Experts, Thought Leaders, Influencers
The short version
Don’t mistake the misuse and abuse of these terms as a reason to avoid using them all together.
The longer version
The social media negativity given to the terms of expert , thought leader , and influencer makes this a risky topic to write. However, given that is National Cybersecurity Awareness Month (NCSAM), I find it relevant to talk about them in order to bring back usefulness to these terms for both the public good and professional development.
Let’s get this out of the way first. None of the formal definitions for any of these terms are negative. The terms are what they are. They are simply descriptive words like any other word, and like any word, can be used, abused, and misused.
Myth: I don’t like that word or its definition; therefore, if you use it, you are bad
Internet social media is not the authoritarian driver of human existence, but it certainly influences human behavior. Those who uses social media are nearly always attempting to influence others with their personal and professional opinions (otherwise, why be on social media?). Tweeting about a political view, debating personal views, or discussing opinions are generally overt attempts to change another person’s viewpoints or at a minimum, give someone else a different perspective. There is nothing wrong with that and productive discussion is required for discourse.
The problem is that when a word is targeted as “bad”, there is a pile-up on that word to prevent its use by anyone. I do not favor this reaction since if you prevent the use of a word, how else do you go about describing a thing when the only words to describe it are now considered bad? Let’s not do that with these three words.
Myth: Anyone using these words for marketing is bad because marketing is bad
I tend to agree with the feeling that self-proclaimed experts may overuse and probably abuse legitimate terms, especially when used in marketing. An example is someone claiming to be an “expert” to sell a product or service, but has no apparent expertise to back up the claim of being an expert. However, marketing is what it is. Businesses must market to stay in business and people need to market themselves to be hired by the businesses.
The misuse of the terms for marketing is the issue, not the terms themselves, such as a person claiming to be an expert without having a lick of experience or education to prove it. The solution is that those (persons and businesses) that use the terms, should use them as appropriate and not merely buzz words. Someone with tons of experience in a specific area will have more credibility (ie, influence) than someone with no experience in that same specific area, so by definition, they fit it.
Which is the most important word?
I do not believe any one of these three terms is more important than another. Some may believe that an expert is “higher” than a “thought leader” or that an “Influencer” is higher than a “practitioner”. In my opinion, any person, organization, or business that can push or propel the community, or even a chunk of the community, in another direction, fits the definition of a thought leader, influencer, or expert. The only difference is the audience size that is impacted.
This would include even those who do not want or believe themselves to be an expert, thought leader, or influencer. If your words move another, guess what…you are. This is not a bad thing, but with its power, comes great responsibility.
Which is higher in the hierarchy of affecting the DFIR field?
Opinions can vary, but there isn’t much room for different opinions in that an expert, a thought leader, or an influencer changes the DFIR community, whether or not the person wants to make changes or even be known as one of these. If your work, research, words, testimony, tools, or processes influences another, guess what…you are. Which word is more important than the others really isn't a question, since any one of these can have just as much impact as the others.
In no way does being a practitioner imply unimportance. The practitioner does the work, bears the brunt of critique of their work, and works to keep current in their skills. This is very important. But it is also important to note that a practitioner, simply doing their job, can easily and quickly become an expert, thought leader, or influencer. A practitioner with one court case, one idea, or one presentation can move the community further forward or bump it into a new direction. Again, if you are a practitioner and you influence another, guess what…
So, although I agree the terms get overused in marketing, I do not feel that way for those who fit the definitions should discredit the words. I have seen the impact of a single tweet from a single person cause a white paper to be written, a new process be created, and a course be developed that changes all before it, simply because of the credibility of the person who created the tweet impacted another person. The humility to decline being known as an influencer is honorable, but don’t discredit it, because moving the field in a positive direction is important for anyone who can do it.
Which brings up a point
Once you are known as an expert (either via court qualification or public opinion), an influencer, or thought leader, your words become heavier whether you like it or not. You are that thing, whether you like it or not. The community will take all you say with seriousness, because of your credibility . This is a great responsibility (great, as in heavy). The only way to remove yourself from being influential is to ruin your credibility. Consider that if a court qualifies you as an expert, your opinion is allowed as testimony . This in itself means your words are factual evidence in a legal matter. When a court will take your opinion as court admissible, factual evidence, consider that when you have substantial followers (I don't like that term either, but it is what it is), they will take your words just as important.
One thing about these terms is that each of the terms are something that others define you by, not you defining yourself. It’s not something that you decide that you are, but rather what the community decides. This is the rub when self-proclaiming to be something that the community has not yet bestowed causes friction in the use of these words. You earn it. You don't buy it or define yourself with it.
Personally, I don’t really like the use of any of these words because they sound a bit arrogant, but only when used as a self-definition. Legitimately in language, they are useful to describe someone who moves the field or knows more than the layperson. Nothing wrong with that.