When radio first came on the scene, getting the little box with its seemingly-magical mechanisms that plucked sound waves out of the air to actually make noise required users to know how radio worked. For most early radio adopters, it actually required them to build their own radio sets. As time went on, though, knowing how to operate a radio became common knowledge, and nobody had to be taught how to do it. That didn’t mean that the builders of radios and the programmers of good radio content became obsolete; it just meant that pretty much everybody knew how to use the tool while others, the experts, were still valued for their ability to build the tool and make it useful.
I used that analogy in a Facebook conversation yesterday that was prompted by my posting a link to an article that suggested that the job of social media expert will become obsolete as “youngsters (who) are already immersed in platforms such as Twitter and Facebook … enter the job market familiar with social media.” The article quoted Workopolis vice-president of human resources Tara Talbot, “People will need to be even more literate with social media just to get in the door and it will no longer be something that absolutely differentiates folks.”
I didn’t necessarily agree with the premise of the article but I posted the link with the summary comment, “Are you a social media expert? Your job’s about to become obsolete as social media expertise becomes ubiquitous.”
One of my favourite social-media folks, whose perspective I value mostly because she doesn’t see social media as any sort of panacea, weighed in. “Sigh. So much misunderstanding,” said Tara Hunt. A Facebook friend of hers, Alan Chamberlain, added what I thought was a great observation, “Being comfortable in social media makes you an expert in the same way that excelling at video games makes you a programmer.”
I jumped back in and asked Hunt and Chamberlain to expand on their disagreement with the article. Hunt did, writing, “The article simplifies social media expertise too much. I would agree if it said, ‘Marketing needs to get into the new era and realize everything is two-way, participatory, etc.’ and those that don’t get with that will be obsolete. AND those that just use the tools to do traditional one-way marketing messages (buying ads, etc) will also become obsolete. But I look around me and see what passes as social media expertise (which everyone claims, but very few people have) and just see a bunch of people with old skool thinking who are applying the mass market rules to this very nuanced medium. So yeah, those people will become obsolete.”
This is exactly why I use the radio analogy, and why I think it applies so perfectly to what we’re seeing in social media.
Just like early radio, the social media landscape was colonised by enthusiasts who enjoyed using the new tools and teaching others how to use them. Since there was little in the way of ready-built applications, many of those early enthusiasts had to build their own tools, which meant they had to learn about the inner workings of social media networks. Just like radio pioneers. And both sets of early adopters spent most of their time talking among themselves, before expanding adoption opened up the opportunity for broadcast activities that required the development of suitable content.
Today, nobody needs to know how a radio works or how to build one to be able to receive radio content, and that day is rapidly approaching in social media, which may be what Workopolis’s Talbot was getting at. Left unsaid in her analysis, though, was Hunt and Chamberlain’s — and, frankly, my own — assertion that just knowing how to participate in social media does not make you an expert in the critical functions demanded by these new communications media, functions that will persist long after everybody learns how to turn them on and tune in the programming they want.
Key among these will be content development and distribution. Just as radio needed to develop unique content that worked best for its exciting new capabilities and to build out broadcast networks to share that content, social media needs to develop content that works best on its various channels and to build out its own unique — and, as Hunt points out, two-way and participatory — content-sharing models.
If your social media expertise is built on nothing more than your familiarity and ease of use with the tool set, then get ready for your extinction event. If, as Hunt argues and with which I am in violent agreement, your social media expertise is built on pushing old-style marketing messaging one way down new, bi-directional and participatory channels, then go stand next to your fellow dinosaurs awaiting the comet.
But if your social media expertise is built on understanding that the ubiquitous facility with social media that this and future generations will exhibit necessitates new kinds of content and new ways of sharing that content, then your expertise is in desperate demand today and will safely continue to be so for some time to come.
Image: What They Think?