My wife makes fun of me for using Twitter. She's a kindergarten teacher who has to make sure her kids' mittens are on and doesn't have time to enter the vast social media world. So when she sees me sitting on the couch, half paying attention to the TV, half paying attention to her, and mostly paying attention to Twitter, she gets a little perturbed. Since I use social media for my professional, as well as my personal life, I forget that I am an early adopter and that most of the people in this country don't participate. But if my wife were to ask me if I was a social media expert, I would say no. The problem I have with this space is that there are people who say yes with their only qualification is that they "use" it (without really defining what it is).
When I was a professor of communication, one of the subjects I taught was interpersonal communications; how people interact with one another gives us great insight into the communicative process, obviously. Invariably, the topic of relationships would arise and we would have these great discussions about how people communicate in a relationship. I would ask what makes a relationship work and would get many responses, but the question that would ultimately be asked was, "how can you tell if someone is an expert in relationships?" A very simple, yet exceptionally difficult question to answer. Do we define an expert in relationships someone who has been married for 35 years and can tell you about the positive of relationships? What about someone who's been divorced and can flip the veil to show you the underbelly of relationships? Finally, what about the person who spent 4 years in college, 6 years in graduate school to earn that Ph.D and helps couples learn how to communicate/live better? These are the same issues now with social media. Who do you trust as an expert?
The social sphere in regards to the Internet is still in its embryonic form, but is rapidly evolving. Much quicker, in fact, than anyone would have envisioned. Since the analogy of the wild west is often cited to describe the burgeoning arena of social media, let's stick with that metaphor. The rules of the early American West were simple: make sure you don't die. Other than that, it was a loose time and many people went out exploring with nothing to lose and all to gain. With social media experts, it's kind of the same thing. We're seeing an influx of social media experts who are claiming they are expert because they have nothing to lose and all to gain. They attract followers on Twitter because they brand themselves as experts. But trust me, they're not. How can you be an expert in a field that is less than 5 years old?
The short of it is as follows: The Internet has fostered the abhorrent growth of the self-promoter. Prior to the Web, the self-promoter was limited to rantings on the street or paying for infomercials at 3am, hoping to lure either the unemployed, the late-night shifters, or the wasted college student. They had fun products and were able to eke out a living, some even become pop cultural references: Ron Popeil immediately comes to mind.
But as the Internet grew in importance, many people realized that their soapbox and the audience surrounding it have gotten larger. So they try to be witty or try to be futuristic or try to be an expert. It all comes down to personal branding and framing who you are, a classic advertising trait. Mad Men; Season 1, episode 1. Right from the very beginning we see what it means to brand. Everyone else's tobacco is poisonous, but Sterling Cooper's client, Lucky Strikes is "toasted." So we have a plethora of social media experts who are toasted. Great. But how do you know how toasted they are?
A social media expert doesn't exist yet. Don't be fooled. However, there are many smart people who understand the POTENTIAL of social media. They can counsel a company or brand to use -- or not use -- social media. They can point to case studies of recent campaigns to show the importance of social media. But most importantly, they understand that even they may know how to use social media, they also know that it is in its earliest stages and replication is not constant for everyone.
You would think companies would know that in today's speedy communications realm to be quick in the response to crisis. Yesterday's plane landing in the Hudson showed that US Air is still living in an antiquated world. US Air has a Twitter account, with 42 followers and 0 updates. Umm...hi, your plane just skidded on water and you have nothing to put out to the public when thousands of people are getting information from Twitter before the mainstream media? It doesn't take a social media expert to know this. Then again, maybe it does. My name is Josh Sternberg and I'm a social media expert because I say I am. Now back to the ridicule of my wife, whose job actually makes a difference.