Rest in Peace, Social Media Ninjas

Let’s get this straight – a few years ago, you read The Cluetrain Manifesto or Groundswell or one of the other hundred social media books out there, you started reading Mashable, you created a Twitter account, and you developed a bunch of presentations you used internally to help get buy-in from your organization’s senior leadership for your social media ideas. It’s now two or three years later, and you’ve become the organizational “expert,” “guru,” or “subject matter expert” in social media, your social media blog receives a lot of traffic, you’ve championed the use of Enterprise 2.0 tools internally, and you’re managing your organization’s Twitter and Facebook pages. Everything’s going according to plan, right?

Eh….not quite.

Here’s the thing – over the last few years, you’ve probably gotten a few raises, won some awards, maybe you’ve even been promoted one or two times. I hope you’ve enjoyed your rise to the top because I’m here to tell you that the end is near. If you’ve ridden the wave of social media and branded yourself as the social media “guru,” “ninja,” or “specialist,” I hope you’ve got a backup plan in place because what once set you apart from the crowd now just lumps you right in there with millions of other people with the same skills, the same experience, and the same knowledge. A few years ago, you were innovative. You were cutting-edge. You were forward-thinking. You were one of a few pioneers in a new way of thinking about communicating. Just a few short years later, and you’re now normal. You’re just doing what’s expected. You’re one of many. Social media specialists are the new normal. Oh, you were the Social Media Director for a political campaign? Congratulations – so were the other 30 people who interviewed for this position. What else have you done? What other skills do you have? People with social media skills and experience on their resume aren’t hard to find anymore. It’s those people who don’t anything about social media who stand out now.

The good news is that this doesn’t have to be the end. Instead trying to be a social media ninja, try being a communications specialist. Try being a knowledge management professional. Try being a recruiter. Try being an information technology professional. Because guess what – THAT’S what you are doing. Instead of talking about how you have thousands of Twitter followers or Facebook fans, talk about what those fans have helped you accomplish. Instead of talking about the number of blog subscribers you have, talk about how much revenue that blog helped generate for your organization. Instead of talking about the number of members of your Yammer network, talk about how that community has positively impacted your organization’s workforce. Start talking about social media for what it is – a set of tools that people with real professions use to do their jobs. Don’t try to be an expert at using a hammer. Try to be the master builder who can use the hammer, the saw, and the screwdriver to build a house.

When everyone’s a specialist, no one’s a specialist. What makes you stand out now?

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Sara Estes Cohen

Great blog steve! I’ve been focusing on data and the more tech side of social media (versus communications strategy)…


I think it’s more about doing your regular gov work, but doing it better, more open, more efficient and together with others. It’s not the work that changes, but the way we get the job done in practice.

Chris Poirier

You nailed it! People often forget that technology helps drive processes and practices more so than the other way around. If you lack solid process, there is no technology that will help you. In fact, the addition of technology to a broken process will only make things worse and, of course, cost you more than if you just had a broken process. To this end, I’m very happy to now seeing organizations and individuals taking a step back before jumping in on new IT investments to attempt to “fix” a problem in their organization. Granted, some things require a technological solution, but your process discussions should have led you to that conclusion and not a consulting hocking their wares that help cure project scope creep, performance management, and cancer.
That said, I think it’s more about the individuals, the processes, and the mission that drive the potential for technology innovation and appropriate usage. The tool that then complements all of the above and assists in execution is that of moving the organization forward in today’s world.

Elliot Volkman

As always Steve sums it up perfectly. Just this past week a coworker asked me if they should include social media in their title. I quickly corrected that with communications. While social media is a great tool, there is bound to be something else that advances communication in years to come.

Alicia Mazzara

One of my friends recently described social media as a “bubble” that was going to eventually burst, and I think this post definitely speaks to that. It’s not that social media is going away, but, like you say, it’s a means to a bigger end.

Stephen Peteritas

This is exactly why I’m uneasy about my title being online producer. Isn’t everyone an online producer of something?


It just depends. My own organization’s senior leadership is not particularly social media savvy, and very few execs are on Twitter or Yammer or Posterous or Wikispaces or anything other than LinkedIn, and not very regularly.

I’d like to see more social networking at all levels, cutting across all demographics and all orgs, not just IT or Public Affairs.

I think the next big challenge is to push the use of social media up the ranks, to the Senior Leadership.

It doesn’t have to be lonely at the top!!

Steve Radick

Thanks everyone – glad to see that this post has struck a positive chord here. @Megan – I’m saying that there’s not a need for people skilled in social media to help others figure it out. I’m just saying that the end game shouldn’t be to get someone using Twitter. It should be to help them figure out how to use Twitter to be a more effective HR specialist or recruiter or marketer or public affairs professional or leader. It’s just a means to an end, not the other way around.

Diedre Tillery

Thanks to all the ninjas out there who cut the path through the wilderness and have shown the way to social media shangri-la, so Communications Specialists like me can discuss it without a manager’s eyes glassing over…I stand on the shoulders of giants! Next ninja assignment should you choose to accept it – convincing feds to use iPads – cue Steve Jobs!

Kristy Dalton

Crap, I just added ‘social media’ to my Twitter profile today 🙂

@Chris, I like your words “If you lack solid process, there is no technology that will help you. In fact, the addition of technology to a broken process will only make things worse and, of course, cost you more than if you just had a broken process.”

Andrew Krzmarzick

Been saying from the beginning that all of this is more about “psychology over technology.” The key question:

How do we change human behavior to adopt tools and processes that allow us to accomplish similar or higher levels of productivity with greater efficiency?

The tech always changes…the skills required to coax adoption are timeless…but not easy!

Courtney Shelton Hunt

I respectfully disagree that the”end is near” and that there are “millions of other people with the same [social media] skills.” In fact, I think we’re still very much in the beginning. I regularly talk to individuals – and by regularly I mean all the time – who still have very little understanding of how social media and other digital technologies work, and what their implications are for both themselves and their organizations. I would also venture to say that many people who think they understand new technologies know far less than they think they do. Almost two years ago I created a “fast and fun” quiz to assess people’s social media sophistication, and I’ve recently drafted an update. I also created a LinkedIn poll so people could identify what category they think they’re in and compare that with the actual results. The average score for the first version of the quiz is typically in the low teens (out of 56). The scale is now 100, and I expect the scores to be similarly low. I’d love for folks to take the quiz and share their feedback on it and their results. Here are some links:

LinkedIn Poll: http://linkd.in/rgSLAO

Social Media Quotient (SMQ) Quiz: http://tiny.cc/SMinOrgsSMQ2d

Blog post re quiz revision: http://tiny.cc/SMinOrgsSMQrev

I agree with Steve and others that new technologies should be viewed as a means to an end rather than an end itself, but I think we’re a long way away from having these new technologies becoming fully integrated into organizational operations. In the meantime, rookies still need folks to educate and guide them – no matter what they’re called.

Steve Radick

@Courtney – I’m not suggesting that social media expertise is mainstream among EVERYONE. I’m suggesting that it’s no longer some special, new thing. Yes, the vast majority of people in the rank and file are still lagging behind. But, saying that you’re some expert in social media literally puts you in a camp with a million other people who are claiming the same thing. Saying you were a “social media director” at some firm isn’t the feather in your cap that it once was, not with thousands of other people claiming the same thing. Three years ago, having thousands of Facebook friends and Twitter followers set you apart as an early adopter, as someone ahead of the curve. That’s no longer the case. Whereas having social media experience caught my eye a few years ago, not having that experience now is much more likely to catch my eye now. Now, I’ll caveat this by saying that I’m primarily looking at PR/Communications/Marketing/Public Affairs resumes. Maybe in other industries, this isn’t the case. I’m just going by my experience.

Michael J. Russell

My overwhelming sense is that for an über-competent, social-savvy guy like Steve, in a forward-thinking organization like BAH, many essentially rudimentary skills that many of us (cough) would probably consider to be old news — or even blindingly obvious — still remain largely unexplored territory for an astonishing number of organizations, inside (and well outside) the beltway. Seriously. In 2011. Two+ years after this.

That said, Steve’s points are still thoroughly valid and well-taken. If, like me, you’re proactively searching for the right, new opportunity (either W-2 or contractor), or seeking to advance within your current organization, it’s <cliche> still about what you can do, who(m) you can engage, and how you can contribute </cliche>using all of this dandy stuff. It’s never been, pace Clay Shirky, about sprinkling social sauce on moribund processes and expecting miracles.

Steve Radick

Thanks Mike (and I think you’d be surprised to find that a hulking battleship like Booz isn’t always the most forward-looking org)! However, the point remains – what was once sexy and innovative is losing its luster. People see through the garbage now. Three years ago, saying that you have “3,000 Twitter followers” may have had some wow factor and helped you establish some credibility. Now, all it does is show that you’re paying attention and that you’re not a laggard.

Jennifer Kaplan

Anyone can write a blog or a Tweet, but if it does not engage the end user and garner reaction, then it does not cut through the clutter. Social media specialists should be able to differentiate themselves through compelling content.

Greg Mt.Joy

I’d settle for a rule saying we can’t call someone who’s pretty good at something a “ninja” anymore.

Gadi Ben-Yehuda

I’ve reread this post a few times now (about every three or four responses to refresh my memory) and I though I’ve already written one response, I think another is due. I have been wondering why it bothers me so, and I think I see the central flaw: Steve looks at social media the way he might look at a smart phone and say: big deal, everyone’s got a phone that make calls, send and receive texts and email, and get on the Web. As if that’s all a smart phone does or can do.

He is talking about ‘social media’ only within the purview of communications, as he states explicitly in a comment, but not in this bomb-throwing (shuriken-throwing?) post: “Now, I’ll caveat this by saying that I’m primarily looking at PR/Communications/Marketing/Public Affairs resumes” And as I wrote in my response, “I’m not saying that Social Media is bigger than communications, I’m saying that it’s more like a Venn diagram in which social media overlaps with communications, HR, internal operations, marketing, IT, KM, and other business areas.”

Yet Steve (and many commenters below) still discuss social media and its uses only in terms of communications and PR, universalizing their industry and blinding themselves to the need for Social Media specialists and experts. I agree with Courtney that “the end is not near,” and with Greg that we should stop calling professionals “ninjas.” But if you want to be taken seriously, you need to caveat your arguments with the phrase “for the purpose of getting out a press release.” As in “everyone already knows how to use Facebok, Twitter, and YouTube for the purpose of getting out a press release.” Or “social media is not cutting edge for the purpose of getting out a press release.” And defintely

Social media specialists are the new normal for putting out a press release. Oh, you were the Social Media Director for a political campaign? Congratulations – so were the other 30 people who interviewed for this position of putting out press releases.

But if that Social Media Director were any good, they’ve done more than communicate. And that’s what I’ll post about next.

(NB: Some will argue that PR/Communications/Marketing/Public Affairs folks do more than issue press releases.)

Courtney Shelton Hunt

You kind of took the words out of my mouth, Gadi… I thought something similar after reading Steve’s last comment: the qualifier was SO important.

One of the persistent ironies in some of the hottest discussions about social media (what is an expert, who should own it) is that they’re dominated by people who have very myopic views about the underlying technologies and their implications and applications. Though many of these self-proclaimed authorities speak with confidence and in absolute terms, their comments often reveal the limits of their vision and understanding.

I don’t like it, but I more or less accept it as an early-stage hazard and try to offer a broader perspective when/where I can.

(Note: I’m not saying this is true about Steve. It’s a more general observation.)