When Can We Start To Say “Expert?”

Are you an expert? Since getting involved social media a few years ago, I’ve consistently shied away from describing myself with one word:


I’ve also avoided using the word to describe others.

Not only have I shied away from using the word, I’ve been pretty harsh on the people who have used it.

Plenty of other people have similarly railed against social media “experts” – Michael Pinto is one recent example that attracted attention, but others like Brian Solis, Michael Gray, Geoff Livingston and Beth Harte and Susan Murphy have written about it in recent months.

I have avoided the “expert” term in the past for a few reasons:

  1. Because I’m still learning every day;
  2. Because the term “expert” sets you up for a fall;
  3. Calling yourself an “expert” makes you look like a pompous ass – that should be left to other people;
  4. Social media as a “discipline” (for want of a better word) has only been around for a few years;
  5. Social media is evolving so quickly that few people can really get a handle on everything.

Until recently I’ve agreed with Chris Brogan‘s take that saying you’re a social media expert is like saying you’re an email expert

Recently, though, I’ve started to wonder about my stance on “experts.”

  • Social media has now been around for a few years;
  • A lot of people have now been implementing and advising organizations and people on this for a while;
  • We’ve started to see a widening gap between people who get it right and people who get it wrong that makes me think it might be time to differentiate between the professionals and the enthusiasts.

I’m still not going to use the term about myself as I think my original points still stand in relation to me, but I’m starting to consider breaking it out to describe the people that I think consistently hit the nail on the head.

I wonder, does anyone care about this distinction outside of the fishbowl? Are those of us inside the bowl shooting ourselves in the foot while those outside call themselves “experts,” potentially landing more clients in the process? Does it make any difference?

So what do you think? Are we at a point yet where we can talk about social media experts?

  • Avi

    There is no such a thing “expert”. you like it, and you doing it from love, or you don’t do that at all. the second thing, you should practice yourself like you said, learning every day.

  • Dave Fleet it’s like you are reading my mind. Just about to blog on this today. I really don’t think anyone can call themselves an expert at this point in the game. I think you can call yourself a consultant or a professional but the laundry list of rules that keep surfacing on blogs and on twitter do become tiresome to me. I think that the qualities of any professional are to approach business with a sense of morality and a goal of treating people with respect and not lying to them. It’s that simple. If you can adhere to those business guidelines you shouldn’t need the “rules” of “experts”. But that’s just my two cents!

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  • I don’t think we’ll get to that point because of your first point – we’re learning everyday. The day you stop learning is the day you might as well get out. There’s evolution in all industries, but definitely in ours – there’s no way we can consider ourselves experts when there’s such change.

  • Hey Dave. I think the most telling point is that those to whom we’d most likely apply the expert label aren’t the ones calling themselves an expert. They’re too busy building their expertise and doing the things that made them so respected in the first place.

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  • While I concur with the premise of the post, I think the community inside the fishbowl spends far too much time debating this topic. As the social media space matures, the market self corrects (usually) and weeds out the professionals from the enthusiasts.

    Just look at the interactive marketing strategists, web analytics specialists, web designers, etc… for proof. These areas of the interactive landscape have been around much longer, and are more mature. There is NO debate about what makes one an “expert” or professional in these areas. It is obvious, in most cases, if someone has the combination of knowledge, expertise, experience in delivering successful programs in their respective area.

    I’m not confusing someone who can setup a Google Analytics report with someone who can provide Web Analytics & Measurement strategy, planning and analysis.


    Someone who can design a user experience that helps end users accomplish a task more easily, in an exceptional way with someone that can download Dreamweaver and “design” a website.


    Confusing the difference between someone who can craft an interactive marketing strategy that accomplishes business goals, and fits nicely into an integrated marketing plan with someone that defines an interactive marketing strategy as “you need a web presence, I’ll build you a web site.”

    So, I’m cognizant of the points you made. And constantly evaluate myself and others re: our social media learning, usage, and expertise. However, in the end, I don’t care all that much about the labels and terms being thrown about. Pretenders proclaiming “expert” status have a short shelf life before the market exposes them.

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  • Dave – I’m not sure this question is very relevant to the people who eventually end up hiring the “experts”. In my experience they are all smart enough to look past self-given titles and get to the heart of the matter, which is “can you help me make money”?

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  • Hi Dave, I was recently talking about this at a workshop. It’s hard to master any medium that evolves faster than our ability to learn from our experiences while documenting real business impact. We’re always learning as you say.

    My stance? Social Media Expert is not a profession. It’s not about how we describe ourselves, but how others refer to our capabilities and expertise. 🙂

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  • I have heard the phrase, “the tyranny of experts” embraced by the “crowd” and justified by the success of such enterprises as Wikipedia. My retort: Next time you need to cross a river, why not drive across a bridge built by the crowd instead of an engineer (that is, an “expert” at engineering)? I blogged about the issue here: http://blog.holtz.com/index.php/who_you_gonna_call_expert_or_amateur/

    I also told C.C. Chapman that he should go ahead and call himself an expert, given the definition of one: “a person with special knowledge or ability who performs skillfully.” There are those who create a profile on Facebook and hang out a social media consultant shingle; then there are those who study the research, read the books, attend seminars and conferences and workshops, immerse themselves in the various technologies, understand the metrics…I just don’t get the objection to claiming expertise if you, in fact, have it.

  • I always thought Brogan’s quip about email experts was a cute, but it belies the fact that there ARE email experts… lots of them. There are people who create and run CRM solutions for business, there are people who set-up email servers, there are people who train others how to use the features in Outlook, etc. I’ll bet there are hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of people who make an important part of their living through their email expertise.

    I think what this whole debate has really been about is the perceived auditcity of some to proclaim themselves as ‘experts’ when there are many others who feel they know as much or more than the self-proclaimed experts.

    To the point that a few folks have made here, I’d say get over it. If people are actually good at the job they say they are good at, they can keep calling themselves experts. If not, they are going to get called on it.

    And really, isn’t THAT the great thing about social media — being able to call people on their BS? 🙂

  • Ah, the expert question. I have but one observation that comes from personal experience:

    When youʼre the social media person within an organization, you had better get comfortable with being called an expert by your clients, colleagues and superiors, or get comfortable telling those same people they’re all mistaken.

  • There’s no problem calling someone a “social media expert” if they deserve the title. However, I can understand why you may shy away from referring to yourself as such.

    If you’re asking if there are “social media experts” at all. I say definitely.
    Maybe as a newcomer to social media,it is easier for me to see more experienced people as experts compared to myself. But I think, in the end there are people out there who are extremely knowledgeable about social media, always ahead of the game and are very good at what they do. The people who, as you said, “consistently hit the nail on the head”. I don’t see anything wrong with calling them “experts”.

  • I agree with you. It’s not for me to don myself an expert or guru, that’s for others to do. But if your peers say you are, then simply say thank you.

    I think our post was about self-appointed experts. 🙂 Good work, Dave, and great comments.

  • Tay Exley

    My feeling is that anyone CALLING THEMSELF an expert is really dangerous. In my limited exposure to experts (mainly professors who where “world experts on….”), these were always the people who lacked basic communication and interpersonal skills. In order to improve any discipline and continue to allow people to develop expertise, it’s necessary for the people at the top to listen to the “non-experts” around them. When I was working as a Teaching Assistant, some of the best ideas came from students who were looking at concepts with fresh eyes.

    However, if people want to call you an expert, the best thing to do is ask them why they think that. Maybe you can actually learn something from their comments.

  • Follow the work, not the yappity yap.

    I think the most important distinction here is not whether the label “expert” can ever apply. People can debate that all they like. The reality is there are people who have taken their “enthusiasm” for the space, combined it with their “expertise” as communicators and who either focus on social media on behalf of their organizations or who work as consultants with actual real-life clients on a daily basis.

    Keep an eye out for work posted on Peter Kim’s wiki http://wiki.beingpeterkim.com/, or the Canadian version at http://socialmediacasestudies.wetpaint.com to follow the work vs. the punditry.

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  • When you consider there are new tools developed and launched every day, how can an expert know them all?

    Expertise is an illusion. Those who describe themselves with the term are sinning.

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  • Self-proclamation usually means one thing – RUN!!!

    I put far more credence into recommendations from people whose insight I value and trust, as opposed to someone’s own (often inflated) opinion of themselves.

    Now about that transit issue…

  • I actually never called myself a “branding expert.” The moniker was nailed to my forehead by peers and clients. One day, an author referred to me in her book as “the best branding expert on the planet,” and it stuck — much to the chagrin of some, most of whom are posers, anyway! 😀

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  • I know enough to know that I don’t know enough.

    Any true “expert” knows that there is SO MUCH more for them to learn and integrate into their expertise that self-proclaiming to be something is a bit of a foolish gambit, for no sooner do those words come out of your mouth a new innovation comes along to outmode your “expertise”. Life is a learning process.

    Yes, you may be proficient in your field and hopefully even at the top of your game, but this alone does not make you an expert. The word expert has been Web 2.0’d- meaning, we’ve taken a valid word and buried it in the graveyard of trite overused terms in today’s social media sphere.

    Actions speak louder than words. If you have to tell others that you’re cool you’re probably not that cool anyway. Let others call you an expert or whatnot. Eventually through all of your actions people will start to call you certain words that fit with your actions. If “expert” is one of them, so be it. Being a self-proclaimed expert is boring.

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  • I’m with Ken; I think we’re overly debating this topic because, inside said fishbowl, we want this perception of humility and we’re cautious about overstating our capabilities in this new field. I’m all for that, because I agree that there’s far too much for any one person to know it all.

    That said, some social media have been working in communications or outreach for many years, and social media is a mechanism, not a discipline in itself (a la Chris Brogan’s reference to being an expert in email). So is it fair to say that some are more experienced than others in the methods and philosophies of sound communication? Social media is just the vehicle.

    Expertise is an external perception, anyway, and it’s all relative. Those working with you want to be able to bestow that term so they take comfort in your knowledge. The proof, however, is in the execution, and that label can be taken away as easily as it’s handed out.

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  • Dave, I think it’s important to distinguish between people who understand social media rules and relationship building and those who don’t. I recently read an academic journal article about social media that reflected little understanding of the area. There must be some way to distinguish people who are engaged in social media and those who are not.

  • Dave, I have to agree with you. The term expert can often be used loosely but I think you have a point. Social media is here to stay and the more campaigns you plan and implement for a client the more experienced you become. We are starting to figure out quickers ways of implementing things and this is because our team are doing it everyday. However, that said I am still not calling myself an expert yet.

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  • It’s all in context. To you I am not an expert in social media. To my librarian and knowledge management friends who have not yet delved into this area or are just starting out, I am. They look to me to experiment, learn and then teach them. They come to me for advice, they ask me to write papers, speak and teach. Voila, I am labeled an expert.

    Conversely, you may see me as a library expert, but my librarian friends see my skills as about the same as theirs. So being a librarian makes me stand out to you, but not to them.

    My wise friend Joel Alleyne says “if you speak French in New York City, you are an expert in French. If you speak French in France, you are just another person on the street.”

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