Volunteers vs Experts

Ever notice if you value volunteers more than experts or vice versa? Now, some might argue that I’m attempting to compare apples to oranges. For clarification, here’s what I mean by both. A volunteer is someone with personal knowledge and experience. She then chooses to volunteer those things for the benefit of others. The expert is someone with industry-recognized knowledge and experience. He then puts a price on his expertise and sells as the market demands.

I originally saw this comparison while reading Malcolm Gladwell’s The Tipping Point (pg. 68 those interested enough to look it up). He compared the trust that people have for the Zagat guides, made up of volunteered reviews by diners, versus the expert opinion of food critics (aka the experts). Using this model, I looked back through history and was startled to see how many events relied on volunteers rather than experts.

  • Immigrants to any nation: Few people would qualify as immigration experts. These volunteers risked their lives to build communities that later became the basis of nations.
  • Volunteer militias and armies: In the absence of state-supported troops, men and women have proven willing to defend and die for neighbors, friends, and family.
  • Public service: Granted, we view politicians with cynicism and suspicion, but think about the efforts of the people behind the Magna Carta and the Declaration of Independence.
  • Volunteer organizations: Groups like the Peace Corps, and other humanitarian organizations, put lives on hold, and sometimes at risk, to aid the ones who need help the most.

In essence, isn’t the Internet, at least a significant portion of it, based on volunteer efforts? And isn’t one of the best parts of the Internet its ability to absorb the efforts of volunteers? Unlike other mediums limited by circumstances and by design (i.e. newspapers and television), the Internet allows for experimentation and idea sharing on a scale never before seen. I don’t have to be an acknowledged expert to share my ideas, much to the chagrin of many experts.

Margaret Mead said, “A small group of thoughtful people could change the world. Indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.” (link) Using the Peace Corps as a prime example, I think the volunteers on the Internet, while a bit bigger than “a small group of thoughtful people,” can change the world. Consider President Kennedy’s words, and where he mentions the Peace Corps, substitute the Internet (it’s a rough substitution, but you’ll get the idea):

“Life in the Peace Corps will not be easy. There will be no salary and allowances will be at a level sufficient only to maintain health and meet basic needs. Men and women will be expected to work and live alongside the nationals of the country in which they are stationed—doing the same work, eating the same food, talking the same language.

But if the life will not be easy, it will be rich and satisfying. For every young American who participates in the Peace Corps—who works in a foreign land—will know that he or she is sharing in the great common task of bringing to man that decent way of life which is the foundation of freedom and a condition of peace.” (link)

Yes, many people and many organizations are making large sums of money through their Internet presence and becoming acknowledged experts. However, I believe just as many people are engaged in “the great common task” of exploring and sharing this new world. In essence, we are the volunteer immigrants trying to figure out how to survive and build communities that stretch around the globe.

At some point, experts may take over the Internet as we define it today. But that’s ok, because the volunteers will be too busy exploring the new worlds and ideas experts consider too risky. Proof of this reality is confirmed every time we see a natural disaster or other calamity. It’s usually the volunteers who show up first and get to work. Experts are too busy giving interviews about the event to be much help.



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May 2007
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