Rant on “Gurus” and “Experts”

I gotta vent. I just gotta.

bigstock-The-words-Hello-I-Am-An-Expert-36518137

I’ve long been annoyed as hell by those people who call themselves “experts” or “gurus” on any particular subject, simply because they have an obsession that they wish to rationalize. Among those I think have carved out their own special corner of hell:

  • Life Coaches
  • Motivational Speakers
  • Personal Shoppers
  • Change Agents
  • Feng Shui Experts
  • Thought Leaders
  • Social Media Gurus/Experts

All of these professions have one thing in common: they’re complete bullshit. Especially the last one.

But Wait! I’m a Social Media Expert!

I have been dealing/coping with this claim for a few years now, most notably from people who are all-too ready to drop to their knees any time Malcolm Gladwell’s name is mentioned.

“Experience is my teacher, and I’ve got lots of experience. Way more than 10,000 hours!” sigh

Of course, these are also the same people who always look for the easy way out, and actually believe that someone, somewhere, has lost 20 pounds in 10 days by eating anything they want.

I "love" science!

I “love” science!

One is not an “expert” or a “guru” simply because he has more social networking accounts than he has fingers. Spending hours a day, ignoring those at your table while tweeting your dinner, is not “one more minute” added to the 10k hours.

It just makes you rude.

Twitter and Facebook

ARCHER: "Lana Kane" as voiced by Aisha TylerIt drives me absolutely nuts that people buy into the “influence” metric of Twitter, for example. “Look,” they say, “I have a reach of 100k impressions! This tweet really impacted people!”

Ever heard of the placebo effect? You’ve just been placebo’d.

Unfortunately, this is precisely what I’m talking about. Anyone who would be a “true” expert in this would know that these metrics are unreliable, unimportant, and otherwise useless.

There’s the more hilarious example that people give:

“I’m an expert in social media!”

“Oh really?”

“Yeah, I’ve got 5000 followers on Twitter and over 2000 friends on Facebook!”

Time for a reality check:

Just because you use something incessantly, it does not make you an expert.

[True story: As I was editing this post, this came through my twitter feed. Talk about proving my point!]

How To Tell if You’re Not an Expert

Generally speaking, it’s pretty easy to see that there is a difference between enjoying something and being an expert in it. Unless you’re willing to do actual work, you are simply an expert in enjoying that activity. Here’s a few tips on how to avoid those ultracrepidarian tendencies.

#1: You think you have nothing left to learn

This is your first litmus test. If you find yourself saying – at any point in your career – “I know XYZ is true because I’m an expert,” then no, no you’re not.

Anyone who has spent time studying or examining any subject has come to realize (very quickly, I might add) that the more you learn, the more you have left to learn. What’s more, the stuff you have left to learn is hard. There is always some discipline that has insight you need. You constantly get a feeling that you’re starting over (again!), and that level of frustration can occupy more than half your life.

I’m amazed at the people who have called themselves “Experts in Facebook Marketing” for a couple of years without understanding – or even examining – how Facebook has changed over the years, nor how Marketing has. It’s as if they have found the “submit” button for a Facebook advertisement and therefore can call themselves an expert in the subject.

Replace "science" with bullshit expertise of your choice

Replace “science” with <bullshit expertise> of choice

#2: You can’t be bothered with the boring stuff

Expertise involves boring stuff. A lot of boring stuff. Expertise means sifting through a dozen bales of hay to find one hay-painted needle. The stuff that people want to talk about, the stuff that people are interested in, make up the 1-5% of the total amount of stuff that an expert has to know.

An expert can find something interesting in the boring tedium, however. The act of exploration can provide insight and interest for the expert that would look completely useless and uninteresting to the layperson. That’s when you know that you’ve gone to the next level – that you have sifted through information and found an unexpected connection amongst two seemingly unrelated and boring pieces of data.

But you can’t get there unless you actually do the work. To do the work that means stepping outside the comfort zone and looking beyond the “big flashy facts.”

Which brings us to…

#3: You don’t know how the system works

Look, it’s not possible to just conjure up “expertise” simply because you use something. You have to understand its system, at all levels. Everything is related to everything else, and no situation that involves human behavior is a closed system.

The willful type is the worst

The willful type is the worst

Let’s look at Social Media for example. If you call yourself an expert, how much do you know about the nature of group formation? Value systems that may affect affiliation with, or aside from, participants? To know the answer to those questions you have to be familiar with psychology and sociology.

How does the application (e.g., Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, etc.) affect the communication styles of the participants? How does the software affect or create behavioral patterns? What about the medium itself? Are there parallels between using asynchronous communication styles with other forms? Differences? To answer those questions you should be familiar with communication models, perhaps even Medium Theory or Media Ecology. At the very least you should have read some Marshall McLuhan. Hell, if you’ve never heard of Neil Postman, you should go sit in a corner right now.

Do not pass go, do not collect $200.

[Update: If you want to know about what the numbers mean, you should at least have a basic understanding of statistics, or know someone who does. Check out the conversation in the comments about this in particular.]

How do you know your campaign has altered attitudes? How do you delineate between natural curiosity and a campaign’s influence? To know those approaches, it might help to have at least a passing knowledge about persuasion, even advertising. At least be aware that the hard work and research has already been done for you, so all you have to do is read it!

[Update: Check out this post of the tip-of-the-iceberg-lesson that Audience Analysis actually is more than just having someone tune in. Really? Audiences aren’t monolithic? You don’t say! If only there was a field of study about this… oh wait…]

Speaking of reading…

#4: You’ve never even picked up a research study in your “field of expertise”

Anyone who hasn’t even looked to see what others have found out, is no expert. They’ve bumbled their way through trial-and-error, found a few things that worked, found a few things that didn’t. At best, they have painted themselves into a corner of the things they like to do, called it “good,” and have become willfully ignorant of their own field.

Dilbert Parody

Yes, that field where they call themselves an expert. You know what that’s called? Fraud. Poser. Bullshit.

Which is, of course, why people who call themselves “social media experts” are never, ever respected. They get hired, and they get paid a lot of money, but rarely are they ever truly believed or respected as experts in that field. Most I’ve come across are viewed – even within their own companies – as a cost of doing business. A necessary evil.

You’re not an expert. You’re a lucky son-of-a-bitch who gets paid to play on your phone.

Listening to podcasts (or even being on them) that discuss social media content does not qualify as ‘research.’ At best such things are what happens when legitimate people who have done the research attempt to make it palatable to the layperson. At worst, it’s self-referential intellectual masturbation.

However, it’s not research, and it’s not expertise.

In order to be an expert, there has to be a program of study. You have to know the direction you’re going, not just make observations on the stuff you like.

#5: The only people who know you, are the people you know

Many people who call themselves experts do so based upon anecdotal feedback of people – and only the people – they know. They don’t qualify how their ideas have impacted others, and rely very heavily on the placebo quantification mentioned above. They don’t realize their own self-selection of data, their own biases based upon pre-conceived notions of feedback of people who matter to them. After all, most social media ‘experts’ would rather be seen as popular and well-liked, because that (in turn) proves that they’re an expert!

Whew! That was hard!

Whew! That was hard!

A person who is an actual expert contributes to the broader understanding of the field. As I mentioned, they don’t just observe and opine: they actually contribute ideas and test them. They provide their reasoning and expose it to criticism and replication. This, in turn, leads to fans and detractors, people who concern themselves with your ideas. These people will be swayed by the persuasiveness of your arguments, and you’ll never even know they exist.

Why? Because it’s easy. It doesn’t matter if the tools are accurate or not, or can be corrupted by false data or not. As long as everyone agrees to the same bullshit numbers, it’s all good, right?

Wrong. Decades of advertising research has shown us that simply luring eyeballs and earlobes to your particular message does not translate into measurable action (e.g., purchasing, affiliation, attitude changes). Nor does participation – in my own academic research I found that participation levels vary wildly based upon the software of communication on the Internet, as well as the level of agreement. In other words, people are more likely to participate with your message if they disagree with you, unless you already know who they are and are using their preferred method of social media.

Well, I don't see any contradictions...

Well, I don’t see any contradictions…

So how do you know how influential you actually are? Have people taken your school of thought – that you created and thought up – and applied it to their own observations? How do you know? Have you even bothered to find out, or is the prospect of being minimized (or wrong) too scary to pursue?

Many ‘experts’ would rather accept the “lack of opposition” as evidence of “positive influence,” a dangerous and ultimately useless perspective – especially for companies who wind up paying for that ‘expertise.’

Put Your Effort Where Your Mouth Is

The clues of how to bring skills up to match the braggadocio aren’t difficult, they’re just not sexy or quick. This leads me to believe that these people would rather focus on bullshitting their way through life than actually earn a reputation worth having.

There is, of course, no obligation to do this. People are free to continue to do what they’ve been doing, and if it’s been successful so far why stop?

The reason is obvious to me, but may not be obvious to others. For me, it’s because if I’m going to push for an “influence marketer” or “social media expert” to accomplish a goal, I’m going to have some pretty basic questions that need answering. If someone who claims to be an expert can’t answer them, or doesn’t even understand them, I’m going to move on.

I’ve already found many companies, analysts, and social media “gurus” try to snow me with some fast talking, thinking that I won’t pay attention to the man behind the curtain. They think that I’m going to swoon over meaningless “impressions” and “reach.”

Pay no attention to the bullshit behind the numbers!

Pay no attention to the bullshit behind the numbers!

I’ve had a lot of conversations that have gone like this:

Expert: “We’ve gotten over 96k impressions over a 4-week period.”

Me: “What counts as an impression?”

Expert: “Someone who looked at the tweet/banner ad/Facebook post.”

Me: “How do you know they looked at it? I ask this because I know that I don’t always see what goes through my twitter stream, and I rarely pay attention to banner ads myself.”

Expert: “Well, it’s an industry standard metric that comes from an influence measuring tool.”

Me: “How does the tool work?”

Expert: “I’m not sure, but if you go to their website you can find out.”

Me: “Okay, so assuming that it’s an industry standard metric, what do the numbers mean?”

Expert: “It means we’ve gotten over 96k impressions over a 4-week period.”

Me: “Let me rephrase: what do we do with these numbers? How are they useful?”

Expert: “Well, you can use this as a benchmark for future studies.”

Me: “Let me make sure I get this. You’re giving me a number that you don’t understand, based upon a tool you don’t understand, to report a situation that you don’t understand, but as a foundation for doing another counting exercise that you don’t understand, using the tool that you don’t understand, to recommend what course of action, exactly?”

Expert: …

Only the ignorant can't see the clothes!

Only the ignorant can’t see the significance!

This conversation happens a lot. In fact, I can’t remember a time when it didn’t go like this. Depending upon when I’m asked to join the conversation, I may or may not be able to stop an obvious waste of money. I can’t help but look around the room of those who have deferred to ‘experts’ but are afraid to ask questions that may make it appear they are ignorant about how these things work.

Where The Harm Lies

Ultimately, this is where I get the most annoyed and the cause of my rant.

“Experts” of this ilk and with these motivations are the digital equivalent of snake-oil salesmen. They make their living convincing their marks that they have some special knowledge about the mystical, magical world in which they live, and they make promises far beyond what can be delivered by anyone.

Worse, companies – especially smaller companies that feel the pressure to have a greater influence in the broader market narrative – wind up spending time, energy, and money believing that these “marketers” can move the needle. When the needle, in actuality, moves only slightly (and not impressively), exaggerated “influence” and “reach” numbers are thrown about as “industry standard” (which, by the way, doesn’t mean what they think it means) to make things look far more significant.

Save Yourselves!

Here are some questions to ask yourself when thinking about hiring a social media “expert”:

  1. What is your plan for improving name recognition?
  2. What is your past track record of success?
  3. How do you measure success?
  4. How do you propose turning “reach” into “action,” or at least “preference”?
  5. What is your process for measuring the impact of this plan?
  6. How do you know it’s valid and accurate?
  7. What are the contingency plans if the plan fails to live up to expectations?

None of these questions are unreasonable or unanswerable, though with the hesitation to ask you’d think that they were radioactive. Anyone who does not have an answer, or a methodology to answer, not only shouldn’t be hired but has no right to consider themselves an ‘expert.’

[Update and Disclosure: This is fair warning. I’m currently on the Boards of three industry associations and also have been involved in research projects for my company. I will ask you these questions. Do your homework.]

Thanks for the Comics

Two of the comics above, the Cyanide and Happiness comic and the VectorBelly comic, nailed it. You have people who claim to have an understanding and “love” for science, but in truth they have no temperament to do what’s necessary to actually be eligible to make the claim.

The same can be said about ‘experts’ and ‘gurus.’ They’re not willing to get into the less-exciting nuances of how things work, but still want to claim a status as if they had. It’s like watching hours and hours of TV and considering yourself an “expert” in television.

So, if any of the above is true, and you call yourself an expert or guru, please stop. Really. Just… stop. I suppose there’s something to be said about outing oneself as a poser and a fraud, but I’d rather have my time back instead of wasting it pulling on my hip waders.

Either that, or do what real experts do, and do the work.

If I had a mic I'd drop it, right about now...

If I had a mic I’d drop it, right about now…

20 Comments

  • Brandon Riley December 18, 2014 at 12:55

    Good post J. I feel badly for the people that are under pressure to hire these “experts”, and overpay them. I used to think this was most prevalent in financial markets, but social media “experts” are giving the finance “gurus” a run for their money.

    Now that I’ve read this post, I’m gonna go update LinkedIn, b/c I am an expert on social media experts. 😉

    “The reason that ‘guru’ is such a popular word is because ‘charlatan’ is so hard to spell.”

    – William J. Bernstein

    Reply
  • Matt Brender (@mjbrender) December 18, 2014 at 13:54

    What a world class Dr. J Metz rant! I love the challenges you set out: understand your measurements, articulate value and determine casual action (as opposed to vague placebo-based correlation).

    As a challenge back to you, I hope you do not underestimate the power of vague data points once correlated in meaningful ways.

    For instance, “standards” like impressions can be quite meaningful when seen as a relative value to compare multiple businesses influence on a specific set of conversations. The relativity of the value *must* be normalized for it to be most accurate. I’ve found impressions, once compared and normalized, to be a meaningful way to show potential audience acquisition, which could start a conversation about AARRR metrics and converting audiences through activation activities.

    All that said, there’s no way in hell I’d call myself a guru or expert.

    Reply
    • J Michel Metz December 18, 2014 at 14:10

      Matt! Great to see you here! 🙂

      I debated about whether or not to put in the need to understand statistics, but now that I think about your (excellent) question I think I should go back and insert it in, because it’s incredibly important.

      Whenever we look at various numbers – especially when it comes to correlations – it’s critical to know the assumptions that we make before applying measurement testing and interpretation. To do so afterwards is called a “post-hoc” analysis and is inherently weaker and less reliable. Unfortunately, all of the analytical tools I have seen with respect to social media metrics fall into the “post-hoc” measurement category. This is not to say that there aren’t stringent and accurate statistical methods that are usable or being used, I’m just saying that in my review of presentations I have not yet seen anyone who understands even basic statistical principles.

      Normalization, in particular, assumes that you can approximate a natural environmental test based upon randomization of data. If you do not, you wind up with wildly inconsistent variations and run the risk of covariance influencing your result. Nearly all data collected by these social media tools are never ‘cleaned,’ which is one of the things that is required before normalization. Moreover, it is unclear whether any type of Factor Analysis is done (which has its own assumptions) to identify general trends in the data. That type (Factor Analysis) is as much art as science, but this places a great deal of responsibility on the researcher to justify the basic assumptions they’re making to interpret the data.

      However, most of the people I’ve spoken with (again, not all, but definitely the majority) do not understand how the tools they use work, let alone how the tools’ assumptions are programmed or controlled. All of this adds in more error into the results – more error than actual usable information. When your error exceeds your measurements, your results are useless.

      IF a social media analyst can show that they’ve followed basic research methodology, and can justify their assumptions (which of course, requires that they know them), then there can be something actionable – a program of study. Then we’re on our way! It’s not that there can’t be useful numbers in social media, but there is much, much more to it than going to twitter.com/analytics. 🙂

      Most people who claim to be social media ‘experts’ simply don’t want to know any of this stuff, however. They’d rather punch a user account into a website, have the website spit out an “impressions” number, and be done with it. Those numbers are bullshit, and no amount of “wink, wink; nudge nudge” in the “industry” accepting them changes that, I’m afraid.

      Thanks again for piping up here. I’m really chuffed that you did! 🙂

      Reply
  • vmPete December 18, 2014 at 14:38

    My favorite line was “Expertise involves boring stuff.” So very true.

    Reply
    • joshatwell December 18, 2014 at 18:12

      Not just boring, but “pull your hair out” why does it do that?!? Oh yea…well that makes sense I guess. So that means this plus that…..AHA…gosh that was a PITA. Maybe I should write this down?

      Reply
      • J Michel Metz December 18, 2014 at 22:20

        What Josh said. Only with less hallucinogens. 😉

        Reply
      • rnelson0 December 19, 2014 at 07:34

        And who can forget… expenses?

        Reply
  • joshatwell December 18, 2014 at 16:24

    Dr. J you have done it again. I love this post.
    I find a considerable amount of effort is made to create a lot of noise in the hopes that someone might respond to the reverberations. This is one of the things that I always loved about the early days of VMUG or CIPTUG (Cisco IP Telephony Users Group). Those events were typically full of people who genuinely wanted to engage, grow, and learn. There was a great deal of digging into the details. I’m seeing this behavior more in the development circles, like PowerShell user groups, where folks are truly trying to understand how things work. The interesting part is no one walks in as an expert and no one walks out as an expert. They walk away with a much stronger foundational knowledge about their technology. In the end there seems to be a lot less noise and a great deal more thought, collaboration, and consideration. Unfortunately there’s little that I see that can be measured in order to calls these events a success that highlight why the other tactics are less effective quantitatively.

    I have a ton of thoughts running through my head and lack sufficient time or words to articulate them. I’m with you in that I’m super dubious at any claims of expert or guru…ESPECIALLY when they are directed at me. 🙂 I know you touched a lot on the self proclaimed experts but I thought it worthwhile to make mention of the behavior that is naming someone an expert.

    Sure. I’ve written parts of books. I walked away from each contribution with more and more questions and not enough time to get the answers and include them in the text.
    Sure. I speak publicly on the subject of automation with an appearance of authority. More often than not my content is generalized and designed to motivate versus outlining all the pain and tears associated with implementing and using these technologies.
    Sure. I’m asked regularly to be the “expert” on a technology and provide answers. More often than not the asks are less about details and more about general tactics. In this case only my breadth of experience are worthwhile.
    Sure. Someone may consider me an expert, but I know better and I have the grey hairs, dysfunctional lab, and half finished projects to prove it. Not only that but I have a list of folks who I know are MUCH more experienced and knowledgable than myself. They’re the experts…right? 😉 It’s experts all the way up.

    Reply
    • J Michel Metz December 18, 2014 at 22:38

      Hey Josh, I’m really glad you chimed in here. I think you underscore a lot of the points of what qualifies or disqualifies people. What you describe is part of that ‘program of study’ I am talking about: a systematic approach to a subject that involves a codified method of learning.

      The point of the article was not to say that experts don’t exist, or that there aren’t people who could be called experts legitimately. Usually that kind of reputation is built upon something much, much more than consume their topic. Would we say someone is a historian because they’ve spent two years sitting in front of the History Channel? No, of course not.

      Generally speaking, we could operationalize an ‘expert’ to be anyone who has engaged in “primary research” in any given topic. Fortunately this covers all disciplines, just not all people. 🙂

      Reply
      • joshatwell December 20, 2014 at 19:20

        No. I complete understood. You hit two things in my mind.
        1. How so-called social media expert measure themselves without recognizing what is actually valuable.
        2. The term expert is wildly over-applied without considering whether it is well founded or appropriate.

        I think the key is that expert is very relative and as such makes it hard to outline when the moniker becomes appropriate. Even under the criteria you outline, which I support, a person who contributes considerably and works hard may still fall considerably short of expert status depending on the audience. I would say that expert status then applies most accurately when
        1. A person engages in activities as you have outlined.
        2. That person is identified by a growing audience of people who have determined their contributions warrant expert status.

        To your point. It’s difficult to get #2 unless you’ve done #1. WIthout #1 it’s just as easy to be labeled a charlatan.

        Reply
  • @vcdxnz001 December 19, 2014 at 06:55

    X is an unknown quantity and a spert is a drip under pressure. This is a great article. So relatable. I totally agree that any assertions should be measurable and there needs to be a baseline or control to use for comparison. Every day I wake up and realise how much more I have to learn. I relish it, the learning process. Even the tedius testing and modifying one parameter at a time that comes along with it. If you don’t know how or why or can’t explain it, then you definitely aren’t an expert. Also I would say expertise comes with a willingness to admit when you got something wrong. Nobody is infallible. Look forward to seeing you at another industry event at some point.

    Reply
  • J Michel Metz December 19, 2014 at 07:10

    Hey Michael,

    Thanks for reading, and thanks also for bringing up the fact that sometimes the ‘boring’ parts aren’t so boring after all. There’s definitely a sense of wonder at discovery of things that you never really imagined were connected (or, to Matt’s point, correlated). It leads to a wee bit of frustration that you may be the only person who thinks that it’s interesting, but oh well. 🙂

    See you soon.

    Best,
    J

    Reply
  • Erwin van Londen December 19, 2014 at 23:52

    My smile got bigger and bigger the further I came in the article. I think we can best summarize it as follows. Unless you spend a painstakingly amount of time, effort, money, guts, frustration and stress in a particular topic which makes you understand and comprehend not even that subject but also all related subjects you may call yourself an expert in something. If you’ve just received your drivers license you know how to turn the steering-wheel. It doesn’t make you a good driver.

    Great post J. Made my day.

    Reply
    • J Michel Metz December 20, 2014 at 00:19

      I think you got it. 🙂 Glad you enjoyed it.

      Reply
  • Greg Schulz (@storageio) December 20, 2014 at 15:01

    Gr8 post (or rant 😉 ) J!

    To further summarize @Erwin, experts dont have time to be calling themselves gurus or experts as they are uare either too busy helping somebody with something, learning from somebody, researching something new or dealing with boring background things and details…

    Reply
  • KimA December 20, 2014 at 18:58

    Rant? Let’s just call it inspired reporting on the state of social in organizations where the trend is for “established” management to hire in inexperienced millennials — they’re young, they’re hip, they text at dinner, they must be experts. Or move people into social roles because they tweet a bunch. Generally speaking, they may know how to tweet, but they don’t know how to build social tactics into integrated marketing plans with results you can measure. It’s a tactic, not a tiara.

    Ooops, did that sound ranty?

    Reply
  • Mike Turner December 22, 2014 at 10:00

    Devil’s advocate statement for conversational interest: I am an expert! I know what I know, I know what I don’t know,I know how to find out what I don’t know. Give me a proper goal and I can put together a plan to achieve your objective using social media including relevant reporting and analysis (with explanations for what matters and why) when the campaign is complete. #Booyah #flamesuiton

    Reply
    • J Michel Metz December 22, 2014 at 10:21

      Okay, let’s flesh this out a bit (I like these thought experiments 🙂 ).

      Let’s take two people, both of whom claim to be a social media “expert.” One actually is, and the other is a poser. They each write a statement to be given to a panel (think “to tell the truth from the 50s”). The panel receives what you just wrote above – how would this help them identify which is which?

      A person who claims to be an ‘expert’ in any subject may believe (with the best of intentions) that s/he is one, just like a person may believe that they got a Ph.D-equivalency through life experiences. The answer/response to both is “No, no you didn’t.” At the very least, in order to say you’ve got an equivalency there must be an equivalent criterion for success/failure to apply. Sadly, it’s exceedingly rare that people know what those criteria are, much less care, and ever more less actually strive to accomplish them.

      There’s nothing wrong with working in social media. Nothing wrong with being good at what you do, either. This is not to say that people can’t be good at their job, simply because it involves social media. But it is a truism that the better you are at something, the narrower the field of expertise. One may be very good at analytics, may be very good at campaigning, may be very good at brand affiliation, and one can even become an ‘expert’ in those areas. To be an ‘expert’ in all things social media, though, involves far more effort than most people who claim to be ‘experts’ are willing to undergo.

      Thanks for the thought exercise! 🙂

      Reply
  • Peter V Locke December 22, 2014 at 19:12

    I recognize ‘expertise’ best where blood is not shed due to lack skill. Regrettably lack of real expertise usually results in someone else suffering.

    Reply

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