Sitting in on the Marketing Technology Show Friday with Doug Karr and the folks at The Marketing Technology Blog, my friend Erik Deckers offered up a discussion question around the subject of “experts.” An off-shoot of the social media douchebags discussion, which I loathe (and said as much about several years ago), but one that is certainly worth having from time to time.

As Erik pointed out, most people get Malcolm Gladwell‘s 10,000 hour rule wrong. The general assumption is that he wrote in Outliers that you need 10,000 hours of practice to be an expert. That is not what Gladwell wrote. His assertion was based on research by Anders Ericsson that says you need around 10,000 hours of work to be “great” at something. We’re not talking “expert,” we’re talking Michael Jordan/Tiger Woods/The Beatles/Yo-Yo Ma greatness.

Erik’s point was, thus, there are plenty of experts. Outliers (exceptional, freak of nature talents) are rare.

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In the podcast, we have a lively discussion (bandwidth issues at the studio causes the audio to break up a bit, but you can listen in the embed here) about experts and part of my opinion of the whole expert discussion is represented there, but I thought more about the topic a bit and wanted to offer a couple additional insights for the discussion.

I don’t agree with Erik’s assessment, as finely argued as it might be. There are still no social media experts, in my opinion. Even if you wanted to base the argument on 10,000 hours of work in the field, that’s five years of 40-hours-per-week doing nothing but social media. But expertise doesn’t just come from experience or trial and error. It comes from instruction and advice from others. It’s not just practice, but also theory. And there just aren’t that many mentors to go around.

Plus, the fact the world of social media just three years ago … 2008 … was incredibly different than the world of social media today and, well, there just simply has not been enough time for anyone to accrue what I would consider an expert level of knowledge of the field. Are there folks with some degree of expertise? Sure. Are there those who are closer to being an expert than others? Yes.

But this is not a competition.

If you’re making your clients or company happy, who gives a damn if you’re better than the next guy or gal? If that’s something in your mindset, you have some growing up to do and some priorities to realign. Is Jay Baer a better consultant than me? CK Kerley? Dean Holmes? Not to the clients that pay my bills. And those are the only people who should matter.

But my opinion of “experts” has never been about experience or hours of tutelage. The bottom line on the experts argument for me is but one point: If other people say you are an expert, you are. If you say you are an expert, you’re an ass.

It harkens back to one of the core philosophies of social media in the first place: March in the room trumpeting your own message and no one will listen to you. Take your own advice. Leave the labeling to others. Do your job. Do it well. That will bring you all the work, accolades and titles you could ever want.

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About Jason Falls

Jason Falls

Jason Falls is the founder and chief instigator for Social Media Explorer's blog and signature Explore events. He is a leading thinker, speaker and strategist in the world of digital marketing and is co-author of two books, No Bullshit Social Media: The All-Business, No-Hype Guide To Social Media Marketing and The Rebel's Guide To Email Marketing. By day, he leads digital strategy for CafePress, one of the world's largest online retailers. His opinions are his, not necessarily theirs. Follow him on Twitter (@JasonFalls).

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Comments on Social Media Explorer are open to anyone. However, I will remove any comment that is disrespectful and not in the spirit of intelligent discourse. You are welcome to leave links to content relevant to the conversation, but I reserve the right to remove it if I don't see the relevancy. Be nice, have fun. Fair?

  • chuckgose

    I wish people would focus more on the work being done and less on the title they are given. If somebody wants to call themself an expert, fine. Or if people want to call them an expert, fine. I much prefer that over “ninja,” “scientist,” “overlord,” or whatever goofy title are giving. Those people need help.

    • http://socialmediaexplorer.com JasonFalls

      Amen, Chuck. Thanks for that.

  • http://www.experiate.net Paul Flanigan

    “Expert” is, to me, just not a strong word anymore. People put it on their resumes and headlines to sound better (or the best) at anything to help themselves stand out. And with social media, I see a lot of people giving themselves this identity.

    Expert is, to me, a measurable metric. Perhaps not so much in time, but in measurable aspects. I love to read. I don't consider myself an expert reader. Stephen Hawking knows math. Yes. He's an expert.

    My preferred terminology that I label people is “trusted resource” or “trusted authority.” I think those are perfect to identify those who have extensive knowledge about something, but also are willing to share their knowledge to learn more.

    “Expert.” Ugh.

    • http://socialmediaexplorer.com JasonFalls

      I like “trusted resource” a lot. I don't think I'd have too much of a problem calling myself that, but I'd have to frame it right … “many people consider me a trusted resource,” doesn't come off as too self-important to me. Good thought.

      • http://www.stevemacalpine.com steve macalpine

        I'm quite uncomfortable if anybody calls themselves an expert in this field. When you think about it, in the context of marketing history, social media has really just been recognized as a legitimate marketing channel.
        I'd suggest that it would be incredibly hard to find an individual that is an expert in every skill set required; analytics, content, tools, integration, development etc

        btw. I recently answered a Quora question which is relates to this subject.
        Can I claim the 'trusted resource' description ?
        http://www.quora.com/How-usefu

        • http://socialmediaexplorer.com JasonFalls

          Right there with you, Steve. Thanks for the comment!

  • http://grandresume.com/resume_writing resume writing

    Very interesting information! Thank you!

  • http://www.spiral16.com/ Eric Melin

    Jason-
    With an 'industry' like this that's constantly evolving, there are those who lead the discussion and challenge others to think. It may not be the strict definition of an expert, but I'm glad there are people like you who keep the discussion grounded, 'expert' or not. Thanks for the insight!

    • http://socialmediaexplorer.com JasonFalls

      Thanks, Eric.

  • http://twitter.com/debworks debworks

    Jason,
    There are no SM experts, the field is too new and too evolving – who has time to be an expert in social media? However, there are people who provide a valuable service for their clients and get them results in the social media sphere. I'm working on being one of those people. I constantly learn from people like @ambercadabra and @beckymccray and @debng – just to name a few. It's okay to say you don't know the answer. It's even better to say “let me find out for you.” I think we can not be all things to all people. I also think as we develop our areas of expertise, we'll get better at serving our customers.

    Keep bringing the conversations out in the open – I love the discussions that follow. As always, you rock.
    @debworks

    • http://socialmediaexplorer.com JasonFalls

      Thanks, Deb. Appreciate the support. I certainly would consider you and the ones you named experts. Keep on keepin' on.

  • http://twitter.com/Ilana221 Ilana Rabinowitz

    Jason, you captured it perfectly with this: If other people say you are an expert, you are. If you say you are an expert, you’re an ass. I'll respond with my favorite quote from Shunryu Suzuki (and I find myself quoting this more and more lately): “In the beginner's mind there are many possibilities. In the expert's there are few.”

    • http://socialmediaexplorer.com JasonFalls

      Well said, Ilana.

  • http://twitter.com/Rasinen Thomas Rasinen

    Great post, Jason. Michael Jackson however would have been a better analogy than The Beatles or Yo-Yo Ma. Have you seen either sing and dance simultaneously as Michael Jackson did? A big part of doing social media well is balancing several tasks and/or clients at a time and maintaining train of thought for those tasks and more importantly, multiple clients.

    • http://socialmediaexplorer.com JasonFalls

      Fair point. Sham-on, my friend.

  • http://jessicanow.com/ Jessica Smith

    Ironically, while I've been called a social media expert, and I'm honored by it…I prefer to be referenced as a “marketing practitioner”. Having started my career in marketing and business development during the internet bubble of the late 90s at a large consultancy and the fact that I'm still paying my student loans from the degree I earned before that…well, a lot of the labels out there around social media almost seem to diminish the foundation I spent years laying for the career I have today.
    I agree with you, what matters is the value the organization I work for gleans from the work I do for them. With all the lists and name dropping going on, it's hard to not get caught up in the “see and be seen” in our space. I know this because I've experienced this first hand. But if I had to choose, I'd much rather be doing the actual work and getting results and that, like you my friend, is the focus.

    • http://socialmediaexplorer.com JasonFalls

      Good stuff, Jessica. Thanks for the perspective.

  • http://www.facebook.com/LaurenHeishman Lauren Heishman

    In the space-time continuum, it should be notice that an expert, by definition, is noted in the Heishman-Flillard handbook as “someone working for Heishman-Flillard Global Strategic Communications who is wearing a social media expert badge in our global headquarters.” That being said, since social media is a mockery of the enlightened public relations community and we still will solely rely on the likes of Life Magazine and my good friend Walter Cronkite, isn't this “blog” (as you call it) just silly altogether?

    You're Welcome.

    Lauren

    • http://socialmediaexplorer.com JasonFalls

      I can't even comment back, I'm laughing so hard.

  • http://www.communityirl.com/ brandonchesnutt

    This is definitely one of the most polarizing topics out there. As far as I'm concerned, validation in this space can only come from outcomes and results. The rest is just fluff.

    I think you said it best – “Do your job. Do it well. That will bring you all the work, accolades and titles you could ever want.”

    • http://socialmediaexplorer.com JasonFalls

      Thanks, B.

  • http://efanpage.com Sebastian

    Interesting post. I can see your point of defining expertise on a temporal scale and your call for mentorship from experts. I understand and agree with your point about the shift in social media and marketing over the years and that there has not yet been enough time to develop a community of individuals who could possibly commit to social media as a school of thought.

    Do business programs in the university setting not constitute developing this community of “experts”? The development of students and academics receiving upper level degrees seems to suggest to me a certain level of expertise. What do you think?

  • http://sylvanmedia.com Mike

    Interesting post. I can see your point of defining expertise on a temporal scale and your call for mentorship from experts. I understand and agree with your point about the shift in social media and marketing over the years and that there has not yet been enough time to develop a community of individuals who could possibly commit to social media as a school of thought.

    Do business programs in the university setting not constitute developing this community of “experts”? The development of students and academics receiving upper level degrees seems to suggest to me a certain level of expertise. What do you think?

    • http://socialmediaexplorer.com JasonFalls

      Again, my big hang-up is the self-appointment. When CNN interviews the head of the philosophy department as an expert in philosophy, I'm cool with it. If the head of the philosophy department says, “I'm an expert in philosophy,” he's the last person I'm going to trust, just because he thinks too highly of his own ability.

      Maybe it's just my own personal hang up. Someone else establishing an opinion or argument for “expert” status doesn't bother me at all.

      • http://sylvanmedia.com Mike

        Hi Jason,

        I totally understand where you are coming from. Perhaps thinking of experts as a community of people rather than individuals may broaden our definition of expertise. This would allow a certain “checks and balances” so that one individual isn't the head but that a community of thought either supports or negates his/her argument.

  • http://www.mediaegg.com/ alizasherman

    Hi Jason,

    I find it fascinating how there is such a backlash on the term “expert” in conjunction with “social media.” Back in the day (the early 90s Internet and then Web consulting), those of us with more experience and applied learning in our field could call ourselves “experts” without fear of reprisal or making people cringe. The fact of the matter is there can be “experts” in any realm – including social media. It is just fashionable at this moment to pull apart that delineation, partly because of there is a glut of people with very little experience in social media calling themselves experts and diluting what the rest of us have worked long and hard to achieve to be leaders in our field.

    I also think part of the “expert” backlash comes from the very “nature” of social media. We're all interlinked in much more intimate ways than ever before and because so much of our public and business discourse seems very “personal,” we do cringe a little at the thought of using the term “expert” to define our skill sets because we'd probably never use that term in regular social settings. As our work and professional exchanges take on a much more personal feel, it does seem objectionable to call ourselves experts in those circles.

    But Jason, no matter how much you doth protest, you are an expert in your field. You are considered that by others and if you didn't feel you were to some degree – if you didn't believe you had something valuable to offer others (clients, your followers, the public at large) 0 you wouldn't be putting yourself out there in such a thoughtful and credible way, demonstrating your expertise.

    I think those of us with the many years under our belts of hard work, happy clients, good peer reviews, and the fundamental understanding that we are all still constantly learning sets us apart as experts, whether we call ourselves that or not.

    In business, it IS about competition – competition for winning the client, for getting the next gig, and for besting our last work. What it shouldn't be is a popularity contest. Winning awards for our work in social media should be the least of our goals. Doing good and meaningful work, working well with others, and being honorable in our intentions is what we all should strive to do. Calling ourselves an expert should be something we are allowed to do after a careful assessment of the efforts we've put into our work. There is no magic formula, just good business sense.

    “Expert” should not be a dirty word. And we shouldn't care so much about any label as long as we have the stuff to back it up. Now I'm going to get back to work because I love what I do and am proud to say I am an expert in my field.

    • http://socialmediaexplorer.com JasonFalls

      I see your point, Aliza. But I just feel that someone calling themselves an expert is like calling themselves hot or a genius or rich. It just drips of self-aggrandizement and ego. I suppose the context might change my opinion a bit, but I just shudder whenever I hear it. My doctor is an expert a treating family medical issues. But if he introduced himself as someone who is an expert at such, I'd think, “What a douche.”

      Am I an expert? According to some others, yes. Do I have expertise (different context and wording) yes. I'll gladly accept the pat on the back, but I'm not going to apply it myself.

      And if you beat me to a client as a result … good for you, I guess.

      Fair?

      • http://www.mediaegg.com/ alizasherman

        Sure, fair enough.

        BTW, did I tell you I'm not only an expert, but I'm hot, too? ;)

        • http://socialmediaexplorer.com JasonFalls

          You forget, I've met you. You're smokin'! ;-)

  • http://www.straightfromhale.com Brettseo

    I can see where you are coming from but I thought I would add a few thoughts:
    The short history of of social media shouldn't automatically remove one's ability to be an expert. If you are a leader, a learner, a student of strategery, whatever, you can easily be respected as an expert. I guess that would fall under the “others call you an expert” line of thinking.
    As far as calling yourself an expert, I have to agree…mostly. Some situations would be contextual of course but I hope any doctor I visit is an expert. I would also expect him to tell me so by listing his resume of qualifications versus saying he's an expert in the field.

    I do see another expert in the mix, user – resume writing – expert link builder :)

    Good post, thanks!

  • http://mediaemerging.com Scott Hepburn

    I've adopted a “Theory of Relativity” approach to defining an expert: An expert is a person who knows more than you about the topic. Who's MORE of an expert: Jason Falls, CK Kerley, or Dean Holmes? It doesn't matter…you all know more than me, and that makes you an expert relative to me, so I should pay YOU to teach or do for me.

    After all, isn't that why we want to know who the experts are? So we can figure out who to pay?

    Is my definition unscientific bullshit? Of course. But it serves the purpose. Now, deciding WHICH expert to pay is another matter.

    I subscribe to the Rick Blaine theory of experts: “Oh, he's just like any other man, only more so.”

  • pierreloic

    Scott, your approach to defining expertise is anything but BS; it's actually used in management consulting where all well-conducted content interviews end with the question: “could you mention 3 people in your organization/industry who know more about this topic than you do?”. After 4 or 5 interviews, you see a very strong convergence towards the experts. My company has developed a way to automate this research. To Jason's point: an expert is 'elected' by his or her peers.

    Jason, I'm 200% with you on the social media expert thing. I actually wrote a piece on this back in 2008 to caution our clients against self-proclaimed social media experts – http://bit.ly/ij7ASz (sadly) still very current…

  • http://www.marketingtechblog.com Douglas Karr

    I'd rather be an “ass” out there closing contracts then. Do I believe I'm the best? No. Do I believe others have different perspectives? Of course. I never said that I'm the 'best' or the 'only' expert.

    The definition of an expert is: A person with a high degree of skill in or knowledge of a certain subject. Am I arrogant for saying I have a 'high degree of skill or knowledge' with respect to Social Media? No! I absolutely do. According to the definition, I believe myself to be an expert.

    If you don't believe you're an expert, why would you bother working in this field?

    • http://socialmediaexplorer.com JasonFalls

      Two different things, Doug. I think I'm a lot of things. But I don't

      self-appoint.

      It's not a question of whether or not I'm an expert. It's whether or

      not I appoint myself such.

  • http://about.me/Otir Otir

    You know, everything is so relative! For social medialites, that discuss between themselves, write in their circles, and tend to have conversations with other social medialites, the level of expertise can be measured completely differently than from what a person would appear to someone who is in a totally different field of interests.

    We can always be the expert “for” someone when we can initiate them into something they don't know. There is no “absolute value” to measure for such a title. Then one can become humble enough to measure his or her own level of expertise in one field and claim it in a relevant way. I will appear as the absolute expert in certain domains to you if you ignore them absolutely, and if you master the same domain, I might appear to you as an amateur or a beginner.

  • http://DonnyGamble.com Donny Gamble

    I think that there are no real experts any more because the Internet just evolves too fast

  • http://twitter.com/CruxBridgeMedia CruxBridge Media

    Wow .. I wrote about this about a year and a half ago. Nothing like this post, but still …

    http://cruxbridge.com/2010/09/…/

  • http://www.microsourcing.com MicroSourcing

    Outliers only show up once in a blue moon. The good news though, is that experts are made, and everyone of us has a shot at that.

  • http://www.axzm.com Dallas SEO

    Everybody is a self proclaimed social media expert now. It kind of makes some of us change our job titles.

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  • http://urgentessays.co.uk/ essay writing service

    [...]If other people say you are an expert, you are. If you say you are an expert, you’re an ass.[...]
    oh completely agree. shame not everybody is able to understand this point and behave in an appopriate way!

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  • http://www.g2apex.com Alexander Welz

    I agree with everything you say. I have seen so many people over the years say how great they are at understanding social media. but you know they never owned a blog, twitter account or anything else. If you did not do it, you don't know it

  • Gokul Chand

    As a social media professional, if your client or company says you are good at your job, it doesn’t what people call you expert or anything else. ‘ Social media expert’ is now a common keyword used by social media professionals to market their identity, just like people who market themselves as ‘Affiliate Marketing Gurus’. There are also certain companies where the term ‘social media expert’ is used as a designation, if you take a closer look into the job profile you can find them as a entry level or mid career level professionals. I know this from my personal experience. About an year ago i worked as an entry level professional for a consulting company, my designation at that organisation was ‘ Social Media Expert’.. Its not what people call you or how you call yourself, its what you do and how good you are at your.. in the end that what matters