The Problem With Experts…

by Mack Collier

Shortly after I started #Blogchat I decided to adopt a ‘no experts allowed’ policy.  I did this because when someone is identified as an expert, it’s the same as saying everyone else is NOT.  Which also implies that their opinion isn’t as valuable as the ‘expert’s’.  So if the ‘expert’ is talking, everyone else needs to shut-up and listen.

The problem with this thinking is that:

1 – Most people in this space that are deemed to be ‘experts’ are not.  We hand out that label way too generously.

2 – More participation by a community means more learning in that community.  That’s shutdown if we put an ‘expert’ in the middle of the ring and hang on their every tweet.

This graph from Kathy Sierra perfectly illustrates this point.  If we only listen to the experts in a community, then there’s no role for anyone to play if they aren’t a newbie or expert, other than that of lurker.  #Blogchat works because everyone feels comfortable (I hope!) asking questions.  The ‘no experts allowed’ rule hopefully puts those users in the middle at ease, and prompts them to be more active and ask and answer more questions.

Because that’s how we learn from each other.  If we only let the people we deem to be the ‘experts’ answer our questions, then we only get the ‘expert’s’ view of the world.  This is a big problem in the ‘social media space’ because I think we often hand out the ‘expert’ label too quickly, and we tend to stop communicating in the presence of an ‘expert’ too quickly as well.

The problem with experts…is really a problem with the rest of us.

If you want your community to thrive, find a way to get everyone involved.  Because people will stay with a community and become active in it if they feel they are invested in it and appreciated.  By default, I am often viewed as the ‘expert’ in #Blogchat.  This often leads to a lot of questions from newbie and intermediate members.  But I try to flip it around and after I have answered their question, I ask them the same question.  Now THEY are the expert educating ME.  That not only increases my learning, but it increases their investment in this community, because they know they are contributing to its value.

If you are attempting to build a community, via a Twitter chat or something else, think about how you can encourage everyone to ask and ANSWER more questions.  And if you need some more ideas, check out Kathy’s wonderful post on getting your user community more involved at all levels.

{ 12 comments… read them below or add one }

Amie Marse March 27, 2012 at 8:49 am

Remember when you were in college and you realized that people with Phd’s didn’t agree on stuff? I’m not sure if this hit you as hard as it hit me… but I was mystified.
Now, I happened to go to an incredibly conservative Baptist college where people “held the line” pretty strong. And yet… here there were these big thinkers that didn’t agree on everything.
I knew right then that there was a space for me, and a space for everyone to have an opinion.
Don’t get me wrong, I respect those that have put in the long hours of research and have experience. I just don’t bow down to them like before.
Besides – everybody has an agenda… even if they don’t know it.

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dean March 27, 2012 at 9:53 am

Hi Mack!

I don’t want to minimize this post by making a trite comment; however, its worth saying :”calling yourself an expert, a guru, is like rubbing yourself in public.” I don’t know if its original but I heard Chris Brogan use it. We need experts, but no less than the oceanic voice of every other soul as well.

You are correct: if we listen only to experts we eliminate other streams of genius, and for what valid reason? Elitism creates systemic ossification and that leads to narrow, stilted perception. Listen! Even to the dull and ignorant, they too have their wisdom.

Thanks!
Dean

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Mack Collier March 27, 2012 at 10:19 am

Dean my view is that in the social media space we call far too many people ‘experts’ when they are not, and we place that label on them based on faulty criteria. Often, the ‘expert’ is the speaker at a conference session or the guy/gal with a book deal. Yet those speakers and authors are often picked primarily on the size of their online ‘audience’.

IOW, we too often assign expertise at the feet of the people with the biggest Twitter following. Think about it, when’s the last time you heard a social media speaker or read their book and was just blown away by the information? Isn’t that what we should expect from an expert? For me, the best I can hope for is a validation of ideas I already believed in and a couple of useful tips on tools that I didn’t know about. I can count the number of times I have been mesmerized by an author or speaker in the last 4 years on one hand.

But again that’s not the fault of the ‘experts’ in most cases. It’s our fault for treating them as such, and assuming that we need to shut up and listen and not ask any questions of them.

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dean March 27, 2012 at 1:27 pm

Mack,

Its certainly endemic to our culture. I am known as a subject matter expert in my field. I prefer to think of myself as a specialist. There are many with a broader and deeper knowledge in the field than I. I understand the honorific in certain circles, but I have no interest in being known as an expert. In my perception, it distinguishes me in a way I feel is negative; it disenfranchises people with respect to review and evaluation of my product. Generally, people are hesitant to criticize an “expert” as if their input is suddenly devalued in their presence. On the whole, the appelation is unnecessary.

dean

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Anneliz Hannan March 27, 2012 at 1:56 pm

A thoughtful and encouraging post. Now which one of you will come over to my house and walk me through this this maze? Thanks.

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Bobby March 27, 2012 at 9:17 pm

Mack…

I like the post and have been thinking through this a bit. So here is my question…what is the difference between “expert” and “leader”? Does it make sense to have a “leader” in a community and also a “leader” in a discipline.

Another question, is it fair to equate the defined term “expert” when interacting in a social community with the same perception of a “social media expert”? OK…I know where you are coming from. I walk into a room with a client and I am introduced as the expert or the “guru”. I do the same thing as you…feel uncomfortable with this label. I reinforce to the crowd that the space is still undefined and there are no experts. So why is this? Is it more with the fact that the space is still un-defined by the community, thus there is no real expert inside this discipline? And why do we shy away from these labels when we write like “experts” or “leaders” on our blogs or in social outlets. We publish posts with “how-to’s”, “do’s and don’ts”, our opinions, our experiences. We are using the expert or leader language when presenting information, yet we do not accept those labels in the space. Is it just an unknown code of conduct?

Can we be thoughts leaders in the space, not because we think we know it all…but because we have a track record of experience? And has this space moved past this “open source” 1.0 movement that it is time to create ideologies of how we think the space will evolve?

If we (and I mean me as well) do not feel comfortable with this label…should rethink how we present information or should we just take the wheel and drive it with the “community barometer” as our guide?

I am open to your thoughts!
BR

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Mack Collier March 28, 2012 at 7:51 am

Hey Bobby, interesting thoughts! Personally, I don’t care who is or is not labeled as an expert. I know who I think are experts, and I am betting your list probably differs from mine. Where I get upset is when someone looks at an ‘expert’ in this space, and thinks THEIR ideas aren’t as good, so they don’t share them. I think that’s a BIG reason why this space isn’t moving forward as fast as it could, because the ‘experts’ or ‘thought leaders’ are putting forth most of the ideas, while the majority of the rest of the people simply agree with and echo them.

I’m not sure how we break this cycle, as the ‘experts’ have book deals, better jobs and speaking based on the idea that they ARE experts. But in my opinion, when the experts are the ones that not only lead but CULTIVATE a discussion with others, they help solidify their position as experts, as well as their ideas. Unfortunately, that cultivation doesn’t happen as often as it could, I think last week’s ‘Social Business’ discussion here was an example of that.

Not sure what the answer here is. I fear that over time many of the people we are viewing as the ‘experts’ in this space will begin to lose favor, and that will prompt more people to be willing to share their voices. I think it would be better for us all if we could find ways to get more people at the table now, and I do think the onus is somewhat on the ‘experts’ to make that happen. If not to help keep their status, but to improve the quality of their ideas.

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Bobby March 28, 2012 at 7:21 pm

Mack…I 100% agree about moving the space forward especially with ideas that have been normally suppressed because “experts” have dominated the space. I like to advocate for the marginalized voice and that is what makes this space so wonderful.

We can take your discussion and move it into the brand space. It is all around us…where a dominate brand has taken over the space, but the social “media” has provided those who have been marginalized to “rage against the machine”. The Komen situation is a prime example.

Regardless…I resist those who try to capitalize by claiming the expert role. I actually sit back and laugh…enjoy watching from a far to see how that label will carry them. But the social space was built for those who were at one time marginalized in voice and have become an “expert”…yet they have risen by way of social influence and taken that leverage way to far.

I guess my point here is that we need more thought leadership. We need those who can build sustainable communities online and provide a path for those communities to thrive. I think we need to re-learn our terminology and move away from expert… because I agree with you that that term immediately claims those who not using that term are not experts.

I look at you as a thought leader…a “label” that you may shy away from. But when it comes down to it…who do you want at the table when you need to solve a problem. Who can you call that has the experience to tackle and issue or challenge. I know that if I need your thought leadership…I would call you and ask for your “professional advice” and possibly services. Does that make you an expert…maybe, I am not sure? But I think it makes you a leader in your particular discipline. Those are a good thing in this business climate today. We can’t do everything, so we better surround ourselves with the right thought leaders to achieve our goals…not experts.

Thanks for pushing the space!

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Mack Collier March 28, 2012 at 8:06 am

BTW a couple of different thoughts that tie into this discussion:

First, Kathy also wrote once that she viewed experts as people that have an insatiable hunger to keep learning, the people that are always trying to get better at their craft. I agree with that sentiment.

Then last night someone during #LeadershipChat asked if experts are also leaders. I think in many ways, and especially in this space, the people identified as the ‘experts’ are also viewed as the ‘leaders’.

Personally, I know that I learn the most if there are MORE people involved in a conversation. If I only include the people that are supposed to be ‘experts’, then I am probably only talking to the people that agree with my point of view, which is how Groupthink sets in. By bringing more people in a conversation, you are constantly having people asking those ‘what if?’ questions, which IMO makes the entire conversation (and all of its participants) a bit smarter.

I think the leaders in this space should be trying to include more people in the conversation, but I also think the onus is on the others to put their thoughts and opinions out there, without waiting on an invitation from anyone. And by ‘thoughts and opinions’ I don’t mean ‘attacks on the experts’.

More participation equals better conversation. That’s my tale and I’m sticking to it ;)

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Jim Ducharme March 28, 2012 at 8:10 am

I’ve never been keen on the term expert. Personally I would prefer to be known as a good student and keen learner.

Regards,
jim

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Christina Pappas March 28, 2012 at 2:09 pm

This chart was a little shocking to me. I hadn’t considered it, even of myself, but I did participate a heck of a lot more when I was starting out. I was asking tons of questions and participating in every discussion I could find with the intent to learn more and be a sponge. Now, I wouldnt call myself an expert, so maybe Im in the middle bucket? Regardless, I find that I struggle to find time to ask questions (even when I have them) if not finding the answer doesnt impact mmy day job and I have every intent to participate and throw some advice in when I can. Time is no excuse…but I would love to learn more about this chart and how it was created. Thanks Mack!

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Mack Collier March 28, 2012 at 3:46 pm

Hey Christina, I think it’s up to all of us to keep asking questions. And IMO, some of the best answers we can get come from people that are ‘newbies’. Think about it, someone that’s just discovering Social Media today is looking at this space with a view we could never have. If we started using Social Media in 2005 or 2008 or whenever, the landscape has changed since then. The ‘newbies’ can still teach us.

I think as we gain more knowledge we spend less time asking questions and more time answering questions, but I think the role of asking questions needs to be constant.

BTW check out Kathy’s blog for more graphs like that – http://headrush.typepad.com/creating_passionate_users/

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