are you a social media expert?“How do you become a social media expert?”

That was one of the questions I was asked when I was in Lincoln, Neb., last week.

I was speaking to several students at UNL, and while I didn’t get a chance to speak to each of them one-on-one, I could tell that they are serious about being the best professional communicators they can be (this was at the College of Journalism & Mass Communications).

I paused, and threw a question back at them. “How many of you think you’re social media experts?” I asked.

After all, these are digital natives, many of whom have never seen a typewriter, and who live in an “appy” world. So I figured it was a fair question.

Out of the 30-40 young people (and a few faculty members) present, three raised their hands. One a little diffidently, two very confidently.

“What makes you a social media expert?” I asked.

I wasn’t trying to be mean.

But if you’re going to tell me you’re an expert at anything, you should be able to tell me why, right?

What I heard from them was essentially that they use social media actively, perhaps more than their peers. They try new things. So they consider themselves experts.

Here’s the thing: there is, I believe, a huge difference between “developing expertise” and “being an expert.”

Expertise

Expertise is what you and I are developing every day.

For you, it might be creating a way for businesses (and people) to use Facebook more efficiently, that is also fun. Say, what the Post Planner folk are doing.

It might be continuing to learn as much as you can about being an expat, and coaching others on how to live a successful and satisfying expat lifestyle.

For me, it’s continuing to hone my craft of public relations, which includes learning as much as I can about social media, networks and how new technologies impact the way we communicate with each other. And then putting what I learn into practice, not just for myself, but for my clients.

Expertise is a journey. It possibly has a defined starting point – the day, minute, moment you knew this was what you wanted to learn more about and make your life’s work. But it doesn’t have an end point.

Expert

Whether or not one should call one’s self an expert has been debated several times over the past few years, particularly when it comes to “social media experts.” It seems to be one of those topics that comes around every now and again (and yes, I get the irony of my noting that in this post).

To me, though, “being an expert” is a completely different thing. An expert is defined not by one’s opinion of himself or herself, but by the opinions and perceptions of others.

You are considered an expert when you know more about your industry and business than the majority of your peers do.

You are considered an expert when people start turning to you for advice.

Simply having an opinion, and/or voicing it extremely loudly, doesn’t make you an expert.

See where I’m going?

You can call yourself an expert when you know every little nitty-gritty thing about how your industry works… and yes, that means knowing why it’s important for the nuts and bolts to be screwed in at precisely 87 degrees and not 91, and there is absolutely nothing left for you to learn.

And, frankly, that’s an unlikely state of affairs, isn’t it?

Developing expertise is a good thing. It’s what we should all be trying to do, day in and day out. We should be trying new things, learning what works and what doesn’t. Not everything will work every time, and that’s ok.

But “becoming experts” – that’s not what our new professionals should be focusing on, and neither should we.

Let’s just focus on learning and doing good work. And then, if people start to call us experts, we can be grateful. But it’s not something we should demand, or expect. And if we have enough expertise in our areas, we’ll know that.

That’s the difference between “expert” and “expertise.”

At least, that’s my opinion. What’s yours? Please share, I’d love to know.

Image: Chapendra via Flickr, CC 2.0 

Shonali Burke
Founder and publisher of Waxing UnLyrical, Shonali Burke helps purpose-driven brands bring big ideas to life. She teaches at The Johns Hopkins University, has gone back to school herself with the Harvard Business Analytics Program, and is creator/lead instructor at The Social PR Virtuoso® online training hub , where ambitious PR pros learn how to unleash their inner Social PR superheroes. Owned by Lola the Basset Hound, she's mad about ABBA, bacon, cooking, dogs, and Elvis, though not necessarily in that order. Wouldn't you like to be in her kitchen?
Shonali Burke
Shonali Burke

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