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Does 'social media guru' mean anything? Probably not

The oft-abused term raises the ire of Twitter users who see stuffed (virtual) shirts.

Omar L. Gallaga
ogallaga@statesman.com

What is it about the term "social media guru" that make those of us who regularly use the social network Twitter feel a deep, sudden clenching in our lower digestive system?

When the microblogging service, which now boasts about 190 million accounts worldwide, took off in 2007, largely fueled by early adopters who began to use it at South by Southwest Interactive, everybody was an explorer. No one was an expert because everyone was still figuring Twitter out.

But it wasn't long before Twitter (along with Facebook, LinkedIn and dozens of other social networks) grew so quickly that businesses decided they needed people who knew how to use them. They hired. PR and marketing professionals began adding social media skills to their résumés. Hungry freelancers abandoned their stalling Web-design careers to begin peddling their hashtagging, @replying and retweeting expertise.

But with apologies to all the hard-working pros who really do use social media well and have made a nascent career out of the possibilities, we in the Twitter world are fed up with the self-promoting social-media experts who perhaps aren't.

South by Southwest Interactive, which began Friday, has become thick with self-described social media practitioners who have created their own job titles: the "gurus," "visionaries," "ninjas," "pirates."

What do those titles even mean?

"Absolutely nothing," says Sharon Strover, a College of Communication professor at the University of Texas who researches social media. "There are no credentials for social media. Maybe it's a little bit of a testament to the creativity of the person using the title."

Strover says she remembers having a graduate student in her class who worked with Apple Inc. in its early days. Some employees were told they could take on any title they wanted. "They were pretty creative, but the downside is you'd get a business card with the person's job title and you didn't know what they did."

Today, such baffling titles are likely to appear on a guru's Twitter bio, a tiny digital document that also must conform to the service's 140-character rule. But he'll also manage to find room for cliches like "rockstar," "Lovin' life!" "results-driven," "visionary" and "truth-seeker."

Twitter and Facebook users I asked said they have a visceral reaction when they see the words "social media guru."

"I think, 'Not much style, even less substance,'" said Kim Wolfinbarger, an Oklahoma graduate student.

"I think it is silly - nothing wrong with assisting people in the world of (Facebook) and Twitter - but a guru?" said Terry Grier, an Austinite who runs the website wheninaustin.net.

"I generally cringe and then get a metallic taste in my mouth," said Jen Wojcik, the Austin founder and chief executive of Pinqued.com and someone who could legitimately be called a professional in the social media world.

Other Twitter and Facebook contacts were even less charitable, employing words like "moron," "dumb," "idiotic," "pretentious" and, most often, a popular, rude curse word that's become synonymous with boorish hipsters. (One that, perhaps appropriately, sort of rhymes with "hashtag.")

Michelle Greer, who was awarded the American-Statesman's first overall Texas Social Media Award in 2009 for her use of social media in high-tech and community work, said that many of the people who make up such job titles haven't proven themselves worthy of the designation.

"Calling yourself a 'social media expert' without having tangible results to back you up is like calling yourself a basketball player without posting up results," Greer said. "Getting a lot of followers is easy, but actually making them do something is another animal entirely."

Perhaps it's that assumption of a leadership role that rankles the most. In my online experience, some of the most aggressively self-branding "gurus" and "ninjas" often have few followers, lack original ideas and engage in marketing-speak that ought to be considered a crime against linguistics.

Real gurus and experts rarely call themselves that. They let their work speak for itself, harnessing the power of social media to spread the word, engage with other people in more human ways and bring value to their social media communities. (The real social media gurus even find ways to spread their work into their offline communities.)

This year, I was one of the judges for the Statesman's 2011 Social Media Awards. Amid the nearly 400 nominees, there were plenty of self-proclaimed gurus, but the 25 we chose as winners showed their skills without trumpeting themselves with a bogus job title.

It's the kind of thing to make you take the gurus and ninjas even less seriously.

ogallaga@statesman.com; 445-3672

Omar L. Gallaga, fake social media guru

Last year, I started posting occasional tweets on my personal Twitter account, crediting quotes to "Omar L. Gallaga, fake social media guru." I tried to take the can-do attitude (and can't-do skills) of the social media guru and mine a little humor for my online friends. Here are some of the tweets that I posted:

‘There are many ways to engage in social media; it's just my way is more right than yours.'

‘Before engaging in social media, you must ‘Like' your most important contact: yourself.'

‘They aren't unfollowing YOU; they're just opting out of your self-marketed life brand.'

‘There's no such thing as ‘Out of the office.' Social media gurus don't HAVE offices!'

‘When you unfriend someone you hate, you deprive the Internet of a fun future flame war.'

‘You don't have to be a desperate-to-network corporate drone to use LinkedIn ... But it helps!'

‘It's always Follow Friday SOMEWHERE in the world! #FF'

‘Sunday mornings are a great time to gather inspirational quotes. You can Tweet them all week!'

‘You are the You that You have been waiting for other people to follow.'

You might have been followed by a ‘social media guru' if ...

He posts inspirational quotes from people like Mother Teresa and Mahatma Gandhi that are meant to inspire, but in the void of context that is a tweet, are more likely to irritate and annoy.

She retweets any compliment or hat tip she receives from others to let everyone know how valued she is.

He links to articles from Mashable.com and social media celebrities like Guy Kawasaki and Robert Scoble that any Twitter user with even a passing interest in social media has already seen.

She has absolutely no standards as to whom she follows. Spammers? Fake accounts? It all just adds to the number of friends she can claim to have.