Thursday, February 11, 2010

Social media 'expert'? Who?

Recently, I heard quite a few sniggers when someone called themselves a ‘social media expert’. This post is an attempt to understand those sniggers.

Who is an expert?

An 'expert' evokes imagery of someone who has had considerable expertise in a particular subject. That expertise could be achieved by formal education, or informal education. In other words, you either get a degree, or you slog it out alone for a quite some time.

Having set this context, let's understand this social media 'expert'.

For starters, there is no formal degree available on social media. Let me qualify that statement. Some Universities have started courses. For instance
Media Effects Research Laboratory of Penn State Univ aims to understand the cognitive and behavioral measures to interacting with websites. They are in unchartered territory -- definitely exciting for research. But are they producing 'experts' in social media? I would doubt it.

Simply put, professionals sporting degrees in social media can be found only in the future. Note the shift in terms – from expert to professional.

The rise of the professional, versus an amateur who is an enthusiast in a subject, is a recent phenomenon.

By the early years of the twentieth century sciences had become professionalized, says Jeff Howe in his book
Crowdsourcing (p33). Till then, the ‘amateurs’ had ruled the roost. For instance, Francis Bacon was an amateur interested in science, and a professional politician. As in, he didn’t possess a degree but was still considered an authority.

What we are talking about here is the process of institutionalization of knowledge. Because of it, we as a society grant respect to knowledge attained from institutions.

In the case of social networks, we have an interesting situation where these institutions don't have a clue. So, what happens then?

Here comes the 'amateur' social networker. She has a mix of empirical knowledge and basic intelligence that these people rely on to draw value out of social networks.

Crib revisited

Coming back to my crib, these 'amateur social networkers' are calling themselves experts, trying to draw a veil of respectability from a term associated with the non-networked world. Whereas, my contention is they have to be understood as amateurs, because that is what is possible given the nouveau nature of the field. Any claim of 'expertise', as is understood by a world still dealing with institutionalized knowledge, is silly.

But then these amateurs have to be reckoned with. I am not talking about an ill-informed dabbler whose aim is to ride the wave and make a quick buck. Instead, I am talking about those whose interest-level spurs them to learn about technology, social science, cognitive behavior, and everything else that is needed for a multi-disciplinary subject such as social networks. And these amateurs will inform the future body of knowledge concerning social networks.

How will that future look?

Will that knowledge be institutionalized? Maybe by then Institutions will cease to matter. Why? Because the world of institutionalized knowledge is threatened by the Internet. When I can learn through the Internet, why do I need to go to a University? For instance, I was mulling over the idea of higher studies, and found that there was no course that catered to all the areas I am interested in. So I decided to make my own curriculum using knowledge online. Taking this one step forward, tomorrow if I can assure an employer that my knowledge can be useful, I would have made redundant even the 'Degree' function of the University.

Would I be considered an ‘expert’ or an ‘amateur’? The answers are muddled, because both are terms in transition.

Photo credit: Martin Ringlein (username: mringlein in Flickr. Photo under an attribute, share-alike, no-derivative, non-commercial CC license)

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