The Mechanics of Social Web Expertise: What Really is an Expert?

If I drive a car does that make me a mechanic? If I read a cookbook and bake a cake does that make me a chef? If I take my temperature does that make me a doctor? So what would make me a expert?

As the avid researcher I am, I did a little research to see what others had to say on the topic of . By searching the phrase ‘social media expert’ on Google it returned  around 306,000 search results (I read the first two pages), on delicious 1027 bookmarks (of which I read 10) and I sat and painfully watched 6 of the 164 videos about it on YouTube.

What about Twitter? Well a Twitter Search showed we are certainly tweeting about it. Twist shows a direct correlation between use of the terms social media and expert.

I also came across a number of really interesting blog posts discussing social media expertise. These are well worth a read.


But these posts still left me feeling that perhaps the simple line of what really is an expert in the digital economy is getting lost in the deluge of social web examples, content, and a need to self-promote.

So this post is not so much about social web expertise, as it is about knowledge of technology.

Knowledge of Technology

In the early days of my research career looking at questions of usability I started researching knowledge of technology. More specifically comparing novice and experienced web users in how they differed in . This later formed the basis for my PhD on Web Knowledge and Web Usability.

A detailed review of the insights from this 350 page research thesis is best left for another blog post. However, from this research a number of core questions came up that provide some interesting food for thought as to how we think about ‘expertise’ in the digital economy – what ever the trend, platform, tool or technology; and how digital knowledge is socialized in the places and spaces we work.

So What Really is an Expert in the Digital Economy?

Before we really can use a term, be it to label ourselves or someone else, we need to know what it is and the appropriate context for it’s usage. Increasingly in digital or technological arena’s we use the terms expert, novice and experienced users alot, but often inconsistently.

The preliminary secondary research of academic studies and industry reports we did about knowledge, expertise, and usage (be it of technology or other complex products) revealed that very few could agree on what knowledge is and how it differed from experience, expertise or the process of learning. There was also limited agreement on the differing types, scope, levels of knowledge and how it could be measured.

So we did some primary research of users with differing experiences with technology (be it designers, users or project managers) and spoke to industry recognised leaders to help develop some standard considerations around the notion of expertise, especially as it relates to technology.

The research identified that an expert in digital technology actually denotes someone as:

  • having differing types of knowledge about technology stored in their memory,
  • differing breadth and depth of knowledge (scope) about the technology, and
  • having acquired this knowledge by differing means than an average consumer, user or member of the general population.

To be more specific:

  • The main types of knowledge we store in our memory are declarative (e.g., definitive knowledge about what Twitter is and why use it) and procedural (e.g., process knowledge about how Twitter works or could be used for marketing).
  • These types of knowledge can differ on a continuum in scope from being more specialised and technical knowledge (e.g., design, development and socio-cultural impact of Twitter) to more common, generally known principles (e.g., it’s domain and tools such as Tweetdeck to manage it’s usage)
  • We acquire knowledge through different experiences or episodes (also called episodic knowledge). These can include formal education (e.g., masterclass about Twitter), informal learning (e.g., reading a blog post or report about Twitter), direct usage (e.g., Frequency and length of use, Tweeting for oneself or designing/implementing strategy for client) or vicariously through our social networks (e.g., friends, colleagues) and media networks (e.g., BBC, CNN). These episodes provide a contextual reference for the learning, usage and application of the knowledge acquired.

Note: The example given would relate to the scope of expertise about Twitter, not the wider social web.

As you can see, the extent of expertise someone poses is about the knowledge, learning and the socialization process through which we use and co-create information through its application and use. It is not just that they think they are an expert.

Recognizing a Social Media Expert

So how do you recognise someone or a team as possessing social web expertise?

  • What is their past experience with technology, not just the social web?
  • What is their current usage experience with the social web, and not just Facebook and Twitter – think bigger picture?
  • How long have they been consulting or advising? To whom? About What?
  • What is the contextual application of their experience – which clients, which industries – I look for case studies?
  • Do they talk beyond the technological implications of the social web to the social-cultural implications?
  • What is their strategic springboard – marketing, PR, communications, sales? Do they have one?
  • What is their tactical focus – design, management, measurement, monetisation?
  • What is their tone of relationship? Do they sound like they want to sell me something, advise on something, share or create something?
  • Are they industry or community regarded – be it from past clients, colleagues, followers and case examples – as possessing specialised knowledge.

In summary, subject to what some might think I believe given I don’t like using the term expertise to promote my own work or self, it’s not that I think the term expert shouldn’t be used. I just think we should be judicious about who uses it, how and when we use it (context) and conscious of what it is we are indicating someone has with this label.

Expertise is about differing types and scope of knowledge and learning experiences, not just the length of usage of digital technologies nor the year we where born.

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caseinsights (8 years ago)

The Mechanics of Social Web Expertise: What Really is an Expert?

This comment was originally posted on Twitter

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thamby (8 years ago)

Great article- The Mechanics of Social Web Expertise: What Really is an Expert?:

This comment was originally posted on Twitter

DK (8 years ago)

Offering some interesting questions (as ever) here – for me it's about becoming an 'expert student' in social media – something I discussed here:… – how zen of me :-)

drkellypage (8 years ago)

Good blog post. I agree with you that “For any individual or organisation/company, it’s not about becoming an expert but fostering an environment and attitude to know there is always more to learn”. We often forget that and it's very important, as if an environment where we can admit – we don't know something!

Many also seem to myopically equate the terms 'expert' or 'intelligence' as having 'more of' something. When in fact, expertise and intelligence are better regarded as about 'difference'. Different knowledge in type, breadth and depth, and differing experiences that have helped to generate this knowledge through learning and in how we communicate this to others.

We can all learn. We all do learn. We will always be learning. Knowledge is infinite! That is why I love the social web! It means we learn more through sharing different knowledge.

:-) Kel

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