By any name, the current incarnation of the Internet is known for giving power to the people. Sites like YouTube and Wikipedia collect the creations of unpaid amateurs while kicking pros to the curb—or at least deflating their stature to that of the ordinary Netizen. But now some of the same entrepreneurs that funded the user-generated revolution are paying professionals to edit and produce online content.
In short, the expert is back. The revival comes amid mounting demand for a more reliable, bankable Web. "People are beginning to recognize that the world is too dangerous a place for faulty information," says Charlotte Beal, a consumer strategist for the Minneapolis-based research firm Iconoculture. Beal adds that choice fatigue and fear of bad advice are creating a "perfect storm of demand for expert information."
In December, Google began testing Knol, a Wikipedia-like Web site produced by "authoritative" sources that share ad revenue. The sample page contains an insomnia entry written by Rachel Manber, director of Stanford's Insomnia and Behavioral Sleep Medicine center. In January, BigThink.com, a self-styled "YouTube for ideas" backed by former Harvard president Larry Summers and others, debuted its cache of polished video interviews with public intellectuals. "We think there's demand for a nook of cyberspace where depth of knowledge and expertise reign," says cofounder Victoria Brown.
Meanwhile, Mahalo just launched the final test version of its people-powered search engine, which replaces Google's popularity-based page rankings with results that the start-up says are based on quality and vetted by real people. Enter "Paris hotels," for instance, into Google, and the search engine returns 18 million pages from an array of obscure Web sites. Plug the same request into Mahalo and you get the "Mahalo Top 7," a list of big-name sites, including Frommer's, Fodor's and Lonely Planet. Mahalo's lead investor, Sequoia Capital, has caught the Silicon Valley winds before: it was also an early backer of YouTube, Yahoo and Google.
Old standbys are also vying to fact-check the world before it reaches your fingertips. The decade-old reference site About.com says its traffic has jumped more than 80 percent since 2005, thanks to a growing network of 670 freelance subject experts called Guides. They include Aaron Gold, an automotive journalist whose picture and bio accompany his chirpy self-introduction: "Hi, I'm Aaron Gold, your Guide to cars!" About.com hires its Guides based on education and experience, then pays them for the page views they generate. The minimum salary is $725 a month, and there is no maximum; some Guides are pulling down six figures. As Peter Weingard, About.com's vice president of marketing, explains, "We like to think of ourselves as a friendly online neighborhood of experts."
Fueling all this podium worship is the potential for premium audiences—and advertising revenue. "The more trusted an environment, the more you can charge for it," says Mahalo founder Jason Calacanis, a former AOL executive who was previously involved with several Web start-ups. It's also easier to woo advertisers with the promise of controlled content than with hit-and-miss blog blather. "Nobody wants to advertise next to crap," says Andrew Keen, author of "The Cult of the Amateur," a jeremiad against the ills of the unregulated Web.
The timing could be right for a new era in Silicon Valley, a Web 3.0. It comes, after all, during dark days for the ideal of a democratic Web. User-generated sites like Wikipedia, for all the stuff they get right, still find themselves in frequent dust-ups over inaccuracies, while community-posting boards like Craigslist have never been able to keep out scammers and frauds. Beyond performance, a series of miniscandals has called the whole "bring your own content" ethic into question. Last summer researchers in Palo Alto, Calif., uncovered secret elitism at Wikipedia when they found that 1 percent of the reference site's users make more than 50 percent of its edits. Perhaps more notoriously, four years ago a computer glitch revealed that Amazon.com's customer-written book reviews are often written by the book's author or a shill for the publisher. "The wisdom of the crowds has peaked," says Calacanis. "Web 3.0 is taking what we've built in Web 2.0—the wisdom of the crowds—and putting an editorial layer on it of truly talented, compensated people to make the product more trusted and refined."
Those with a more tempered opinion say the expert cometh, but only modestly. "I think it's a shift in degree, rather than in kind," says Glenn Reynolds, whose book "An Army of Davids" defends the staying power of the little guy. For curated Internet fare to flourish it also needs to overcome a national distrust of experts that is, in fact, older than the country itself. In 1642, the Puritan John Cotton warned that "the more learned and witty you bee, the more fit for Satan you bee," while in the 19th century, Andrew Jackson and his followers ridiculed learned culture as an affront to the common man. In more recent years the ideal of the noble amateur has been bent to include a general disdain for the professional writer, editor or journalist. But while the tide of investment seems to be shifting somewhat, the nature of the Internet suggests that Web 2.0 populism will never be thrown out entirely. "There's always a Big New Thing, but the old Big New Thing doesn't really go away," says Reynolds. "It becomes just another layer—like we're building an onion from the inside out."