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Dive 27: When social media influencers have no clothes
Hey, it’s Alvin!
Just a heads-up: I’m not a lawyer. I’m not your lawyer. Nothing I say should be taken as legal advice. If you have legal questions, please consult a lawyer in your jurisdiction.
I once had a rather unpleasant “discussion” with an online influencer from Europe (let’s call him “Terry”) on social media. What I learned from the experience is how the internet can trick you into thinking you know more than you do. And how it can fool you into thinking that an influencer knows more than they do. But first, you need to know what happened…
Terry has tens of thousands of followers across multiple platforms and is highly regarded in the tech space among software developers. I generally enjoyed reading his takes, too, but one caught me by surprise.
In one post, Terry said that every time someone calls themselves a “Software Engineer,” some troll emerges and points out that you can’t call yourself an “Engineer” without a license in certain countries like Canada. Then he mentioned how “Software Engineer” can be used as a title internally and that even Google does it for its employees.
Except, that’s not true in Ontario, Canada, where I work. I know this because I studied engineering in Ontario. And I had to pass an engineering law exam to become a member of the organization that governs the engineering profession in the province.
There’s an Ontario law that says it’s an offence if a person without a license calls themselves an “engineer… in a manner that will lead to the belief that the person may engage in the practice of professional engineering”. It’s in The Professional Engineers Act section 40.2.a.1.
Terry scoffed when I pointed this out. He linked to a Wikipedia article and suggested the Canadian Coast Guard and Navy should be sued for breaking the law.
Let me be clear: I don’t have a problem with Terry. And I’m not here to discuss the legality of a “Software Engineer” title. In Dive 5, we explored how titles destroy self-worth, so I don’t care what people call me, anyway. But there are things I learned from this exchange I’d like to share with you:
1. An expert in one domain isn’t necessarily an expert in another.
As J.J. McCullough points out in this video, a world-class sprinter won’t be as good as a pro football player unless he is also trained to be one. A bodybuilder isn’t necessarily athletic. Being able to build muscles doesn’t automatically mean being able to run marathons.
Terry might be a tech industry expert, but that doesn’t automatically make him a legal expert, or an expert in any other domain. This might sound obvious, but as J.J. points out, people tend to assume domain experts are smart about everything even when they’re not.
2. Having no reliable critics is like wandering near a cliff in the dark.
The only reason I could comment on the Professional Engineers Act of Ontario at all is because I was tested on it by the very organization that enacted and enforces it.
It’s absurd that some guy who lives in another part of the world thinks he knows better when he’s unfamiliar with local laws. But I don’t blame him. He’s surrounded by fans who prop him up. And he preemptively casts dissenters as “trolls.” So, who’s going to challenge him? Who has the courage to tell him the Emperor has no clothes?
It helps to have a handful of reliable people who call you out on your gaffes. In fact, there’s a community of writers who point out mistakes in my drafts for this very newsletter you’re reading. And you can too. That’s why I leave an email you can reply to at the bottom of every edition. Because if you don’t have anyone to call out your mistakes, you will eventually pay for a big one you never saw coming.
3. You can’t assess the quality of your own knowledge until you apply it.
Terry never practiced law in Ontario. In fact, he’s not a lawyer. He didn’t even know what law to look up. If he did, maybe he would’ve questioned his beliefs at least a little. Instead, he doubled down, pointing out exceptions to the rule by referencing a non-cited passage from Wikipedia.
You don’t know what you don’t know. That’s why people can’t assess the extent or quality of their own knowledge. He could find out what he didn’t know by applying knowledge. But he doesn’t practice law. And he probably never had to write the law exam I did. So, he didn’t know any better.
“It is impossible for a man to learn what he thinks he already knows.”
4. You can’t learn everything on the internet.
The popular sentiment these days is: if you want to learn anything, just search the internet. It’s true that the internet has a wealth of knowledge. In fact, it has more knowledge than you can consume in your entire lifetime. It’s glorious that way. But there are still things we can’t gain from the internet.
In Dive 19, we explored how and why knowledge is no substitute for experience. You can’t learn to swim, skate or code just by reading books, watching videos, or listening to podcasts. You have to swim, skate, and code. I don’t care how easy it looks, how much you read, or how many people you spoke with. I’m not convinced you’re good at arguing law if you never practiced as a lawyer. I’m certainly not.
Learning while trying to win a “discussion” is also a recipe for failure. It doesn’t matter that the world’s information is on the internet if people only search the one corner for information that confirms their preconceived ideas.
5. Experts can be wrong.
Terry seems to have an air of authority. What I learned over the years of speaking with experts is that they can be wrong. It’s tricky because they can speak with conviction. But authorities are humans too. To err is human. So, I remind myself not to accept what people say without question, no matter how authoritative they seem.
I hope you enjoyed this dive Below the Surface of a conversation I had with a tech influencer. Reply to email@example.com if you have questions or comments. What do you think about online influencers and social media credibility? I’d love to hear from you.
Thank you for reading. Have a wonderful day. And I’ll see you in the next one.