Ada Lovelace Day

About The Authors

Suw Charman-Anderson

Suw Charman-Anderson

Suw Charman-Anderson is a social software consultant and writer who specialises in the use of blogs and wikis behind the firewall. With a background in journalism, publishing and web design, Suw is now one of the UK’s best known bloggers, frequently speaking at conferences and seminars.

Her personal blog is Chocolate and Vodka, and yes, she’s married to Kevin.

Email Suw

Kevin Anderson

Kevin Anderson

Kevin Anderson is a freelance journalist and digital strategist with more than a decade of experience with the BBC and the Guardian. He has been a digital journalist since 1996 with experience in radio, television, print and the web. As a journalist, he uses blogs, social networks, Web 2.0 tools and mobile technology to break news, to engage with audiences and tell the story behind the headlines in multiple media and on multiple platforms.

From 2009-2010, he was the digital research editor at The Guardian where he focused on evaluating and adapting digital innovations to support The Guardian’s world-class journalism. He joined The Guardian in September 2006 as their first blogs editor after 8 years with the BBC working across the web, television and radio. He joined the BBC in 1998 to become their first online journalist outside of the UK, working as the Washington correspondent for BBCNews.com.

And, yes, he’s married to Suw.

E-mail Kevin.

Member of the Media 2.0 Workgroup
Dark Blogs Case Study

Case Study 01 - A European Pharmaceutical Group

Find out how a large pharma company uses dark blogs (behind the firewall) to gather and disseminate competitive intelligence material.


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All content © Kevin Anderson and/or Suw Charman

Interview series:
at the FASTforward blog. Amongst them: John Hagel, David Weinberger, JP Rangaswami, Don Tapscott, and many more!

Corante Blog

Tuesday, June 9th, 2009

Hi. My name is Suw and I’m a social media expert

Posted by Suw Charman-Anderson

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.

Friday, May 29th, 2009

So true it’s not funny

Posted by Suw Charman-Anderson

This video has been doing the rounds lately, but it is so amazingly true that it’s almost not funny.

I think the worst I’ve had from a proto-client lately is, “It’s a recession, how about a bit of a discount?” Well, mate, if you can get my landlord to discount my rent by the same amount then sure, let’s talk turkey. Otherwise, bite me.

Thanks to @febake for the pointer to this!

Monday, December 15th, 2008

20 signs you don’t want that internal social media project

Posted by Suw Charman-Anderson

I just nearly burst my appendix laughing at Chris Applegate’s 20 signs you don’t want that social media project. I am thus inspired to write my own list of tips that, perhaps, one doesn’t really want that internal social media project after all.

  1. Client wants to code their own blog/wiki software because “we want total control”.
  2. Client insists that only the management be allowed to have internal blogs.
  3. The PR department wants to write the CEO’s internal blog posts.
  4. IT won’t allow anyone to install an RSS reader until it’s been through a code review. Which could take upwards of a year. And that’s not including reviewing updates…
  5. Client insists on using Lotus Notes as their blogging platform.
  6. When you ask how much experience staff have of social media, IT replies, “Oh, we block all those sites.”
  7. The client wants Facebook.
  8. “Why don’t we just throw some mud at the walls and see what sticks?”
  9. IT disables all RSS feeds because of “a potential exploit we read about on Slashdot”.
  10. Client insists on using Sharepoint as their wiki.
  11. User surveys show some staff have more than 50,000 unread messages in their inbox, yet management insist, “We really don’t have a problem with email here.”
  12. Management refuse to learn new terminology, resulting in statements like “I just posted a new blog to our wiki.”
  13. Apparently, IM is “just for kids.”
  14. Client decides that only “management-approved labels” can be used as tags in the social bookmarking app.
  15. Client’s wiki is called CompanyPedia, is already out of date and is never used for actual collaboration.
  16. IT eschew open source software because “Who would provide support?”
  17. There are regular discussions as to which is the best Web 2.0 application: Lotus Notes or Sharepoint?
  18. “Why don’t we just install some forums?”
  19. Client thinks that “adoption” means everyone is going to end up looking after a small orphaned child.
  20. The CIO still has his secretary print out all his emails.

UPDATE: The above list has now been translated into French by the lovely Frédéric de Villamil!

Monday, November 3rd, 2008

When context switching becomes thrashing

Posted by Suw Charman-Anderson

I was having a chat to Kevin Marks on IM this morning, mulling over the idea of pitching an article to Charles Arthur at the Guardian. Kevin said he thought my idea was good, but I mentioned that I really ought to sort out some other things before I get down to writing out a proper pitch.

“That sounds like thrashing to me,” Kevin said. I had no idea what he was on about.

Turns out that thrashing is a computing term, and Kevin defined it as “switching between tasks too quickly to finish any of them”. Wikipedia defines it as “a degenerate situation on a computer where increasing resources are used to do a decreasing amount of work.”

Holy shit. That’s what I do! Seriously!

It’s been pretty clear for some time that as human beings we can’t actually multitask. Multitasking is nothing more than cutting tasks down into slivers which we then interleave, fooling ourselves into believing that we’re doing lots of things at once when we’re really just doing lots of things in teeny-tiny bits, sequentially and very inefficiently. The cost of multitasking should be pretty obvious - every time you switch contexts you incur a time penalty as your brain refocuses on what it was that you were doing the last time you were doing this task. The more you flit between tasks, the more time is lost switching context. That’s related to the whole problem with email - emails interrupt, there’s an interrupt cost, therefore email costs us time (and money).

But what happens when the habits of so-called multitasking become so ingrained that we don’t even realise we’re doing it? When we start context switching so rapidly that our brains don’t get the chance to finish a train of thought? Well, that’s when we start thrashing, alternating between tasks, thoughts, ideas, plans so fast that we can’t get a proper grip on any of them, can’t actually make progress on any of them.

Technology aids thrashing in ways never dreamt of before. If I’m not entirely clear on what my tasks for the day are, then I can spend a lot of time switching between various pseudotasks, sometimes engaging in both true procrastination and yak shaving (doing lots of small and probably unnecessary tasks, ostensibly as preparation for doing a bigger necessary one, but actually as a way to avoid the larger task).

In theory, tools like Omnifocus should help me get over this by giving me a clear idea of what needs to be done next. I love Omnifocus, especially the iPhone application which lets me capture those annoying “Oh, I must remember to…!” thoughts that I have whilst I’m on the Tube or somewhere else where my computer is not. But it has become increasingly clear that Ominfocus is turning into the place where tasks go to die. My list of projects and tasks is absurdly long, and it seems to get longer rather than shorter as things I “ought” to do get added, but never ticked off.

Even if it is turning out to be at least partly a graveyard for tasks, that’s an important function in and of itself. I need to have a place to put those unlikely to dos that would otherwise rattle round in my head and get in the way of the really important things. (Although I also need to learn to delete tasks which are, in all honesty, never going to get done.)

All bets are off, though, as soon as I have a client work to do, because my priorities become externally set and much easier to manage. There’s nothing like a deadline to focus the mind and clear out all the dross. This is one of the big challenges of being a freelance, actually. Managing your time when you have clients is much easier than when you don’t.

In the ten years I’ve been freelance, I think I’ve got to a point where I’m pretty good at being self-motivated and, because I don’t have any proxies for work to get in my way (more about which in another post), I suspect I actually am more productive than your average office-goer. I can’t fake working - everything that doesn’t get done today will still be waiting for me tomorrow. This also means that thrashing, yak shaving, procrastination and other such productivity issues need to be mercilessly hunted down and eradicated, because anything that dents my productivity also dents my ability to earn money. That pay cheque, sadly, doesn’t earn itself.

Wednesday, September 24th, 2008

Five year plans and fairytales

Posted by Suw Charman-Anderson

“Life is what happens when you’re busy making other plans,” goes the aphorism. Personally, I like plans, although I’ve never made one that I’ve managed to see all the way through to the end, because something always changes halfway through. I still find them useful things to write, though, because they help me see beyond the end of my own nose.

Being self-employed means that I have to make most of the decisions about my business myself and although nowadays I have a good network of friends - and, of course, Kevin - to help me, it’s still easy to get lost in the details. Losing perspective makes it much harder to figure out what my priorities should be, and that means I can end up wasting a lot of time doing… suboptimal things.

It’s difficult to see yourself from the outside, but I recently had a bit of a revelation and although I have some interesting work hovering just on the horizon, I can’t afford to be complacent. Indeed, I rather wish that I had had this revelation a few months ago - I could have done with a bit of this clarity over the summer!

The upshot of all this is that I am in the process of writing myself a five year life plan which is going to attempt to answer the questions “What do I want to achieve over the next five years? What do I need to do to get there?”

Of course, everyone knows that the last four and a half years of any five year plan is a complete fairytale, (although I’ve seen many a bank manager and business advisor nod sagely when reading a long-term business plan as if it meant something). But by looking that far ahead I hope that I can get a sense of my priorities now, and I can prime myself to recognise the right opportunities when they come along.

At the moment, our bedroom wall is covered with little Post-It notes that give some shape to my thoughts as they currently stand. They include ideas from discussions with various friends and colleagues about what I need to do to reinvigorate my consulting business - and many of them contain some really scary words, especially the ones clustered around the “Marketing” note.

Even now, at just the beginning of the process, I can see that there is a real tension between the things that I like to do, and the things that I dislike doing but feel I need to in order to be able to be paid to do the things that I like to do. On one side of that equation is writing, journalism and consulting, and on the other side is pitching (to get articles places) and self-promotion/marketing (to get new clients). I’ve never been good at self-promotion and, frankly, I’ve often (subconsciously) avoided doing marketing as much as possible because it makes me feel icky and dirty.

Seeing things laid out so clearly is quite interesting - it does rather explain a lot about why I focused one the things I focused on this summer (and, indeed, in years past). I shan’t pretend that this is an entirely new revelation - I’ve known how much I hate self-promotion for a long time. But I haven’t reminded myself of my aversion, nor confronted it, in a while.

I’ve still got a lot of thinking to do around my five year fairytale. And I’d be very curious to know: If you were thinking five years ahead, what sort of questions would you be asking yourself?

Saturday, July 5th, 2008

Going Solo Leeds announced

Posted by Suw Charman-Anderson

I shall be reprising my talk on how to draw a healthy line between work and play at Steph Booth’s Going Solo conference in Leeds on 12 September. Registration is now open, but don’t delay - the first 25 tickets will be going at the early bird rate of £150, and some have already gone. Once they run out, the normal price is £220.

If you’re a freelance, or are thinking of starting out on your own, then Going Solo will be invaluable - it has a great atmosphere and some stonking speakers! So go straight to registration, do not pass go, and pick up an early bird ticket whilst they are still around.

Tuesday, June 17th, 2008

Q: What does promoting an event have in common with the adoption of social tools in the enterprise?

Posted by Suw Charman-Anderson

Steph Booth has written a great post over on Climb To The Stars, 5 Lessons in Promoting Events Using Social Media (Back to Basics), wherein she talks about the difficulties she faced when she was promoting her conference, Going Solo. Being in the process of promoting my seminar, Making Social Tools Ubiquitous, I can entirely sympathise, particularly with this:

Even though part of what I do for a living is explain social media and its uses in marketing to my clients, I found it quite a challenge when I actually had to jump in and do it. (Yes, I’m aware this may sound pretty lame. By concentrating on the big picture and the inspiring success stories, one tends to forget some very basic things. Sending managers back to the floor every now and then is a good thing.)

But the more I think about it, the more I see parallels between promoting an event, and promoting the adoption of social tools in business, so I’m going to take Steph’s five lessons one by one:

1. The absolute best channel to promote anything is one-on-one personal conversation with somebody you already have some sort of relationship with.
I’ve been very low-key in promoting my seminar, focusing on sending personal emails to people I know, and this has brought home a very important point: Even when you want to talk to lots of people at once, you can really only talk to one at a time, and talking to lots of people one by one takes a lot of energy and, yes, time.

Of course, promoting anything is a numbers game - the more people you can reach, the more likely you are to connect with someone who is interested in what you’re doing. And if you’re feeling impatient for success, the urge is to reach as many people as possible, as quickly as possible. But mass communication is a shortcut and shortcuts come at a cost. You can spam your entire workforce with an email telling them about the wonderful new wiki you’ve installed, but unless people understand how using a wiki will help them personally, they will just ignore it. That means you have to work with individuals to ensure they fully understand what it is that you’re proposing and how exactly it’s going to help them do their job.

This one-on-one (or at least, one-on-very-small-group-of-similar-people) approach always takes much longer to bear fruit than you might imagine, or might wish to accept. You’re essentially imparting information to people who are running on their own schedule and following their own agenda, which may not immediately mesh with yours. This doesn’t mean that they aren’t interested in attending your event or using the tool you are promoting, but that you may have to bide your time until your needs and their needs coincide.

2. Blogs and Twitter are essential, but don’t neglect less sexy forms of communication: newsletter, press release, printable material.
In enterprise, the same thing applies. Big companies especially often have printed newsletters or magazines, and talking about your project in these internal publications can help you to spread your message to people who might miss a blog post or ignore an email. Think about all the different channels of communication you have open to you, from newsletters to emails to printing posters to go up on the office walls, and think about how you can best use them. There are probably more opportunities to communicate with your colleagues open to you than you realise.

3. Don’t expect “viral” or “organic” spreading of your promotion to happen, but prepare the field so it can: the forwardable e-mail.
This point I’m going to take in two parts. First: “Don’t expect “viral” or “organic” spreading of your promotion to happen…”

Often people do expect social tools - and events - to promote themselves and are disappointed when they don’t. We’ve all heard about the runaway success of memes that seem to spread across the internet almost overnight, e.g. the way the band Arctic Monkeys stormed the charts by accruing fans from the web, but those events are rare on the internet and even rarer on intranets. In reality, success comes more like it did for 90s pop band Pulp, which lead singer Jarvis Cocker once described as “an overnight success that took 16 years”.

You have to take the long view. If a tool is worth adopting, if a behaviour is worth changing then it’s worth spending the time on it to ensure success. But if things do go nuts, make sure your infrastructure can scale quickly too. There’s nothing like ‘technical difficulties’ to kill someone’s enthusiasm for a new tool.

The second half of this piece of advice is “… but prepare the field so it can: the forwardable e-mail.” Steph’s talking about ensuring that the people you contact have something to send on to colleagues and friends who might be interested in what you’re doing. In the adoption of social tools, this doesn’t just mean creating a forwardable email talking about your project, it also means creating support materials that people can use to train their own colleagues.

Most social tools are really easy to use, and for the experienced digital native they are quick and simple to pick up. But as I have learnt from first-hand experience, lots of people do not find it trivial to learn how to use a new tool on their computer. They are still quite timid when it comes to computer-related matters, and they need help to understand both how the tool works and how it will help them. They need face-to-face coaching, access to simple and easy to understand support material, and they need someone available on demand to help them out when they get stuck.

In a big company it’s impossible to get everyone into a training session, so you have to provide keen early adopters with the advanced understanding, confidence and support materials they need to teach their own colleagues. Then the keen users in that second wave need to be able to train their colleagues, and so on. Without this ripple effect, the software’s dead in the water.

So it’s not just forwardable awareness of the tool you need to provide, but forwardable training too.

4. Go where people are. Be everywhere.
In events promotion, Steph’s talking about using many different social networks to get your message out. In business, this means spread your net beyond the obvious and make sure your project doesn’t get trapped in a single silo. Often, tech projects get started in tech-savvy departments by programmers and researchers, because they are the people who feel most comfortable with new tools. The risk of focusing on these groups in the early stages of your project is that the tool will fail to spread organically to the rest of the company because communications between, say, developers and HR, is inadequate to support the kind of dialogue required for ideas to migrate.

Many big companies are split into silos, with little communication and collaboration between them. Sometimes the silos are based on geography, often it is ‘business function’, but whatever the cause of these silos, you need to work hard to bridge the gaps between them. Work with people from every part of the company, from senior managers to developers to secretaries to HR. Scatter your seeds everywhere, and nurture those seedlings that grow.

5. It’s a full-time job.
This is more of a note to the senior executives that hold the purse strings than anyone. Social media projects don’t just “happen” spontaneously, out of thin air. Facebook didn’t “just happen” and neither did MySpace, Twitter, Seesmic, Wikipedia or any other socio-technological project. Each one took time, effort and nurturing by people whose job it was to work on attracting and retaining new users.

Business is no different. You really can’t just chuck up some software and expect people to use it, you have to think about what you’re doing, put together a sensible strategy and work to implement that strategy. And this means paying someone to do all that, whether it’s a consultant or a member of staff. Far too frequently I come across companies who want to change the way their people work, want to move away from email to more productive tools, want to increase collaboration and improve communication, but they don’t want to actually spend any money on making it happen.

It’s not enough to invest in servers and software licences and technical infrastructure. You have to invest in people too.

If you haven’t already, I strongly recommend popping over to Steph’s blog and reading her original post, because it’s spot on.

Suw is holding a seminar on the adoption of social tools in business on June 27 2008. Deadline to sign up is June 25.