July 16, 2008

Social Media Experts are the New Webmasters

In the mid to late 1990s, perception had it there was no more exciting a career title than that of Webmaster. It seemed everybody wanted to be one, and some called it the "Job of the Future". As a Webmaster, your code manipulation could change the look and flow of a Web site with each publish, and make Web pages spring up overnight, complete with hyperlinks, animated GIFs and comment forms with basic JavaScript. As seemingly every company needed a Web presence, the demand for somebody who could write HTML and handle Web operations filled them with incredible power. But as years passed, the title fell by the wayside, and you're now no more likely to find somebody with Webmaster on their business card as you are to find cars that come with cassette decks standard.

In the ensuing decade or so, the Internet has become part of the landscape, not the mystery it once was. The Webmaster position similarly faded to the background, and many companies tend to have portions of IT and Marketing share the load, outsourcing the Web design function to an outside agency. Larger companies keep the Web expertise in house, but don't call their employees by the dreaded "W" word.

As the Internet has changed, so too have the buzzwords. As one friend recently noted, simply having a blog isn't the differentiator it was a few years ago. Now, just about everybody has one (or more), so making you a blogger isn't anything special unto itself. But where the new frontier lies is where I see people positioning themselves - in social media.

Social media is a loose term that largely relies on user generated content, whether it be social networking, forums, web logs, social news or bookmarking sites. Those of us who have embraced the blogging boom have no doubt leveraged these tools: Digg, StumbleUpon, Facebook, Reddit, Twitter and the like, for starters. But I'm constantly seeing people giving me invites on LinkedIn saying their title is as a social media expert or social media consultant, or running into profiles online where social media is featured prominently, and their numbers are increasing.

I'm afraid that for the most part, their efforts to rebrand as social media experts will be short-lived and futile. Saying one is an expert in utilizing social media sites is akin to brand one's self as a "Web browsing expert", an "e-mail expert", or a "telephone specialist". While some will capitalize on the technophobes and newbies who don't know the difference between MySpace and NASA, or Hotmail and Hot Pockets, I believe it makes more sense that social media is spread thinly across all aspects of activity, be it a company's marketing activities, human resources, communications, and business development. Pretty soon, with any luck, social media won't be any scarier than opening a Web browser or writing a simple blog post.

So what should these so-called social media experts do to find real work? Some of them might get lucky. Every big analyst firm should have a social media expert on hand to help train the slow adopters, at least until they get the point the analysts have to change titles again. But to me, saying you're a social media specialist or a social media expert doesn't amount to a whole lot. What else do you do? What do you do really? There's no money to be made Digging up stories, hitting the StumbleUpon button or refreshing FriendFeed or Twitter, after all. Social Media is simply part of the landscape, in the background. Social media offers tools for communications and information sharing, but it's a means to an end, not the end itself.

Like the surge in Webmasters rose and fell, similar will be the rise and fall of people who flash you a business card with the term "social media" on it. It's the 2008 version of the Aeron chair and Foosball table so common in the days of the Web 1.0 startup. If you've got social media on your card, think about what else you do. Are you a trainer or a marketer? Are you a PR person, or an IT expert? Don't lose those talents, and be sure you make social media part of the landscape, not part of the headline, as it's not the tools you use, it's how you do it and what you're looking to get accomplished.