Tuesday, June 9th, 2009
I’m getting increasingly fed up with a meme that’s been doing the rounds for the last several months, and I’m afraid this morning on Twitter I kinda snapped a bit. The idea that’s been spreading through the social media community is that no one in social media should ever call themselves an “expert”. There have been a number of blog posts and Twitter conversations about it, and although I can’t recall all of them (please leave links in the comments if you want), the one that pushed me over the edge was 6 Reasons You Shouldn’t Brand Yourself as a Social Media Expert by Dan Schawbel who is, I note, “the leading personal branding expert for Gen-Y”.
The big problem I have with this anti-expert meme is that it totally mischaracterises what it is to have expertise in the realm of social media. After five years of being a professional social media consultant, I can promise you that it takes a lot of hard work to really understand how social media functions in a business context - not just for marketing but for internal use too. It’s not just about understanding how the tools work, it’s about understanding the business context (doing gap analysis, for example), it’s about understanding how people work, both in relationship to the technology and each other (basic psychology and sociology), it’s about communication skills, management skills, analytical skills.
None of that is stuff that you can just pick up overnight. A super-user is not the same as an expert - it’s not about knowing how the tools work, how to make a new blog post or set up a new wiki. It’s a much more nuanced job and involves constant learning from sometimes unexpected sources. I never thought I’d end up talking to psychologists about email when I started as a consultant, but understanding why people are wedded to their inbox helps me to understand the problems I will face when trying to introduce them to a wiki. Being an expert in social media means that you are constantly pushing to understand the non-obvious, constantly questioning the assumptions and the so-called common sense explanations for why things happen the way they happen.
Frankly I feel that I and my peers all fit the definition of expert:
a person who has a comprehensive and authoritative knowledge of or skill in a particular area
And we should be able to call ourselves experts without being censured by the community for doing so.
I think some of that censure comes from the idea that the internet is a truly democratic space where everyone is equal and to decide to elevate oneself by using the term ‘expert’ is somehow repellant. Well, I’m afraid the idea that the internet is a level playing field is bunkum. The history of the internet is shot through with elites and the people they look down upon (AOL, anyone?). Humans naturally create hierarchies, it’s part of being human. Hierarchies exist everywhere one looks, and they exist on the net too.
Whilst social media is a great democratising force, I fear people are confusing equality of opportunity with equality of outcome. The important thing about the internet and about social media in particular is that everyone has an equal opportunity to use it, but the truth - unpalatable as it may seem - is that not everyone will use it equally as well. However you define success, whether it’s on a personal self-expression level or whether it’s on a professional earnings level, some people will be more successful than others. The outcomes are not, and can never be, equal.
Yet we’re not supposed to use the word ‘expert’, despite the fact that some people clearly are more expert than others. Why this squeamishness? Partly I think there’s a real hatred amongst social media types for the self-promotional excesses we see all about us on the web. We see people bigging themselves up and it makes us squirm in our seats. And we don’t want others to think that we are that egotistical, that far up ourselves. Instead we want the warm fuzzy feeling that comes from someone else’s praise of our work, those third-party accolades and testimonials.
I can understand that. I’m not particularly great at self-promotion. It makes me feel dirty and unhappy. But relying only on external validation for our work is unhealthy, not just for us and our own mental health, but also for our industry. By censuring anyone who says they are an expert, we imply that there are no leaders and that everyone is equal. That implication devalues everyone working in the area by bringing us down to the same common denominator, making us no better than the whippersnapper carpetbagger who’s been on Twitter six weeks and thinks they know it all.
It also seems to me that the desire to punish people for saying they are an expert may, in some quarters, come from our own insecurities about a profession that seems like it should be easy. “I don’t feel like an expert, so anyone else who says they are an expert has to be bullshitting.” I have some sympathy for this, given my own recurrent self-doubt, but it is wrong. Being a social media expert is not easy at all and anyone who is one knows that.
I can’t think of any other professional field where is is frowned up on to simply call oneself an expert. Indeed, in every other field I can think of, we actively seek out experts. If you have a bad problem with your drains, you call a drainage expert without even thinking about it. If you want to learn about the nuances of the Bard’s great works, you seek out an expert in Shakespeare. If your MacBook conks out, you take it to an Apple expert.
There’s nothing wrong with being an expert in these fields, so why is it wrong in social media?
In the Twitter conversation this morning, @BenjaminEllis said “@Suw It’s hard for the true experts when people with 6 months experience and no results to show for it call themselves experts too.”
That’s a fair point. We deal with false experts in other fields by assessing their claims about themselves in the light of the evidence we can gather about how well they perform. Recommendations, reviews, even our intuition as we talk to them about our problem, help us understand whether they are as good as they say they are. The same is true in social media. People, hopefully, don’t just judge a social media consultant based on what they say about themselves, but also delve into their past work and their reputation.
But we don’t help that process by denying people the right to call themselves experts. By doing that, we also deny ourselves the opportunity to tell stories about expertise that help people outside of our field understand what a genuine social media expert looks like. If I can’t talk about what I think makes me an expert in social media, how are we going to find out what other people think makes an expert? I can say that I think Leisa Reichelt is an expert in usability, and I can point to her work to illustrate my point, but Leisa knows better than I what it takes to be expert in usability. If we never have that conversation, I’m none the wiser about how to compare her expertise with other people’s. How can I tell if Mr X is as good as he says he is?
The number of people self-identifying as social media consultants has sky-rocketed in the last year or so, and we need to start having conversations about what makes an expert an expert. If we can’t talk about it, understand it, and communicate it, how on earth do we expect clients to make good decisions about who to hire? We all decry the carpetbaggers, but we can’t do that and decry the experts too! We have to let people say that they are experts and we have to talk about what that means and how to compare claims of expertise against evidence of expertise. We can’t go on pretending that we’re all equal, and that experts don’t exist (whatever reasoning you give for it), because we’re not and they do.
There’s more I could say, but I’m going to leave it at this for now:
My name is Suw and I’m a social media expert.