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 social web expert?
As the avid researcher I am, I did a little research to see what others had to say on the topic of social web expertise. 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.
I also came across a number of really interesting blog posts discussing social media expertise. These are well worth a read.
- Joel Mackey in his post ‘You are not a social media expert, you idiot!’, categorises five types of social media experts using criteria such as knowledge and usage of social web technologies, and the breadth and depth of social network reach
- Jay Fowler talks about ‘What makes you the expert?’ using criteria of how well and how frequently an individual uses social web technologies as key criteria in categorisation.
- Chris Brogen, a once self-confessed social media expert, now espouses ‘What I want a social media expert to know!’, from the strategic to the tactical.
- Dan Schawbel provides a list of reasons from inability to command a premium salary, too little bases for differentiation and confusion as to what a social media expert is as to why ‘You shouldn’t brand yourself as a social media expert!
- Hi, my name is Suw and I’m a social media expert!’, anti-expert meme, in her post ‘
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, technology 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 Web Knowledge. 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 twitter.com 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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