January 1, 2010

In Search of a Social Media Expert (Part 1)

Posted in Best practices, Courts and social media, Productivity, Social Media Tools tagged , , , , , , , at 8:37 am by bizlawblog

I’ve touched on the area of social media “experts” in a couple of posts on this blog. I first mentioned the topic in When Thought Becomes Reality. Because of some interesting comments on that post, I followed up in slightly more depth in Is Everyone A Social Networking Expert? This post starts a series, which will explain why this is important to both me and my clients, and perhaps to you as well.

I’m no stranger to the duty and privilege of helping clients fulfill their desire to obtain outside assistance with emerging technologies and non-traditional expertise. Many of my clients rely upon me, from time-to-time, to assist them in the process of finding and engaging “experts” in various fields. Sometimes, they ask me to simply review an engagement letter submitted by a supposed expert or to draw up an agreement to retain an expert they have already found and determined to be “qualified” for their intended purposes. Sometimes, they ask me to assist in locating an expert they would deem “suitable” according to their specifications. Sometimes, they’re not even sure what they need, but they think they need some sort of “expert,” and ask me to assist in the process.

In each of these situations, I need some knowledge of the goals of my client in retaining the services of an expert. In drafting a contract, I need to know what my client wants to achieve and to avoid. If they have already located and qualified the expert, my task is relatively simple. I review the contract presented by the expert, or create one for my client, ensuring the usual suspects are accounted for, such as deliverables, “avoidables,” benchmarks, term, compensation, termination options, the normal independent contractor provisions, and a host of other contract provisions most transactional lawyers are accustomed to dealing with on a day-to-day basis.

Assisting my clients with the acquisition of software programmers, hardware developers, Web developers and so-called SEO experts has been a main stay of my law firm for many years. More recently, the request has been for those who can “fix” the problems left by some of the foregoing “experts.” In the last year or so, however, clients seem to be increasingly interested in hiring social media expertise. It is one thing to help a client engage a structural engineer and quite another to help vet and then wordsmith contract language for a social media expert. Thus came my research into just what qualifies one to be called a social media expert.

If I am involved in locating an expert in a particular field, presuming it is one of the “traditional” fields, such as engineering, the role I play is still relatively easy. In such traditional fields, the process of locating and qualifying an expert typically revolves around ensuring the education and experience of the candidates meet certain criteria, including relevance to the task at hand. Educational degrees, professional certifications, licenses, work experience, and references from satisfied customers, provide some of the basic metrics upon which the candidates may be graded, along with availability within the given time frame, compensation formula, etc. There is nothing new here.

Much has been written about what makes one an expert, generally, and the various factors deemed to constitute expertise in many specific fields. When looking at this issue in the context of social media, however, I found quite a few articles contemplating whether anyone could deserve title of “expert” in such a relatively new field, and particularly one without generally recognized accreditation standards at that.

I decided to approach the project of establishing my own set of social media expertise metrics from a few angles. The common joke in the legal field is that the definition of an expert is simply someone with a briefcase who lives more than a hundred miles away. The quotes on expertise from “notables” span the full range. Here are some samples.

  • “I am an expert of electricity. My father occupied the chair of applied electricity at the state prison.” (W. C. Fields)
  • “What’s an expert? I read somewhere, that the more a man knows, the more he knows, he doesn’t know. So I suppose one definition of an expert would be someone who doesn’t admit out loud that he knows enough about a subject to know he doesn’t really know how much.” (Malcolm Forbes)
  • “Make three correct guesses consecutively and you will establish a reputation as an expert.” (Laurence J. Peter)
  • “An expert is a person who avoids the small errors while sweeping on to the grand fallacy.” (Steven Weinberg)
  • “One accurate measurement is worth a thousand expert opinions.” (Admiral Grace Hopper)

Not finding those pearls of wisdom particularly helpful, I wondered if the simplicity of graphical representations might be helpful. Folks say a picture is worth a thousand words. An old favorite in this medium is Indexed, which produced one of its typically perceptive virtual three by five card drawings, labeled “But it worked in the 90s!” That deserved a chuckle, but not a cigar, so the search continued.

Next up was The Visual Thesaurus® created by Thinkmap, Inc., a company which says it “develops and markets software that uses visualization to facilitate communication, learning, and discovery” and specializes in “user interfaces and visualization mechanisms that allow end-users to more effectively browse and understand complex information.”

The visual thesaurus search results for the term “expert” rendered a mindmap-like spider web featuring the words adept, good, practiced, proficient, skilful, skillful, and tangential association of the word or concept “technical.” That produced what most would consider a pretty good sampling of terms to describe someone we already considered to be an “expert,” but didn’t provide much help in the more granular aspects of selection criteria.

Since few professions are more “granular” than the law, I returned home to more familiar ground and found something I wasn’t expecting. That unexpected thing was that both legal and business principles warned of the dangers of placing too much confidence in the opinions of experts.

The American legal system has long been concerned that the opinion of “experts” will unduly prejudice a jury, causing it to rely upon whatever the experts says, rather than weighing all the evidence and making it’s own determination. This system relies on the judge, as gatekeeper, as well as on procedural and evidentiary rules. Article VII of the Federal Rules of Evidence, for instance, provide a framework for matters such as separating expert from lay opinions, the bases of opinion testimony by experts, and limitations on admission of the expert’s opinion on ultimate issues.

Likewise, further clarification of the use of experts in litigation came in 1993, when the United States Supreme Court granted a writ of certiorari to hear Daubert v Merrell Dow Pharmaceuticals. Most lawyers need only view the Daubert decision as establishing a standard for dealing with admissibility of expert testimony in court. For our purposes in looking at experts, it also points out that when a legislative body (i.e. Congress, which was largely made up of lawyers) decided to adopt the Federal Rules of Evidence in 1975, it created an opportunity for other lawyers to argue whether the rules impacted the Supreme Court’s decision in the 1923 case, Frye v. United States.

Although the issues may still not be entirely resolved, let’s say, for the sake of argument, it only took the legal system seventy years to clarify how it felt courts should deal with exposing juries to the opinions of experts. The “surprise” I mentioned earlier comes full circle, from the archives of the business world, namely Fortune magazine.

“Often companies will underestimate the abilities of their own people, opting instead for the supposed advantages–chiefly financial–touted by someone with a briefcase from 100 miles away.”

This sounds strangely like the business world’s version of what the legal system has long feared, which is that the opinion of someone denoted as an expert will cause normal folks to turn into jelly, forsaking the lessons they may have learned from their own education and experience. So if we can’t necessarily even agree upon whether we should listen to an expert opinion, how am I to deal with a client which insists on hiring one in an area which is still emerging and has no generally accepted standards? We will explore this in the next leg of this quest to determine who is or is not a social media expert.

That’s what I think. Please leave a comment and let us know what you think.

If you are really interested, I just started yet another free group on LinkedIn, Social Media Search and Forensics. Many of these articles and discussion about them are posted there. Please join us.

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