Tuesday, June 9, 2009

An afterthought on transferability of expertise

After I conceived my post on expertise vs. crowdsourcing, but before I finalized and posted it, I ran across a blog post from Louis Gray about how he used social media to buy a car. Now it got me to thinking about a particular use case - the use case doesn't fit the facts of Gray's story (I'll explain why below), but I'm not going to let the actual facts get in the way of a blog post. First, here's a bit of Gray's story:

Upon hearing I needed to pay upwards of $4,000 to fix my broken Tracer, my tendency would be to walk down the street to the nearest dealer and find something, anything to replace it. But instead, this time, I posted a note to FriendFeed, explaining the situation, and asking the vibrant community for feedback. In the discussion, seeing more than 80 comments, I explained I wanted to be more like my peers in Silicon Valley, but honestly didn't want to go in debt for the privilege.

In the middle of our back and forth, Robert Scoble swooped in with an offer I had to pay attention to. He posted, "Louis: we are selling our 2006 BMW 325i with 56,000 miles. Make me an offer. Well maintained and fun to drive."

Now here's where the facts of the story don't fit the point I want to make. Most people, including myself, look at Robert Scoble as "a recognized expert in business and personal use of social media tools" (recognizing, of course, that a tool is not a way of life). However, in Louis Gray's case, Robert Scoble is a personal friend. They've probably dealt with spit-up from each other's young kids, which is the true mark of a personal friend.

But let's change the facts for the moment and pretend that Gray and Scoble were not personal friends. Assume that Louis Gray had posted his question on FriendFeed, and this social media person named Robert Scoble, a person that Gray knew by reputation but did not know personally, had offered his 2006 BMW for sale.

In the words of 20th century political commentators, would Gray buy a used car from this man?

To me, my fictional version of the episode suggested an interesting question. Let's say that a person has some sort of certification in a particular area - David Risley with a Better Business Bureau certification, Robert Hilburn as someone who was employed as a music critic, etc. Would we be more likely to use that certification to trust this person in a completely different area? For example, if Risley released a disco CD, would I be more willing to buy it because his online business is BBB-approved?

In truth, there ARE many cases in which we believe that certification is transferable. One of the most popular cases, often cited by baby seal clubbers and other conservatives, is when we pay attention to the political views of Hollywood stars. But this is used for much more than politics. Turn on the radio and listen to any public service announcement. Let's say for the moment that the PSA features a celebrity talking about some medical condition. Chances are that the celebrity who is talking, even if he/she suffers from the medical condition in question, does NOT have a medical degree and is not truly qualified to authoritatively speak about the medical condition. Yet because of the celebrity's credibility, gained from making us laugh in a top 10 show in the 2003-2004 season or whatever, we transfer that certification and trust the celebrity's words about Muscular Dystrophy or myopia or whatever.

Another example was a favorite of Howard Cosell's during his lifetime (and, knowing his persistence, perhaps beyond it). Cosell was fond of speaking of the jockocracy, or the practice of television networks of hiring retired sports figures to offer commentary on sporting events. In Cosell's view, the mere fact that you once played a sport does not necessarily qualify you to effectively communicate about the sport to others, or to effectively function as a professional television or a radio broadcaster. Frankly, he's right - years later, I still recall the scintillating observation of one of these ex-jock broadcasters: "He's an athlete." That's deep. Of course, the argument can be turned on its head, and one can claim that mere skills in radio or television broadcasting in one area (say, law) do NOT qualify you to broadcast about sports. And if you think otherwise, perhaps you'd like to discuss this on Pat Sajak's talk show - or even Chevy Chase's talk show.

Despite Cosell's misgivings, however, we often ARE willing to transfer prowess from the field into the broadcast booth. And despite the misgivings of certain broadcasters, we are willing to listen to broadcasters who have never played the game.

There are countless other examples, but you can easily find them yourself. The next time you hear a well-known person pontificating on something, ask yourself - does thi person have expertise in this particular area, or in another area? And if the expertise is in another area, do I believe what the person is saying now?
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