How experts are made and why you should question the title.

Everybody

Everybody is an expert these days. Or a guru, a maven, a specialist. Pick a title, it doesn’t matter, the point is everyone is clamouring for self-proclaimed experthood. Trawl social media profiles and your catch will be abundant. The world is full of authors and authorities on subjects unending. It’s tired. If everyone is an expert what makes any individual crackerjack so special?

The only thing that differentiates one so-called expert from another is their fame. And popularity is fleeting. That’s probably why most experts can be found on social media platforms, proving their expertise through carefully crafted posts that reinforce their singular knowledge.

Achieving the status of an expert really isn’t that difficult – which explains how the world became full of them. In fact, it can be distilled into 5 simples steps:

  1. Study a subject, either in school or informally, it really doesn’t matter;
  2. Land a job at a reputable firm associated with your chosen subject of study;
  3. Offer quotes to the media, as a subject matter expert, and be publicly noticed as “one who knows”;
  4. Build “klout” or other social media followings; and
  5. Repeat steps 3 and 4 ad nauseam.

Arguably, steps 3 through 5 are the only necessary actions – particularly if the aim is to simply be an “expert”.

There are people out there who really do know things, but being truly knowledgable on a topic doesn’t always lend itself for great soundbites. Quite the contrary. What happened the last time you engaged a true subject-matter expert on their field of study? If it didn’t seem like the conversation was heading to a whiteboard, you weren’t really talking to a true virtuoso.

Formula

Most experts are only given the title because they claimed to be knowledgeable and at some point, someone else has publicly agreed. The problem is that usually the supporting evidence comes in the form of media coverage. Journalism is governed by tight deadlines and sensational stories. If a topic is newsworthy, reportage must follow quickly. Research is expedited and more colourful with an expert quote. What qualifies an expert to comment? Their availability, personal history, and more often than not, their place of work. If their social media following is significant, well, surely that just means more readers or viewers!

If being an expert is that easy, should the concept/title be taken seriously? At what point will expertise cease to matter? Can or should everyone really be an expert? Or has the whole concept of expertise been shattered by a society obsessed with individualism and now armed with networking tools that have turned navel gazing into a competitive sport? While some fields really do require expertise (think medicine), is it healthy to focus everyone’s minds onto singular topics?

Disclosure: I have been recognized as an “expert” in a few fields. The first time at the age of 25 by a major Toronto-based paper on a topic new to me, but in which my employer specialized. Here is a taste of the pudding as proof.

About Author

Alicia Wanless

La Generalista is the online identity of Alicia Wanless – a researcher and practitioner of strategic communications for social change in a Digital Age. Alicia researches how we shape — and are shaped — by a changing information space. As the Director of Strategic Communications at The SecDev Foundation, Alicia develops campaigns and strategies for engaging beneficiaries in outreach and behavioural change. Her work includes developing a training program that deals with verifying information and the spread of content online, and has supported projects in the Middle East, Vietnam and the post-Soviet space.

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