Interplay of authority and expertise in online self-improvement communities
Squirrell, Timothy John Martin
In online environments, users who wish to learn anything face several problems. Other users are usually anonymous or pseudonymous, information is plentiful and its quality variable, and it can be difficult to discern reliable information source. This thesis draws on the Strong Programme in the Sociology of Scientific Knowledge to explore how users of self-improvement communities on reddit, a major social media platform, negotiate these issues. Through conceptualising expertise as a status gained through an audience delegating their epistemic authority, the thesis explores the interplay of authority and expertise to analyse how users decide who, and what, to believe. Reddit hosts tens of thousands of specialised communities (‘subreddits’). Using a method called a ‘lurking ethnography’ constituted through observation supplemented with interviews, the author analyses two subreddits, r/paleo and r/nootropics. r/paleo hosts adherents of the ‘paleolithic diet’, whilst r/nootropics concerns with ‘cognitive enhancement’ in all forms. Analysis reveals how users construct expertise, negotiating tensions to maintain the epistemic integrity of their respective communities. The concept of ‘platform dialectics’ is developed to describe how reddit’s affordances influence the relationships between users and volunteer moderators. Users’ relationships with medical professionals and science are examined, as well as the discursive formations that attract delegations of authority, and users’ utilisation of boundary work to police the definition, remit, and effects of the substances they consume. In light of limited evidence and the ideology of epistemic individualism propagated by both communities, many users engage in self-experimentation practices. The thesis concludes that users of these communities do not look for objectivity in experts, instead exhibiting ‘aspirational subjectivity’. As well as creating evidence for themselves, they listen to those who have walked the path they themselves wish to walk or appear to have diminished subjectiveness, or who are able to synthesise and present information in ways that manifest the accoutrements of science. Key contributions include offering a conceptualisation of expertise which burdens those who wish to be considered experts to demonstrate their skill, rather than asking audiences to discriminate between those who do and do not know what they are talking about. The thesis also elucidates the ways epistemic norms and knowledge-making practices are created, negotiated, and maintained in online communities.