There's an old joke about how to win an argument. When you have the facts, stick to the facts. When you don't have the facts, make your argument louder. When you're losing the argument, bang your shoe on the table. We have no tables in social media, but we see this kind of behavior way too often.
Social media is hard. In addition to having to learn at a breakneck pace, much of what you say and do is obsolete shortly after you produce the content. I know this in a painful way, as my training DVD's had a shelf life of less than six months, as Twitter, LinkedIn, and especially Facebook altered their look and functionality so much, my content was no longer relevant.
And because that functionality changes, old pronouncements can come back to bite you, as in when I said Facebook was worthless to recruiters not serving the college graduate crowd. When that changed, I changed my mind, and wrote about it, fessing up to my mistake.
I've had to eat crow, update, confess to rushing before I got facts right, and I've even had to apologize. And it was good for me. It's a sign of character my parents taught me, and it's more important than ever in understanding social media (or really any expertise).
I want to give you four examples in recent weeks of people making outrageous statements. All four have a large online presence. All four have been called experts by others. All four reacted differently, and it's my contention that their reactions were more important in the determination of their expertise (and their character), then their initial statements.
In a blog post that got picked up by the Business Insider and tweeted and shared thousands of times, Peter Shankman said you should never hire someone who calls themselves a social media expert, and he joked they should all burn in a fire.
First, I'd like to refute the argument visually.
Note Peter spoke at an event in October where he is listed as a social media expert. By his own words, we should not hire him, but instead should give him a book of matches.
But hey, we all say things we come to regret. Shankman was trying to make the relevant point that social media has to be tied to business goals (actually he said revenue, which is only part of the picture, but the argument is a valid one). Where he made a mistake was punching down and insulting a broad swath of people with little more than innuendo.
When called on it, Peter did three things. First, he argued with people on his site and doubled down on his comments. He refused to acknowledge that he smeared a group of people unfairly (and no one specifically).
Second, he contiued to argue with people on other sites, but he did so in a mocking manner. The one that sticks in my mind is the guy who found this picture and asked about it on Twitter. Peter insulted him, mocking the guy's personal website for having broken links. Not exactly a classy move.
Third, and the worst part, was Peter's failure to address the substantive issues in a forum online. He let the original column stand, and then moved on. For a guy claiming to be a social media expert and worldwide connector, he sure seemed to miss the point about engaging critics in an honest manner.
In short, Peter acted like a jerk, and his personal reputation deserves to be measured against those actions.
Gary made a comment in an interview that almost all social media people don't have a clue how business works. the interview title was provocative, and so Gary came out with a video backing up his statements, but explaining what he meant. The argument was very similar to what Peter Shankman was hinting at, that social media has to produce a result, and that requires expertise and hard work.
The difference was in how it was handled. Vaynerchuk is no shrinking violet, and he clearly loves a good fight, but his responses, from the video to face-to-face conversations were intended to move the argument forward, not take pot shots at people who dared question him.
What a difference. Two similar statements, and yet my impression of the reactions determined which person I would call expert, and which I would call a fraud.
Chris Penn wrote a post calling Empire Avenue a virtual Ponzi Scheme. Chris had his facts wrong, and that led him to a conclusion that was very wrong. People across the net quickly called him out on it. Chris's response?
I'll look into it, and get back to you.
At first, I thought that was dismissive, but within a day, Chris had updated the post and his Twitter page to acknowledge that his column may have been wrong, and he was looking into it. He even listed me by name (I criticized the column in the arguments). In doing so, Chris earned an enormous amount of respect from me. He didn't need to backtrack and apologize - he just needed to look into it further and then make a new judgement. He owned his words. How can you not like a guy like that, and more important, trust a guy like that - give him the benefit of the doubt in the future if you think he makes another mistake? Owning up to his mistake, makes he think he's someone worth listening to because he's not afraid to be wrong. Chris doesn't know me, and could have ignored comments, but instead, he displayed intellectual curiousity and honesty, a trait any online expert needs.
Dan is a personal branding coach who has been out in front for Gen Y pitching reputation management, wrote a column in Forbes about LinkedIn replacing job boards. In the column, he displayed a shocking amount of ignorance about the employment process, as well as gratuitously insulting recruiters who use job boards as "lazy." The column was a trainwreck, one that many big names in the online recruiting industry quickly eviscerated (Recruiters were some of the first to use social media, and we've been doing it as a community for 8 years).
The column was not researched well, poorly thought out, and quite frankly should be retracted (yeah, it's that bad). Dan answered a few comments at Forbes, but has now seemingly moved on, going so far as to delete a Facebook wall post from Paul Debettignies (MNHeadhunter.com), claiming he prefers to have his own content on the wall. Hey, it's Dan's wall, but failing to engage critics who know more than you are is the same sort of nonsense Peter Shankman was peddling. It's weakness, and cowardice, to simply run from arguments made by people with substantive claims.
Look, I'm not saying that every person writing online has to engage with every single person who disagrees with them. I get it. But when you occupy a position of prominence, and you really screw up, you should be willing and able to face the music. You can ignore trolls and people picking fights with you, but when you ignore everyone after writing a provocative piece, then you're a media whore, not a serious business consultant.
Dan still has a chance to come back from the abyss, but he's seriously damaged his digital relationships with the online recruiting community, many of whom have spent the better part of four years applauding him for his initiative. He burned the very bridges he speaks of building to his audience.
And so you have four examples of social media pundits, whose reactions helps us understand whether or not the emperor has any clothes. Those you can trust, back up their arguments or admit a mistake. Those you cannot trust, run away from arguments, mock detractors, and pretend their social media fame is some kind of shield from honest criticism.
If there was a test for social media expertise, owning your words would be on it.