Experts, Mobs, and Sherpas: The Cultural Evolution of Learning

(Note: This post was first written in December 2007 and then updated January 2014)

Back in October 2007, Richard Dennison (works for BT on intranet, social media and knowledge management strategy) found an article in the Guardian on-line that contained the following quote from Jason Calacanis:
“Web 3.0 is the creation of high-quality content and services produced by gifted individuals using web 2.0 technology as an enabling platform. Web 3.0 throttles the ‘wisdom of the crowds’ from turning into the ‘madness of the mobs’ we’ve seen all too often, by balancing it with a respect of expert.”
This is no different from the “evolution of education” that has taken place over the past century (but at a significantly faster rate…eh?):
  1. Web/Ed 1.0 was pedagogical—Prior to the 1800s, American education was almost exclusively conducted from a pedagogical model, in which the teacher was the expert in the content area and presented information to the learner who passively absorbed whatever was required. This was remarkably duplicated in Web 1.0, where the content holder (whoever was capable of constructing a web site) became the “expert” (albeit a 21st century version) and the rest of us browsers passively absorbed whatever they spit out.

  2. Web/Ed 2.0 is andragogical—Then along came Malcolm Knowles, who, in an effort to counter this model, popularized the concept of andragogy. Andragogy, Knowles argued, was preferable because it was based upon the observable learning phenomena that (A) adults learned what they considered important to them, and that (B) adults needed to be highly participative in the learning process. It should be pretty obvious that this is where Web 2.0 draws it’s inspiration. Thanks to the advancement of the internet, now anyone can create content of his/her own while simultaneously participating in the content creation of others.

  3. Web/Ed 3.0 will be/is synergogical—In 1987, Mouton and Blake began writing about a new approach to education, which they called synergogy. Synergogy attempts to avoid the abuses of andragogy (blind leading the blind) and pedagogy (non-participatory) by positioning a truth source to guide the collaborative process of participatory, interactive learning…hence, the quote above from Jason Calacanis.
While many (if not most) conservative organizations will balk at Web 2.0s andragogical methods, those same organizations will likely be more open to the synergogy of Web 3.0, which utilizes the “respect of expert” to coach and facilitate the “wisdom of the crowds.”

Update: January 22, 2014

Hard to believe that it's been seven years since I first posted this. All these years later, I'm finding that the cultural shifts I described above are still happening ... and at a surprisingly slower pace than I might have imagined seven years ago. Let me explain.

In December 2007, Twitter was an infant, Facebook was a toddler. Foursquare, Instagram, Pinterest, and Google+ were all still just twinkles in their inventor's eyes. This idea of the "wisdom of the crowd" was also in it's infant stage. The book "We Are Smarter Than Me" (Libert & Spector) was just starting to hit the shelves. In retrospect, I see that what I called Web/Ed 2.0 was really just getting started. Social media and the "democratization of learning"was nowhere near the level of self-sufficiency that it is at in 2014. Web/Ed 2.0 is at least a tweenager, and it carries with it all the interesting characteristics that its human counterparts carry at that awkward age.

That brings me to my reason for this update. In September 2013, Popular Science posted an article titled "Why We're Shutting Off Our Comments." Why would Popular Science make such a drastic move? The thrust of their complaint is simple: "A politically motivated, decades-long war on expertise has eroded the popular consensus on a wide variety of scientifically validated topics."In other words, they feel that the andragogical "wisdom of the crowd" isn't really so wise after all.

On January 17, 2014, Tom Nichols wrote a piece for The Federalist titled "The Death of Expertise," which he described as "a Google-fueled, Wikipedia-based, blog-sodden collapse of any division between professionals and laymen, students and teachers, knowers and wonderers – in other words, between those of any achievement in an area and those with none at all." Again: Andragogy. Web/Ed 2.0. Wisdom and knowledge by consensus.

I still believe that -- as a culture -- we are slowly inching our way toward Mouton and Blake's synergogical model of learning. We need experts to act as wise sherpas who help the rest of us discover knowledge and gain wisdom by participating in the process. Sure, it's laborious and slow. But in the end, both Sherpa and Wonderer are better off for the process.
Share on Google Plus

About Eric Wilbanks

Brand strategist. Wordsmith. Change architect. Training specialist. DiSC Certified. Family guy (hot wife and 4 cool kids). Love my Bible, guitars, baseball, and MMA.


  1. Isn't this third model partly addressed through expert blogs supplemented by user comments and discussions / wikis managed and moderated by experts. I think maybe we're close to this third model than we think. If experts are part of the community then opportunities for guided discussion and explore seem like a very doable outcome.

  2. Great point Dave. I agree and think there's probably other examples out there also. Should be interesting to watch all this unfold, specifically in more traditional "command & control" cultures.