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What's the Shelf-Life of Social Media as a Standalone Expertise?

by Joe Loong on May 28, 2009

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The week, the people who are usually abuzz about social media stuff were abuzz about the Gray Lady, the New York Times, appointing Jennifer Preston as their first social media editor.

Upholding the grand tradition of new media titles not being particularly clear, there was a lot of speculation as to what the Times saw as the role of a social media editor. It was pretty safe to assume that it wasn’t simply an editor covering the social media beat — while I’m sure it would have generated a lot of ongoing buzz and attention from the usual suspects, the rest of the world probably wouldn’t have cared a whit.

Others speculated that it was a glorified newsroom Twitter cop role, though in an interview with Fishbowl NY, Ms. Preston said that… well, it’s still hard to say. I would categorize it as a social media integration / coordination / evangelization role. It’s not all that dissimiliar from what I, and others like me, have done and are doing, save for her extensive journalism background.

Wither the “Telephonic Media Editor”?
This little episode brought to the front of my mind a little inner dialog I’ve been having: What’s the shelf-life / half-life of social media as a standalone expertise? Put another way, how much longer are we going to be faced with the scourge of the “social media / social marketing consultant”?

Being as how I basically am one, this subject has more than a little interest to me.

If you’ve had the misfortune to let me bend your ear during an event, you’re probably heard my theory: As social media tools pervade society, and especially as we have people growing up using these tools and methods natively, the standalone social media expert role will eventually be subsumed into previously-established categories. The current leaders of marketing, customer support, communications / public relations may stand out at first, but eventually every arm of an organization will have a piece of the action relevant to what they do.

My analogy — We don’t have consultants who have to teach organizations how to use the telephone effectively.

Having said that, I think there will always be a role for people with standalone social media expertise — it’ll just be a lot more focused role, like an efficiency expert or industrial hygienist. Or a troubleshooter who makes sure that social media tools and techniques are optimized across an organization. And of course, community management will continue to be a particular discipline. But in a lot of areas where there are still big firewalls between social media and traditional functions — I’m thinking primarily of communications (PR & Marketing) and customer support — there just won’t be that distinction anymore.

If Not Now, When?
As for a timeline, my SWAG is that this will happen within 5 years, probably closer to 3. Not to say that there won’t still be holdouts, just as there are places nowadays that still think in terms of “new media” (which, I hate to tell you, ain’t so new anymore) or above-the-line / below-the-line, or any of a number of outmoded categories, but that worm will have turned.

Which means you won’t be able to hang out a shingle that just says “social media consultant” and brag about your Twitter followers, any more than you’d put your typing speed on your resume or boast about your MS Office proficiency nowadays.

Which also means I’d better find something to do.

I’d be interested in hearing your thoughts — am I being wildly optimistic on the timeline? Will there always be a standalone social media coordination role (to keep that “holistic” view of social media)? Please leave a comment.

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