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

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.

20 thoughts on “Hi. My name is Suw and I’m a social media expert

  1. I think the astute observations in this post apply in other fields too, and to the concept of the “professional”.

    There is a feeling floating about that today, for example, that every blogger is a “journalist”. That every muso working in their backroom studio is a “recording engineer” or “producer”. Not so.

    Plenty of fields and areas of activity take experience, expertise, training (formal or otherwise) and ability to learn. We confuse the fact that the today’s technology increasingly confers a greater ability for anyone to *start* on the ladder, with the false idea that everyone not only reaches the top, but has already done so.

    You don’t have to be a “professional” (someone who earns the majority of their income from carrying out a particular set of activities) to be an “expert”, but some of the characteristics are shared between the two, and they both must rest on some kind of demonstrable ability or results.

    I believe the current fad for thinking that every practitioner is an “expert” will pass, just as we are seeing that the most successful and most-read bloggers often end up being those who are actually professional journalists.

    There may be more opportunities out there today to enter a field than ever before, but to succeed in it, you still need to pay your dues.

  2. While I agree with much of what you say I have to disagree with the usage of the term ‘Social Media’ Expert and no, it’s not because I’m painting everyone with the same brush, it’s merely because the term is highly misleading not to mention vague. The internet is bursting with sheer number of social media applications and platforms out there and yes the whole lot of them are what constitute Social Media.

    Working a Facebook as opposed to working a Twitter as opposed to working Nings is *very* different because of how different these 3 platforms are at a fundamental level. And while you might be an expert in 3,4…heck I’ll even give you 5 different Social Media platforms- that’s 5 out of what, a several dozens at the very least.

    One can be a Facebook expert,one can be an Orkut Expert who can also develop great applications, one can be a Facebook, Twitter and Blogging expert… one can’t be a “Social Media” Expert because nobody can be proficient with all those platforms out there. You might say I’m being anal about semantics but I think everyone has a responsibility to be as clear as possible about where their expertise lies. So you see, the beef is not with the term ‘Expert’ here, it’s with the fact that it’s vague.

  3. Suw, you make a good point. But I don’t see Schawbel’s post as being very relevant here. Schawbel seems to be advancing a different – albeit related – argument about branding and positioning in the marketplace.

    He says

    Whenever someone has a question about social media or requests some strategic guidance, my name comes into their minds first because it’s my job title, but not my personal brand.

    So he’s not trying to eradicate the word as a job title, but advising any would-be expert to think carefully about their distinctives.

    You say

    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.

    So Schawbel’s advice (and we can debate whether or not we agree with the details – I don’t 100%) is akin to what distinguishes one drainage expert from another who may be EQUALLY well qualified.

    For example, we are your ultra local family drain service. Or we’re the fast but expensive drain service. Or we unblock your drains with a purple cow, ETC. It’s the thing that might leap out of a Yellow Pages listing or friend’s brain when querying the generic category of drains.

    You have to secure and dominate your own niche category in the PROSPECT’S MIND.

    (Oops, got a bit carried away there.) I think Schawbel’s overall point still stands. The number of people self-identifying as social media experts – some of whom could be your “competition”, if you will – is going to increase. And their quality and proficiency will vary. But there is only one of you in the marketplace. Just Another Social Media Expert will communicate your role but not your uniqueness.

    Besides, arguably the topic area itself will expand to the point where named specialisations are essential anyway. This a different point about the nature of the work. Just as in software development, it became not enough to say you were an expert somewhere around the 1960s – and not just for marketing reasons. Now we have computer security experts, client/server experts, firmware experts, scalable database experts, game dev experts, …

    All of these are experts, in part, because they know when to phone somebody else – they know exactly what they don’t know!

    You mention usability – and as far as that relates to social media, it could be one good example.

  4. The problem with many of the “experts” is that they are the “superusers” you refer to. I constantly make the analogy that just because I drive a lot, that doesn’t make me a mechanic.

    But they’re out there, the “experts” that promise thousands of followers if you listen to them. It sounds like a pitch for timeshares.

    What matters is how this “expert” understands the use of the media with regards to the entire mix. I tell people to be very wary of the social media expert that thinks that social media is the only thing one needs. It’s not, and I’ll happily drop any client that is only willing to do social media. That’s a setup for failure.

    So here’s what I suggest. Some benchmark for an expert. PR professionals have APR. Accountants have CPA. The tech and landscape might change, but the principals are solid enough to be able to do it.

  5. @Lexiconindia, there may be subtle nuances between tools in terms of how they function, between the demographics of each tool, and the prevalent culture for each tool’s community, but the underlying principles are the same. I’m talking about fundamental similarities in human interaction here – need for status, cognitive biases, behaviour patterns – which do not change.

    The difference between tools is a bit like the difference between Welsh from North and South Wales – there are small differences but the similarities are much more important.

    @carl, Schawbel’s post was a tipping point and nothing else. This post is not directly about his, but about the anti-expert meme in general which has been going around for months.

  6. Thanks for the great article, Suw! I would say that this exists in many other fields as well. The examples you gave, however, actually define finite fields of information. For example, everything Shakespeare is ever going to write has already been written. All of his contemporaries, artists and politicians for example, have already done everything they are going to do. So to achieve a higher state of knowledge is measurable.

    “Professional” is an easy measurement. I make my living, primarily, through architecting and building websites. Do I know more than the high school kid who took his first HTML class and because he got an “A” thinks he can claim “guru” status? Probably. And, as you said, I have a demonstrable body of work to back whatever I might claim.

    In organizations the question has been raised many times regarding work titles, “What separates a ‘senior’ developer from a regular developer?” My response is usually, if you’re really a senior, you should be able to answer that question yourself. The difference is at some point in time, your understanding of the topic went beyond the basic questions of what, how, when, where, and why. The answers to these questions is what we can refer to as “knowledge”. But having knowledge is not having “understanding”.

    For example, in response to Lexiconindia’s comment, I may be an expert in using Facebook or I may be an expert in using Twitter. While “knowledge” of these technologies is important, IT IS POSSIBLE to “understand” facets of social media that go beyond knowledge of any particular implementation. I don’t need to know how to use a particular social networking site in detail in order to have an understanding of how it fits into the bigger picture. And Suw’s understanding of the bigger picture (social media) is what makes her an expert.

  7. Suw great article that is why I tweeted it out to all my followers. Which they have retweeted it as well. I hope the day comes when I may be referred to as an expert but that I believe should come when I am gone from this world. I believe we never stop learning when you do in this life is when you die. I call myself a life long student of this craft and correct others when they call me an expert.

  8. interesting that you identify me as a Usability Expert, Suw because that’s actually not now I identify/brand myself 😉 Usability is just one part of what I do, kind of like how Facebook is just one part of what a Social Media Expert might do 😉 (I call myself a User Experience Consultant, for what it’s worth)

    Personally, I’d never actually call myself an ‘expert’ because I kind of feel like that is for others to judge, but I don’t necessarily think that’s smart thing. My biggest issue with ‘Social Media Expert/Consultant etc.’ is that Social Media is such a big thing, how do I know what I’m getting? (Fully aware of the fact that User Experience Consultant has pretty much the same dilemma!)

    I have to say, wherever possible these days, I try to avoid job titles (which is much easier now that I’m freelance) and say, I’m Leisa, I do this, this and this. (where this = the kinds of work that I do). That seems to work better for me.

  9. “He’s not the Messiah, he’s a very naughty boy!”

    FWIW, I’m not an expert, and I don’t regard social media as a meaningful field of enquiry (but I know what you mean). However, I have no issue with you self-labelling as an expert, and I know you are very competent in this area.

  10. Suw, great post. I have to admit that I’m often one of those poking fun, if not feeling tremendous angst over the Twitter-euphoria and business compulsion with social media. That’s not to say I don’t firmly believe that social media and technology isn’t important. It’s one of the mot important disruptor we’ve seen since the internet browser and the UI development since. I talk abotu social media and help clients navigate the landscape, but I start every engagement with this “I AM NOT AND EXPERT – NONE OF US ARE”. Here’s why I feel really uncomfortable with “expert”:
    1) None of us know where this is going, and I feel like there’s a whole lot more opportunistic “experts” out there than those that have a sense of the big picture. To your point though, there are those of us that have spent a good deal of time in practice and in support of real businesses to make social media work. That demonstrates expertise and knowledge, but I still don’t feel like “expert” fits. But that’s my semantic beef..
    2) At the macro business level I’ve seen time and time again that business cultures gravitate to “holy grail” solutions that will solve big problems overnight. CRM, Rich Media, Six Sigma, Direct, Internet, Branding etc etc etc. All can be richly useful, but only when used in concert and context with other efforts. IMHO Social Media needs to be implemented in concert with other efforts, not be looked in a microscope on it’s own. You clearly don’t suggest a siloed approach, but it can often be the outcome when you have a specialist expert that has the mission to monetize a singular expertise.
    3) Semantic wise I think social media “experts” should see themselves as evangelists, inventors, adopters and integration consultants not experts.
    4) In business cultures “experts” also implies a need for more siloed specialties. Having worked for years trying to break down business siloes this makes me cringe.

    Ultimately I think there’s a lot more charged emotional and operational baggage in the expert word. So let’s just not go there? I’d rather see myself and other really passionate people like you do rockstar work that makes a difference without all the pomp. 🙂

  11. @leisa heh, you sort of illustrate my point. I see you as a usability expert, because those are the conversations that we usually have. And I describe you as a usability expert to people when I talk about you. I don’t think that, in all the time we’ve known each other, that we’ve actually had the conversation about what you do. Which goes to show that if we don’t talk about which things we are expert in, other people might not figure it out for themselves. 😉

    @lee, This is a lot less about me wanting to self-label as an expert, or my competency, and more about my freedom to call myself an expert if I want to without ludicrous censure from the wider community.

    Like most people commenting, I’m not great at turning round to the world and saying ‘Hey, I’m fricken ace as this stuff!’, which is probably more of a failing than we like to admit. After all, there are lots and lots of people quite willing to fluff themselves up despite having zero knowledge/talent/ability, so if those of us who _are_ expert don’t then we do ourselves and our knowledgeable colleagues a disservice. How many times do we see people with big gobs and no talent doing better than really smart people who are modest and restrained?

    Third party recommendation, word of mouth, testimonials… these things are all nice. But I’ve become sceptical of the idea that we live in lovely meritocracy where all one needs is to be good, and from that the rest will flow. One actually needs to be good, and well connected, and able to promote oneself effectively, and that means we need to talk about what we’re good at, and we need to be able to call ourselves experts without then worrying that we’re going to get pounded on.

  12. So, I’m biased, because I work with Suw, and I totally love working with her. If I hadn’t, I probably would have gone on thinking I also have expertise in social media. I mean, I’m on Twitter, Facebook, WordPress, and the-next-cool-app, right?

    Through working with Suw, I actually /tell/ other people I’m working with a social media expert. My job sits somewhere between web product management, project management, UX and tech lead — I’m a generalist to the nth degree.

    But someone like Suw would (and should) approach the problem of building a new application that has social aspects from a much higher level. Design concentrates on what we can build, and how we do it. Design should also consider /why/ we build. Before anything gets put on paper, bigger questions need to be ask – should we build it? Is it relevant? What does a conversation mean, what is a conversation or human interaction in a particular context? All these questions need to be asked and preliminary answers established as a starting point onto which a design process can then map, refine, build and test.

    A social media expert today is a modern form of anthropologist in a specific field. There is a definite problem where our professions in the web are very vague and hard to understand, therefore hard to create proper professional certification for — it all moves too fast. But if you’re an expert in your field, it shouldn’t be all too hard to know another expert when you meet one.

  13. An extra note about the Dan Schawbel article: of course, he speaks there about individual branding.

    All good and stuff, sure thing. But if we all followed his advice, we’ll have endless number of people trying to invent fancy job titles and not lead to anything fruitful for the profession.

    What would make more sense is to create groups of practitioners and start looking at educating our peers, as well as those who we influence and influence us professionally.

  14. @Andy, yes, it’s true that none of us know where things are going, and that’s why we shouldn’t make stupid predictions. But that doesn’t mean that some of us aren’t as advanced as we can be in understanding the current state of play. Rapidly developing fields just need more effort to keep on top of.

    The fact that other technologies have promised more than they could deliver has no bearing on how well social media will live up to the hype. Truth is, sometimes it will and sometimes it won’t. And the fact that some experts may contribute to social media not living up to its promise is a failure of the expert, not a failure in the word ‘expert’ or the notion of experts. People can see themselves however they like and, indeed, I’m not advocating that anyone should use the word ‘expert’ – I’m just saying that people should be free to use the word if they want without the automatic assumption that they must be talking out of their arse if they do.

    I also don’t believe that experts perforce create silos – that’s more of a cultural thing of separating out areas of expertise and not letting or encouraging the people who specialise to cross paths with more people from other fields. Most innovation happens on the edge, on the intersection between areas of expertise, but if those fields never intersect, you get silos.

    I think the fact that there is emotional and operational baggage tied to the word ‘expert’ is exactly why we should go there. It’s like the word ‘social’. If we don’t unpack all that baggage it’s going to weigh us all down.

    @steph. thank you for such a glowing comment! I also totally agree with the idea that constantly trying to invent new job titles – a hobby of social media types – is a pretty poor idea. That’s why I usually just grit my teeth and say ‘social media consultant’ despite all the problems I have with those three words!

    @everyon, the other thing that I want to emphasise is that this is really about freedom of choice, not about whether or not I think the word expert is a good one or not. It does have its problems, but we can’t dismiss it because of that because other people, from outside of our field, don’t have the same issues we do and it’s foolish for us to project our assumptions on to them.

  15. A very sound post; I absolutely agree with your observation that equality of opportunity and equality of outcomes can be easily confused.

    The difficulty of being recognised as an expert is not exclusive to social media professionals, as I’m sure you realise. Trying to sell services to a client without the benefit of a universally recognised brand is likely always to take a lot of communication about credibility and the value of the work at the end of the day.

    Word of mouth work very well in this context and persistence in pitching etc. I would not be in favour of an academic hierarchy of clearly defined capabilities. I guess what I’m saying is that being a social media expert is one thing, being good at selling your services is quite another – and not dependent on knowing social media.

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