trust

The coming trust crisis in the social media expert space

I had the privilege of attending my second Gnomedex two weeks ago and there was a regularly used joke: everyone claims to be a “social media expert” just because they’ve used Twitter.

The line may seem glib, but it has serious roots. The label social media expert is being used by all and sundry just because they have used Twitter, or started a blog, or at the extreme, have a Facebook account. It’s not a title I’ve ever applied to myself, although it has been applied to me on occasion. I’m probably qualified to use it given my experience, but I have no particular interest in being a “social media expert.” I’d rather use my skills to build something quantifiable that doesn’t involve me telling others at every opportunity that I have some idea about what I’m doing.

The proliferation of social media has given rise to a proliferation of conferences and speaking gigs, and it’s a space that has been readily filled by those who profess to be experts in the field. Some genuinely do feature those worthy of the title, and I have the opportunity of sitting on a panel at the Future of Influence Summit Tuesday (Monday US time), a conference that is being held simultaneously (and at times connected by video) in both Sydney and Silicon Valley. But many don’t.

The proliferation of “social media experts” goes unchallenged for now, at the behest of a general populous who perhaps doesn’t have the knowledge yet to spot someone well qualified, vs. someone who can bluff their way through. This won’t always be the case, and eventually the social media space faces a trust crisis as the speaking/ guru market becomes even more flooded by those not really worthy of the title.

The trust crisis from the bottom and the top

The easy presumption here is to presume that the trust crisis will be led by those at the bottom. Anyone can put their hand up and say “I’m a social media expert” in the same way every personal network has someone who can install Windows and run a virus scan calls themselves a “computer expert.” That’s only part of the picture though, because the trust crisis will also be driven by those at the top of the chain.

Take for example Australia’s first “Twitter conference” being held this coming November. The one thing that struck me about the makeup of the conference is that it consists nearly entirely of journalists. Each participant is eminently qualified in terms of their skills as journalists, but apparently this now means they’re Twitter experts, or in a broader sense social media experts. It’s a classic case of Johnny come lately; the Australian media was late to the Twitter party, and although some have embraced it, that doesn’t mean that they’re now all Twitter experts by any stretch, let alone social media experts.

To be fair though, I may have singled out the “Australian Twitter conference” but they are far from alone. The gurus of old media are desperately trying to reinvent themselves across the globe, and jumping on the social media bandwagon is an attempt to reinvent themselves as something in and interesting. Their only qualification is one of power, not expertise in their newly chosen speaking field.

Those that do, and those that don’t

The other proliferation in the “social media expert” space is those who can talk the talk, but have never walked the walked. Across the anglosphere there is a full time speaking circuit for those game and willing…and by extension that precludes much of the time those who are actually working in the space, as opposed to being available to talk about it week in, week out.

There are some greatly knowledgeable speakers in the space who haven’t really built anything of note, and I can think of a couple of great speakers in Australia and the United States who I’d happily recommend to others (and who I enjoy listening to myself.) But for every one who is truly proficient, there are those who’s influence arch extends only as far as their ability to bullshit their way through a talk to a crowd of people who are 10x more clueless then they are.

The problem here is that in many cases the implied trust is flawed: the audience expects to hear true experts, but that trust only extends as far as the audience’s knowledge level; once you get more knowledgeable audiences, those not really qualified to talk will be caught out. As a fundamental, that has to undermine trust, and once that stretches out across many, the whole sector suffers a trust crisis that even those qualified may be caught up by.

Conclusion

In noting the forthcoming crisis in trust, I profess to have no solution to it. The market has demand, and ultimately supply comes forward to fill that demand. Those that do by nature have little time to talk about what they are doing, and those that don’t have all the time in the world. For the short term, the market remains dumb to the fundamentals, and those not worthy of the title can and will make hay while the sun shines. Beyond that, who knows?

The market is not infinite, and yet the interest in the space has strong growth ahead of it. Eventually though the trust crisis will come, and the growth curve will head south; the market will naturally clean itself up, and maybe, just maybe the cream will be left standing at the end.

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