Don’t call me an expert — unless you really want to 1


On the day after Thanksgiving, a day reserved for “family time” – which we clearly hadn’t gotten enough of during the preceding festivities; it’s kind of like how you need a vacation after your vacation – we sat around the breakfast table, deciding what to do. This kind of decision can be a source of much stress in my family, so it’s wise to have a few foolproof ideas up your sleeve beforehand, just in case no one can come up with anything better than bowling, which none of us particularly loves but which seems to be the default answer. Well, that and eating, but you can only consume so much turkey and chocolate pecan pie (though we’d proven willing to test those limits).

As we deliberated, my brother lamented that I was no longer a walking social calendar, a guy who kept track of enjoyable activities around the city. That “city,” I pointed out, had been Chicago – and knowledge about that place would not be of much use in the Boston metro area. Though it would be possible to play the same role here, I have no real desire to build up similar expertise. Because while being regarded as a resource has its ego-boosting benefits, it also comes with a nagging responsibility. Much as you might want to, you can’t just go along for the ride and forego having an opinion. What’s the point of having all that information at your disposal if you’re not going to use it? Then there’s the expectation that comes along with every recommendation you make; if it doesn’t work out, you’ve only got yourself to blame. Cluelessness is severely underrated.

While I can safely claim ignorance of local events and attractions, I have not been able to escape another badge: the “social media expert.” Over the last few years, I’ve established a minor reputation as someone who cares about, and can explain, the ins and outs of using the ever-expanding array of social tools for both personal and business pursuits. I mostly have myself to blame for this – browse through this here portfolio site and you’ll quickly find several examples of personal branding – but that doesn’t mean I’m comfortable with the term.

It takes a lot, in my mind, to call yourself an “expert” in a given area. You need to have mastered certain agreed-upon skills and have some kind of proven track record, and you should have an ongoing awareness of how the field is evolving, as well as where you fit into it. Expertise is a vague mix of concrete accomplishments and abstract authority – and it typically takes a long time to achieve.Expert pin

It also exists on a sliding scale. Among my family members, all I need to do is explain the mechanics of managing a Twitter feed to attain expert status (less than a year ago, I was defending the whole idea of Twitter, so things are moving forward). At work, the bar is set a little higher – but I’ve still had to remind my boss a few times to avoid using the E-word when introducing me or describing my work to others.

As counter-intuitive as that may seem – who doesn’t want to be an expert in the office? – it’s really an act of self-preservation. Much of what I’m trying to do in my job is to build collaborative relationships with a variety of team members, and to promote new kinds of activity and engagement among our staff. I know that when I encounter a so-called “expert,” my bullshit meter immediately lurches to life; I’m looking to find holes in what this “authority” has to say. This may not be the reaction that everyone in the company has, but I’d bet it’s not too far off; skepticism is almost as common a trait among journalists and editors as is a fondness for alcohol. If I want anyone to listen to my ideas, it makes little sense to place myself above others – especially when we’re discussing a medium that’s meant to democratize things.

My reluctance also has more than a little to do with managing expectations; confident as I am about the need for and benefits of incorporating social strategy into everything we do as publishers, I’m also not convinced that it’s a magic bullet. Especially during the beginning stages, when processes and goals aren’t fully in place, I can’t be sure what’s going to work; I can only apply my experiences and knowledge to the situation at hand and help to push us on the path toward what I think is the right solution.

Which is why I’m somewhat amazed at the people who are able to call themselves “social media experts” without a whiff of uncertainty. Most people in this new – and nuanced – field are still grasping for answers, albeit some more effectively than others (not unlike “fantasy football experts”). It’s not that I balk at the idea that there are best practices and lessons to be learned when it comes to social media, or that there are people out there who are well-qualified to discuss and apply them; I’m just not sure we’ve reached the point where expertise can be codified. I’m not alone in my hesitation, of course; do a search for “social media expert” and you’ll likely find Peter Shankman’s now infamous essay decrying the title, and Gary Vaynerchuk’s assessment of most such experts as “clowns.” As those and other articles show, there isn’t even enough agreement about what social media professionals should know to be able to contribute to an organization (other than that it should be more than just social media).

So while it may be professionally savvy to call myself an expert (Dan Zarrella, the Social Media Scientist at HubSpot, says that people with “expert” or similar words in their Twitter bios tend to get a lot more followers, though you won’t find the term on his website), I can’t quite feel confident about using the word as it applies to social media. Especially when – as my mother put it this weekend – I could probably learn a thing or two about the topic from the four-year-olds in my niece’s preschool class.


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