Guru Say What?

by Shannon Paul on September 22, 2009

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Dont Call Me a Guru

Don't Call Me a Guru

Let’s do an exercise where you fill in the blanks:

Social media gurus say ____________,
but I think _________________.

I see and hear this all the time and I’m going on the record to denounce this as intellectually lazy and even a bit cowardly.

Who are You Calling a Guru?

Believe it or not, when someone says social media gurus, I don’t know who the hell they’re talking about. I see a lot of diversity of thought and experience amongst people I consider guru-worthy.

I don’t think there are any closed guru meetings, or guru alliances or a guru bot that goes around infecting people involved in social media.

Yes, Intellectually Lazy…

Who says what? Prove it. Where’s the link? Can you quote or paraphrase at least? If someone really says something you disagree with, there’s probably a link to substantiate your claim and your counter position. If it’s something they said in conversation, ask them if they don’t mind whether you reference that discussion in a blog post.

Tell Us How You Really Feel

You can’t exactly pride yourself for going against the grain if you don’t call it out like you see it. Don’t fall back on the old guru say what routine. When you disagree with someone, own it. Otherwise, we’re having debates with no real substance or reference point. Maybe this goes back to my roots as a student of journalism, but this type of argument with a hypothetical group of individuals would never fly in that scenario.

I’m going to put myself to task here and tell you I started thinking about this after reading a blog post from Mitch Joel Sunday morning. I left a comment in line with the discussion on the post, but I kept mulling over the use of the “social media gurus” line and I had to come clean.

I have a lot of respect for Mitch and his work, so I’m hoping he understands where I’m coming from. I also realize he was using it as a bit of a joke – hence the quotation marks. However, I think as this space continues to grow, a lot more people are not going to necessarily understand the underlying humor.

Some may even assume he’s talking about the people at the top of their game – real community appointed experts like Beth Kanter does in this post. Her list of  social media gurus includes David Armano, Rohit Bhargava, Pete Blackshaw, Chris Brogan, Todd Defren, Jason Falls and Ann Handley among a few others. There’s no sarcasm here – these are very well respected people at the top of their game.

My point in writing this is I think we can all do better. We also need to realize that we’re not just talking to each other anymore. Lumping a group of people together under the “guru” heading gives others the impression that an unnamed group of people is out of touch with my reality.

This isn’t personal. A lot of people use this type of phrase to describe a certain set of unnamed people. Some other blog posts where the phrase is used:

Biggest Mistakes Made by Social Media Gurus

Expulsion of the Social Media “Gurus” – Impacts of the Recession

SEO vs. Social Media Gurus

My point in showing other posts that use the phrase is that we’re not all using it to describe the same group of people based on an agreed-upon set of characteristics.

Some use the phrase to describe the sort of self-proclaimed carpet-bagger type “expert” who is simply hopping on the social media trend, but others use it to describe the sort of community appointed gurus or people who really know their stuff.

Plus, is it totally impossible for someone can hop on the social media bandwagon for all the wrong reasons and intentions and still end up becoming a valuable contributor in this space? I don’t think so.

When we start grouping people into the guru and non-guru category, it stops feeling like a community and a lot more like every place else in the world. Besides, despite our motivation, aren’t we all still learning?

Your Thoughts Here

I’m interested to know what you think of this. Maybe I’m way off base, but isn’t it time we learn how to respectfully disagree with enough fortitude to withstand a little conjecture on a personal level without relying on sweeping generalizations?
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{ 21 comments… read them below or add one }

September 22, 2009 Shannon Nelson 1

But here’s the stumbling block I run into…when I am doing a speaking gig or presenting in a webinar, people want to introduce me as a “guru” and I cringe. Yet, everyone feels the need to label me something. So what do you say?

Expert? Well expert makes me uneasy because somehow I feel like I am saying I don’t really have anything left to learn…which obviously is not true, especially in social media with the way the technologies change so quickly…although the basic fundamentals to relationships never do.

Maven? I feel like that makes me sound too uppity.

Relationship Specialist? Well then everyone will think I’m Dr. Phil or something. (I would not mind his paycheck though.)

I’m doing a social media webinar in October and the company I am presenting with already started saying “guru”…so how do you label yourself so that people clearly understand you know your stuff without being laughed at by all of your peers…?


September 22, 2009 Shannon Paul 2


I think it’s fine that other people refer to you however they want to refer to you. What I’m trying to address in this post is the negative use of the phrase as a means of generalizing about people.

That’s the point – not everyone thinks of this phrase as a negative… but the way many of us use this is with a sarcastic eye roll, as in *the supposed social media gurus say… but the reality is…*. A lot of people in the social media space use it as a way of criticizing others who may not seem as legitimate.

The problem is that if you live outside the social media echo chamber you don’t get the joke. People want to introduce you as such because they’re trying to be complimentary and sell your skills to their audience.

The disconnect happens inside our industry when the phrase is used sarcastically with a nudge and a wink — those who are new to the space don’t get the joke, and those of us inside the space could do better at providing others with the ability to make up their own mind by providing names, references, etc.

My take on your title? Guru and maven sound pretty silly. When is the last time you saw “Marketing Guru” on a card. I would just say what you do. You’re a Communications Professional with a specialization in social media – maybe a social media specialist if you’re into brevity.

At the end of the day it’s really up to you. Just accept the fact that you can’t please everybody.


September 22, 2009 Shannon Nelson 3

Well right–I get it. I understand those that introduce me to others as guru are trying to compliment me, but due to the way our industry views that word, it makes me self aware. And honestly, I think it has a lot to with those folks that simply set up a facebook profile and consider themselves an expert and go around promoting themselves as a guru.

This post is timely though, so I look forward to everyone’s input. :)


September 22, 2009 Gerard McLean 4

@Shannon Nelson *cringe* too when I get those kind of introductions. I happen to be an “accidental” guru of sorts, though nothing in any area I went to college for or worked an entire career in, just an accidental job change 16 years ago and I’m branded. Oh, well.

Shannon Paul, along my “accidental” opening paragraph, it is also important to recognize that we seldom see ourselves as others do. To the outside world, you are a social media guru. So is Chris Brogan, Jason Falls, etc. You guys just are.

Does this make you part of an exclusive club? Yes. Is that ironic in light of what Social Media is? Yes. Will you fight against the “guru” title? Absolutely. It limits who you are and what others will allow you to be. (@gapingvoid if you have not yet, read his book Ignore Everybody)

Chris Brogan addresses my point best in Trust Agents (I don’t have the page number, but the passage is in my brain) I paraphrase, but he wrote, “we know each other in this space and we recognize when there is someone new here.” So too does the new person feel this “stare-down,” whether intentional or not. (probably not, you seem like a nice person, but you are still a guru. Gurus stare down newbies.)

This opinion I will own: Social media gurus have the power to shut down a social media discussion. And you have, probably unintentionally. When you disagree with a comment someone makes, it limits his willingness to float a dissenting opinion in the future. You should step back and see yourself as others (including me!) do rather than who you know yourself to be. This responsibility is just part of achieving guru status (the plural you as in you gurus, not you personally.)

I didn’t write the rules and I have pathetically little power to change them as they seem to be hard-wired into the human condition. People won’t change, they will merely move on without you, puzzled at why you are not flattered to be called a guru.

I’m right there with you on the “straw man” use in media. It is incredibly lazy and few listeners/readers recognize the device when it is being used. And more media people (journalists??) are using it (joke embedded).


September 22, 2009 Shannon Paul 5

Yes – “straw man” argument – I knew there was a way to succinctly say what I was trying to say… the phrase eluded me, but it would have saved about a paragraph of verboseness. :-)

I’m still thinking about the rest, but I appreciate what you added here…


September 22, 2009 Stuart Foster 6

Haha, not my finest work to be sure. (I actually had forgotten that I wrote that post.)

It really comes down to this: Can you influence, inspire, leverage or shape communities?

If the answer is no. Don’t call yourself anything. If the answer is yes, don’t call yourself an expert because it makes you sound like a douche. Plus “The Guru” was a horrible horrible movie.

My random two cents.


September 23, 2009 Jason Falls 7

I don’t care what other people call me. So long as they call me.

The only way to wade through this and keep your wits about you is to care about how you view yourself and how those closest to you view you. If you’re right by that, and treat everyone else with the same respect and decency you respect in return, all this chatter is just chatter. Compliments will come and go, as will criticisms. Treat people well, do good work, don’t worry with what people call you or call others, sleep easy at night.

My two cents. But then again, I’m not a guru. Heh.


September 23, 2009 Chuck Hemann 8

Shannon -

I’m digging what you’re saying here, as well as Gerard’s comment adding to the discussion, but can I ask a question? Why would being called an “expert” or a “guru” or a “wizard (joking)” be seen as anything other than a term of endearment? The reality is that the people introducing you in that way are almost always doing it to pay you a tremendous compliment. These are folks that don’t know (often) nearly as much as you do about social, or the Web, and rely on you to share the wisdom you’ve gathered through your years of working with this stuff.

Why bother fighting what you are? You, and the others you cited in this post, know a lot about the space. What’s the problem with getting that recognition, regardless of the adjective?


September 23, 2009 Shannon Paul 9


Honestly, I don’t care what anyone calls me.

My point was that when people use the argument “the social media gurus say…, but I think (insert opposing viewpoint here),” that it’s a straw-man argument (thanks, Gerard).

If they can’t reference the specific group or individuals they’re disagreeing with, (preferably with a link) they might as well be arguing with an imaginary friend. Their point of view lacks substance and teeth if they can’t provide a concrete reference. It’s one thing to make an observation, but another to argue with “people” who are grouped together under some sort of blanket generalization.

Does this make sense?


September 23, 2009 Chuck Hemann 10

Yep. Totally. I can see why that would be frustrating. Frankly, I think the space could use some constructive questioning every once in a while, which is what I think you’re trying to get at here…Constructive = talking to a PERSON, and not a vague reference to a group of people


September 23, 2009 Shannon Nelson 11

@Jason I like how you think “as long as they call me.”

@Chuck I know you are probably talking to the other Shannon, but I see what you are saying. I know I am good at what I do, enough so that people label me as such and I am most def. flattered…but I often look to my peers in the industry and see so much eye rolling about anyone who labels themselves as guru that it sometimes makes me feel uneasy. If that makes any sense.


September 23, 2009 Chuck Hemann 12

@Shannon N. – really applicable to both, as it turns out. Here’s the thing though…you aren’t doing the labeling. It was someone else providing you with that label. That may make you feel uneasy because of industry-related norms, but the person doing the introducing doesn’t know the norms, and probably couldn’t care less. Probably doesn’t make you feel any better about being labeled, though.


September 23, 2009 Olivier Blanchard 13

Interestingly, the folks who DON’T call themselves gurus or experts (but are) get criticized, yet folks who DO call themselves gurus and experts (but aren’t) don’t. It’s pretty lame.

It would be nice if the peanut gallery turned its finely tuned bull$h*t meters to the mob of hack jobs shamelessly pretending to be experts in the field of social media and call THEM out on their unethical BS instead of attacking people who actually do real work in this field.


September 23, 2009 Chuck Hemann 14

Just me offering only a $0.02 view, Olivier, but I’d bet the people being critical of those who DONT label themselves are jealous to a degree.

As an aside, you may not be comfortable with it, but I’d call you a guru in a second.


September 23, 2009 Sean Williams 15

Shannon — all kinds of shorthand fall a little short. When I hear “he’s a ____ Guru” my BS detector starts to chirp. But as long as you’re not a self-described guru, that’s fine with me.

As social media matures, there will be less need to call out and label PR/Comms/Mktg practitioners by that channel. Of course, that also implies that we take account of the differences in application of these tools, not a well-evaluated, well-researched area of study.

My theme for the week on comments seems to be that we need more objective research into the effectiveness of social media in business, moving more toward business objectives rather than mere output measurement.


September 23, 2009 Maya 16


I agree. But I also dislike getting discounted as just another person when I am working my backside off to live and learn all this social media stuff. No, I have never been called a Guru and I never really refer to anyone else that way, but how do you refer to people who do know more than the average Joe? An expert? A guru? ….

I think we have to find a way to give people their due especially at a time when every other person claims to be an “expert”. No, and in no way is referring to someone as Guru the solution, but I wonder if other is any other way at all? Amber had a post about this a little while back ….



September 25, 2009 ochojoe 17

Shannon, I love your post and the ensuing discussion. Maybe we need to consider words or terms other than “guru” – or better yet, we could stratify the space by creating a heuristic based on various labels. Here’s a start, to add to “guru”: ninja, blackbelt, sherpa, spirit guide, northstar, sensei, The “Tiger Woods” of ______, The “Jack Welch of ______”, etc. I’ll set up some Google Alerts and check Insights to see whats trending, and report back…


September 25, 2009 ochojoe 18

ack! My “end of toungueincheek” tag was dropped from the comment.


September 27, 2009 Ann Handley 19

Seems to me that it’s pretty tough to be anything but a “Student” in the social media space. Things change and evolve so fast around here, that to call *anyone* a guru seems a little… well, silly.

And for the record, I describe myself as a veteran of creating digital content with a passion for building community, particularly in using new media tools. I know, I know… it takes longer to say than “guru.” But then again, I’m a words person… and “veteran” seems to sum it up without suggesting anything more or less than the fact that I’ve been kicking around a while.

Great post (as always), Shannon.


October 5, 2009 Jeff 20

What’s the “standard” to declare guru-ness?

I’ve worked with Nobel Laureates…and I never never knew one who considered themself a guru.

Quite the opposite. That said, being a Nobel Prize winner is a “standard.” So is being an Olympic gold medalist. Or a NYT’s “best-selling” author.

In the absence of a “standard,” something generally accepted by society, something to point to…declaring guru-ness may be 1) marketing, 2) Chutzpah, 3) naive and/or 4) something one will have to defend, demonstrate or drop.

(Standards are your friend).


November 30, 2009 Johnny Mason 21

Thank you so much for this. Not only do I find the phrase “guru” annoying for anyone other than some dude on a mountaintop somewhere, but it make no sense. How can a person become completely proficient (an expert) at something that is constantly evolving? Techniques and options are changing all of the time. I think that the second someone calls him/herself a guru, their dedication to learning has stopped.


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