Twitter played host to a passionate discussion about social media experts earlier this week, kicked off by a blog post:  6 Reasons You Shouldn’t Brand Yourself as a Social Media Expert by Dan Schawbel, who describes himself as “the leading personal branding expert for Gen-Y” – reading the post I would say he’s wrong on most of the points he makes, but  what do I know, I’m just a social media expert.

Suw Charman-Anderson wrote a thoughtful post that provides a narrative on the issues, of which there are many. Picking up from a tweet in Suw’s post:

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.”

Sadly, the social media scene is full of self-proclaimed experts. As opportunists jump on the TwitterLinkedFaceInMySpaceBook bandwagon, much of Twitter and the Blogosphere has become a torrent of misinformation and blatant  nonsense, most of it promulgated by “experts” – it is frustrating for those that have been making a living, rather than a noise, with the technologies.

Dan’s post says “When everyone in the world is a social media expert it loses meaning” I agree with the sense, but strictly speaking he’s wrong. When everyone calls themselves a social media expert, including people that clearly aren’t, it causes people to question the credibility of people making the claim. At least it should, and that isn’t a bad thing. It also makes it much harder to find the people who are actually the experts. Suw continues:

I can’t think of any other professional field where is is frowned upon 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?

Now we get to the troublesome thing about being an expert, and it’s a problem that isn’t specific to social media: How do you know you are an expert? How do you know if someone else is an expert?

You start off knowing, roughly, nothing. You learn something. You learn some more things and you start to feel a bit of an expert. You learn a few more things, and you start to call yourself an expert. You learn a lot more things and you realise that you weren’t an expert before, and you probably still aren’t one now. You learn a huge amount more things, and you aren’t so bothered about calling yourself an expert anymore, but everyone else starts to call you one, so you start to call yourself one too. You’ve earned the right too.

I’m trying to gently say that expertise is generally established by a third party. Traditionally, it was a matter of formal qualifications. However, the academic system struggles to keep pace with technology. It will be a while before we see the first degree course in social media, and even the thought of it causes an uneasy sensation in the pit of my stomach, so don’t get any ideas. Academic qualifications aren’t it then, although there are some highly relevant ones.

I jokingly mentioned the word “pundit” as a substitution in the maligned “social media expert” phase. Strangely it didn’t go down too well! Interestingly through, it is one of the words listed under “expert” in my trusty Mac OS X Thesaurus, and whilst I’m in that reference library, here is a quote from the dictionary definition of expert:

In specific fields, the definition of expert is well established by consensus and therefore it is not necessary for an individual to have a professional or academic qualification for them to be accepted as an expert. In this respect, a shepherd with 50 years of experience tending flocks would be widely recognized as having complete expertise in the use and training of sheep dogs and the care of sheep.

Please note, for the avoidance of doubt, someone who got their first sheep 6 months ago, herded them into a pen once using their dog, and tells lovely stories about herding sheep, is not an expert. Twitter account or no.,  30,000 followers or not.

There is still the Naive Consumer Problem: Say I need to buy a skateboard. Shocking a face as it may be, I know very little about skateboards, other than they have wheels attached to a board, and  you skate with them. After talking with a few people that seem to know about skateboards, I quickly grasp that I may be missing some details. The kind of important details that justify a set of wheels costing slightly more than my first car., perhaps.

I know just enough to know that I don’t know enough, so I rely on other (independent) people to tell me who the experts are. Usually we really on other experts to tells us who the experts are. The nature of social media makes that process hard. As new entrants scramble for links, mentions, follows, retweets and generally anything that will give them credibility – that much needed “social capital” – objectivity flies out of the window, and everybody calls the person with three months more experience “an expert”. Meanwhile, new tools and best practice move on like an express train, on a day without strikes or leaves on the line.

Social media is such a young space that in some areas there may not be anyone with direct experience or knowledge. This is a new frontier, still under construction in many places. Someone once quipped that “everyone wants an expert, even when there isn’t one to be had” – I remember seeing an ad wanting someone with 5 years experience in a web application. I’d been the product manager from the start of its development, and I didn’t have 5 years experience with it.

BenjaminEllis@euan When I needed surgery that involved going close to my optic nerves, I was looking for someone who was called an expert in the field.

euan@BenjaminEllis and I was nearly fitted with a pacemaker I didn’t need by someone who was also called an expert.

The nature of expertise means that experts still make mistakes. Expertise is domain specific too. Social media is a huge and vaguely defined area, covering much of what constitutes the web today. I don’t think many would argue against calling Sir Tim an expert on web matters. However, even he says that we know longer understand the web. An expert knows their bounds.

Incidentally, Gordon Brown has appointed Sir Tim Berners-Lee to help “open up” government data. Great news.

Back to a definition then, since finding a social media expert is starting to have all of the characteristics of a wicked problem. The root of the word expert is  “expertus”, which means to have tried. Trying implies something else: failing. As noted by Charles Cohen at Being-Digital this week, the most valuable lessons come not from success, but from failing.


The advantage of getting into the game early is that you can make mistakes that enable you to learn. That’s one of the reasons that business should get on board now, not later. Another couple of years and you’ll be doing the equivalent of putting animated gifs on your home page in 2003.  The fact that I didn’t “get it” when I first saw Sir Tim’s prototype browser didn’t matter… Two years later and I was building web sites. By the time I was designing connectivity and security for on-line banks, making mistakes was no longer an option, for anyone. The web had matured.

I got to know what worked and what didn’t, not because somebody had told me, but because I had done both. There is more to expertise than just experience tough, back to Suw’s post:

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.

I have to confess that I had retreated to calling myself a social media practitioner recently. It was a vague attempt to make the point that I have “walked the talk” as opposed to just talking it. However, “practitioner” isn’t it, as friends have gently pointed out. Mastery is a process, and doing is just the first step. Being an expert means knowing when to break the rules, and eventually helping to making the rules. That only comes from experimentation and experience.

Perhaps the best question to ask the next expert you meet is “tell me about your failures, and what you’ve learnt from them.” The answer will tell you a lot.