The Accidental Expert

June 26th, 2014, 4pm

It was 22.2°C with few clouds. There was moderate breeze.

For the proud and closeted members of Self-Googlers Anonymous alike, the first few pages are committed to memory. For me, years of experience in the darkened or bored hours of the day reveal the same hits: my personal website and social media profiles, employment history, and a few videos.

Finding a new link in those first five or so pages can be a terrifying thrill, both good (as in the days following my appearance on a local PBS dining show, catapulting me—I was sure—to instant local fame) and not so good (like the times where my errant tweets spouting off about some topic du jour get featured on aggregating sites posing as journalism; I see you, HuffPo.)

But nowhere in my results do you see my masterstroke of scholarship, the page where I solidified myself in many eyes as a foremost expert in a field I don’t even recall the name of anymore.

Most impressive: I was only 18 and about to gain worldwide credibility for something that was done in a couple of hours.

Education meets technology

To be a college student, as I was, in the late 1990s was to be living unknowingly on the fault line of education and modern technology.

We had school email, sure, but it was an unwritten rule to only use it to email professors in emergencies. The real interaction of courses took place in face-to-face office hours, or lecture halls crammed with hundreds of students passing the time they should have used learning by reading the student newspaper or doing work for other classes.

I’m sure even then professors complained about the “kids these days.”

But a few intrepid courses saw the pedagogical potential of the Internet in their courses. For example, before MOOCs, there was the MOO, where students connected in spartan online forums via dial-up connections to talk about subjects related to the class.

Even then it was primitive. AOL and its myriad channels and chat rooms still ruled the day. And though we were only a few years removed from the dominance of basement-run BBSs, it was clear that this academic attempt to connect students virtually was novel if not unnecessary for courses where we could talk to each other easy enough anyway.

But such obvious attempts were only the first steps. The future, it seemed, looked to outward audiences.

Enter the equalizer

Considering that many companies still didn’t have their own websites at the time, the thought of a person quickly and easily publishing his own website was a dream that few of us thought to dream.

But Angelfire invited us to do just that.

Founded in 1996, and later merged with search engine Lycos in 1998, Angelfire offered users the ability to make websites (real websites!) even if those users possessed no technical knowledge. Should those users possess even a modicum of HTML (enter the blinking fonts), look out.

Of course now Angelfire, if not completely forgotten, is seen as an echo of the past. Many know it simply from the discovery of Mark “Slim Shady” Zuckerberg’s 1999 Angelfire site that he created when he was just 15.

Certain educators, though, saw its potential as a way for students to take ownership of course readings by allowing them to shout to anyone listening on the Web that this was knowledge. Publishing on the Internet was still publishing, after all.

Never, though, did any of us dream that these sites would survive; just a few years later we were convinced that Y2K would wipe away our online activity anyway.

Digital scholarship

Since those undergraduate days, I’ve gone on to receive a PhD and teach at several schools, including my current job at Stanford. Research and publishing is more important than ever, and so I do everything I can to get my name seen and cited online.

As a result, I get to do two Google searches for myself, the other (less salacious) search occurring on Google Scholar. There, some of my publications and citations occur and beam back how many times others have cited them. Self-Googling here is not just a vanity project: such links might spell the difference between hiring and not hiring, or promotion and stagnation.

In fact, one criticism I’ve received about my past work is that it’s too scattered. Though it all involves the same subject matter (more or less), it uses different terms each time. It’s one reason I’m changing my focus on “collaboration” to “authorship.”

Nobody outside of academia would (or should) care about such a thing.

Beyond consistent tagging and numbers of citations, though, authors are deemed credible by the sites on which they appear. Links to professional journals or faculty pages are at the top of the heap. Anything even closely resembling these professional sites raises just a few more questions.

Needless to say, Angelfire sites need not apply to this credibility job.

Expertise recovered

Which brings us back to my alter-ego as an expert of—of all things—El Niño. Created sometime in 1998 for an introductory course in natural resources at the University of Michigan, my site on Angelfire screams B+.

The site, in fact co-created with two group members who I haven’t talked to since the course, has now garnered over 13,000 views. Every single link on the page is broken, the photos and models displaying empty placeholders. The copy it embarrassingly naïve (“Welcome to our comprehensive website”) and riddled with typos and misspellings (where “droughts run rampid”).

In short, even in the nascent days of Internet pedagogy it was a hack job, more than likely cribbing class notes and slapped together at the 11th hour. Because I was the one applying the final layer of duct tape to the thing, I got the honor of putting my name (and email address) as the main contact.

Which is where my expertise was born.

Despite the overwhelmingly blinding banners, annoying pop-up ads, broken links, and amateurish writing, thousands have visited the site, and dozens have contacted me over the past 16 years.

About once a month I receive solicitation from a researcher who has somehow stumbled upon our train wreck of a site. Most are high school or college students, apparently putting in as much effort into their current projects as we did with ours nearly a generation ago.

But there are other researchers from whom you’d expect more: tenured professors from South American universities, and even a visiting professor at Colgate, complimenting me on my research and asking for more details.

For the first ten years I used to respond, basing my tongue-in-cheek return emails on how much I thought the person should have known better.

Forgotten but not erased

These days I simply delete the emails. The site has been live for nearly as long as I was old when it was created. I’ve tried to delete it, tried to find my old log-in information, and tried to simply figure out how to log-in to Angelfire at all, all to no success.

It was taking too much energy to erase it. And so it remains: blinking its broken links and outdated information for anyone sailing through the fog and unaware of how close to shore they’ve come.

And so I forget about it. That is, I forget until an email creeps back reminding me of that one night I did that one reading to do that one assignment in that one class. And that, sadly, is about as many details of the site’s genesis as I can now recall.

As a teacher now, I’ve all but decided to forbid my students from creating such projects that will live on long beyond our course or their interest. So much of what we teach and learn in college courses is meant for immediate consumption. The Internet can act as a refrigerator, hiding our past-due projects deep in the back.

Unfortunately, for experts like me, it’s not as easy as reaching back and tossing these moldering things out once they begin to smell. Instead I’ve just unwittingly added to the stink of the Internet, unable to erase what I’ve done, and thanks to the users desperate for anything resembling credibility, unable to forget it either.

Janet said thanks.

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