Posted on April 11, 2023 in Technology

What Makes An Expert Online?

Expert by Association

Listening to people you look up to or admire is not a bad thing by itself. Trusting someone who knows more than you do is a skill, and when you notice something they say doesn’t line up with reality as you experience it, you can personally decide whether or not this mentor figure is still worth your attention.


In an ‘attention economy’, where views are exchanged for cash, things have changed a little. Influencers don’t couch their language in ‘do this if you’re interested in X’, they say ‘buy this, it changed my life’, because sponsorships and a promise that you could live their lifestyle earns them money. They ask you to follow them.

Not every influencer is an expert in their content field, nor is every genuine expert-turned-influencer dispensing advice that any one user can always make use of – but in this new social media landscape, viewers are encouraged to look anyway. Some viewers start to parrot advice back in the comment sections of other videos, telling people something they heard from a different video even though they themselves don’t participate in the hobby. Is everyone suddenly an expert?

Who Gets to Be An Expert?

Most people are experts in at least something. Accountants, for example, have to be experts in their field to perform their job, or they could end up in jail for tax fraud if they screw up badly enough. People who like rock climbing have to be experts in their equipment, because the consequence for not noticing their rope failing or their anchor latching in poorly can be death or serious injury. However, as the consequences for a failure become less extreme, more people can consider themselves experts and give advice that might cause a headache, but probably won’t kill somebody.

When someone claims to be an expert at something mundane, it’s not outrageous to assume they might be! Even if they’re claiming something about a different field, they might have a hobby or job that’s close enough to that field that it still applies. The chef who made Pink Sauce online was a private chef, and a well-employed, well-experienced one at that, she just didn’t know anything about setting up long-term storage for her product. She would be qualified to give advice about making a fresh sauce, just not preservatives. And hey, even experts make mistakes! If she hadn’t flubbed up the packaging or the FDA approval, a lot of people would have just believed she forgot the part where the sauce needs to get through the USPS system. 

The resulting drama of debating her real experience after the fact is another part of the problem: how do you confirm or deny that someone knows what they’re doing if there’s no obvious cue, like a license? Accountants have degrees, but chefs don’t require any special license or training to call themselves a ‘chef’ (although SafeServ training is usually a requirement to work in restaurants). Anybody can call themselves a chef.

The only thing holding a lot of people back from claiming to be experts was good faith, but the potential to earn money off of views by claiming to be an expert in some accessible hobby is too much temptation now. Buy a wooden cutting board, some black nitrile gloves, and boom – expert chef. Even if you’re provably wrong, if you have good charisma in front of the camera, you can tell viewers washing chicken makes it safer to eat and a certain portion of them will believe it.

Expert By Misunderstanding

Professional equipment (pressure cookers, art resins, chemical agents like Citristrip, jackhammers, soldering supplies, etc.) is more available to mainstream consumers than ever. That doesn’t mean that mainstream consumers are experts, or that they’ll necessarily do all the research they need to before using their new equipment! Sites like Vine and TikTok encourage filming first and thinking about what’s being posted later. You can always delete a draft, but you can’t go back and film a process video once the process has been completed. Combined, these two truths result in a lot of beginner-adjacent content creators making videos using their new equipment in all sorts of ways, including incorrect ones.

This was a huge problem a while back when resin started trending on TikTok, because people would film clips of themselves mixing and pouring resin as though they’d been doing it for years, and a lot of what was made was not made of the right resin for the project – boat resin, art resin, and resin for small toys are very different. But unless an actual expert chimes in to say something or ask if they actually made these little bits of plastic regularly, nobody would have a clue whether or not they were watching someone make something of the correct quality or not. A lot of them learned about resin from TikTok itself, tutorials and all.

Expert, But Not Giving Specific Advice

Even real experts can steer viewers wrong without meaning to. A TikTok user who wanted to try ‘skin-cycling’ after watching a dermatologist for a few videos discovered it did more harm than good to the state of her skin, because she was moving through the steps too fast. She admitted she didn’t do enough research, but that’s part of the problem – how could she know she wasn’t doing it right until after she had to look up why it was going wrong? Those professional products and high concentration hyaluronic acid used in the video can literally be bought and delivered to your door the next day with services like Amazon.  

That viewer thought she had enough information to do it right. The dermatologist warned that people interested in the process needed to find a dermatologist to monitor them, but by making the videos, she accidentally granted just enough instruction to do harm. Why bother going to a professional if you think you know enough? There is no advice that applies universally to viewers outside of basic stuff like ‘wear sunscreen’, but that’s not interesting to watch. Just describing a process, even with a disclaimer, is taken as an invitation to try it in this new media landscape.

Expert Because I Watched Someone Else Do It

Listening to an expert for a short time also does not make one an expert. The TikTok style of content rewards tips and tricks and flashy, well-edited process videos, not in-depth training videos or real examinations worthy of PhD study.

 To go back to the Pink Sauce debacle one more time, a lot of people were suddenly experts in microbial growth because of a garlic confit trend a few months earlier. Garlic confit is cooked garlic in oil – and it could have turned dangerous if the people making it didn’t know it wouldn’t keep forever. Chefs and people with experience in preserving foods stepped in to warn viewers. Garlic and oil can be a good environment for botulism to grow, but oil or garlic themselves are not automatic vessels for botulism, and botulism has a very hard time growing in acidic foods.

The Pink Sauce was accused of possibly harboring botulism because of the oil and garlic in the recipe. The ingredients list also featured vinegar as well as dragonfruit, so the environment was much too acidic to actually grow botulism. There was already so much wrong with the sauce that these extra accusations were easy to sneak in (a content creator might want something new to report or speculate, if they really didn’t know better) alongside everything else.

Another trend, not food-related: building cairns, or little stacks of rocks. Some cairns are made so hikers know where the trail is, so building more can lead to confusion – especially if the stacker is trying to keep it ‘out of the way’ and off-trail. Other cairns don’t belong at all. It’s better if people don’t build them if they’re not asked to or not in an emergency situation that would call for it! To get rocks flat enough to stack means hunting for them, and walking off-trail damages the biocrust within the soil. That’s an essential, but fragile, part of the desert ecosystem. Prying those rocks up means taking shelter away from small animals like lizards and bugs as well, as they can’t hide between rock and rock like they can between rock and dirt. Any moisture that rock was protecting evaporates too. This drives the cool lizards, the birds, and all sorts of other wonderful natural wildlife away from places where people can see them on-trail.

To see pseudo-experts swear up and down that these cairns are not a big deal is… not a good sign. Yes, one cairn probably does nothing. Two does nothing. If the third person builds another one and takes a video of it to make some point about nature and balance, and they start a trend, suddenly popular hiking trails in that area are lined with knee-high tripping hazards and footprints instead of biocrust or grass, and the lizards have retreated to places they won’t be disturbed. Yes, no one cairn is responsible for the decline of an ecosystem’s health, the same way no one raindrop is responsible for a flood, but no average hiker could possibly tell whether they’re building the last okay cairn, or the first bad one. They won’t know what other people after them will do, either. “Leave No Trace” refers to more than just littering!