictionless environment in which the experts proclaim their views and never, ever let anybody see how they formed their conclusion.
Why is it like this? There were books to sell, there was attention to be farmed, and–in at least one case–there was a political career to launch. We had a problem in the marketplace of ideas: everybody wanted to buy the diesel-guzzling, toxic-fumes emitting, turbo hot take generators and didn’t really care about the impact on the environment. The marketplace wanted the ideas that were spicy and sensational; they didn’t want ideas that made them feel like they couldn’t bellyfeel their way out of the problem.
I want to shift the lens here a little bit. Above, we could see the problem in terms of institutional media entities picking and choosing its experts based on their availability to comment, willingness to say sensational things, and the amount of audience engagement they encouraged. I want to say–in the least defamatory way possible–that there were also individual incentives to behave like this: attention, book sales, political careers.
When we ease back from the institutional media entities and look at the concept of ‘expertise’ more broadly across different topics, I think we see something similar that has emerged over the last decade or so: market-selected expertise.
When Patreon first launched, it was seen as a way for ‘creators’ (a term that I want to keep exploring) to access paying audiences without needing an intermediary. Maybe you were a digital artist creating works in an environment where intellectual property theft was rife. Patreon gave you a way of tiering the market: people who regularly gave you enough cash for a cup of coffee got to see the artworks first before they went wild on aggregator websites. Maybe they got an early copy of the music.
Even within this context, different artworks were prioritised. I had a chat with a cosplayer who told me what an incredible difference Patreon had made to the hobby. Previously, it was quite difficult to ‘monetise’ the artwork. You would go to conventions dressed as a cartoon character or something, and people would take pictures of you, but unless you could turn it into merchandise or something, very difficult to use it to pay rent. Now, cosplayers had a marketplace for content that was outside of conventions: fans could buy them a cup of coffee a week or something and this would add up to quite a reasonable income. But, again, not all content is considered equal. Because the world is pure filth, cosplayers themselves see different pressures to create particular kinds of content that will attract more Patreon subscribers.
Am I going to start thinking of certain political commentators as ‘cosplayers’? It seems so unfair on the cosplayer community.
Within a few years of the Patreon boom, alt-right political figures started to see it as a way to connect with paying audiences. If you didn’t like the content that you were getting from mainstream media, you could directly fund the political commentary that you wanted to hear. The ‘creators’ were making political culture for consumption like an entertainment product.
Patreon responded to this by banning the most egregiously toxic ‘creators’ on the platform. Lauren Southern, Milo Yiannopoulos, and a few others were banned. Patreon could have gone further: ‘Hang on, this platform is supposed to be about creatives, artists, and entertainers; it’s not supposed to be a platform for political commentators.’
But it didn’t. As a result, there are all these ‘creators’ who make explosive, sensational political commentary of dubious quality. Crikey‘s Cameron Wilson makes an interesting argument about how much FriendlyJordies’ creator, Jordan Shanks, could make making from his Patreon subscribers.
It also means you get a lot of home-brew experts on very complex, difficult topics (such as extremism and terrorism) where the incentive is to produce content that attracts more subscribers. I recently saw an interview with one of these ‘creators’ where, by the end of the interview, I was thoroughly convinced that the ‘creator’ was just deeply unwell. There was no friction to any of this person’s claims. The ordinary viewer wouldn’t have been able to assess if the claims were authoritative or just pure charlatanism.
And the problem is that charlatanism is lucrative. ‘Accuracy’ is not something that audiences are good at assessing; they are good at assessing how much they enjoy content, and how much it satisfies their immediate desires (especially, ‘the feeling that I am already correct about everything’).
So where does this thinking get us? First, I think we need to have a really good talk about what we mean by expertise in public debate. Both in the pandemic response and in political culture more generally, ‘expertise’ is being shaped by forces that do not necessarily reflect merit, knowledge, or–well–expertise. We need to be more open and more critical about our marketplace of ‘experts’. We also need experts who are going to have some friction on the real world, giving people the opportunity to engage with the facts themselves.
Too utopian? Too utopian.