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The inter-mediators: Subject matter experts with a dash of Web 2.0 May 23, 2008

Posted by Raul in academic life, blogosphere, environment, food for thought, geekifying myself, personal life, random thoughts, social change, Vancouver.

At Darren Barefoot’s recent talk on Third Tuesday, I brought up a point that I thought was worth developing in one of my posts: the concept of intermediaries. I wrote about this idea recently, as I was indicating that there was a need for translators of GeekSpeak: those people who can speak the language of geeks yet still speak traditional, non-jargon-laced English.

However, when I was making this comment to Darren, I was referring to what I am going to subsequently call “inter-mediators“. I define inter-mediator as a subject matter expert who can also speak social media (Web 2.0). Inter-mediators can also be social media experts who dabble on other subject matters. For example, in the field of sustainability, I could be considered an inter-mediator. I have PhD-level training in environmental studies, and I have a fairly decent understanding of social media by now. I am, by no one’s standards, an expert in social media. But I have a blog, which I love, and I have a fairly high number of Web 2.0 friends (note that I said friends, not acquaintances). And I have increasingly gained a better understanding of social media and Web 2.0.

Why is it important that we have inter-mediators? Well, simply because nobody can work alone anymore. Social connectedness and networked relationships are here to stay. You can’t do a campaign for a social change enterprise if you don’t have the subject matter experts. Your marketing campaign for a restaurant chain can greatly benefit from the in-depth knowledge of food critics who also have blogs.

One of the reasons I undertook my MBA training was to be able to speak business to engineers (I am a chemical engineer), and vice-versa. The relationship has to be bi-directional. You can’t just try to market a wastewater treatment process that appears miraculous without having at least some understanding of the technology, so that you can properly design a marketing campaign that really highlights the best features in the process. Along the same way, if you have no understanding of your target market, it doesn’t matter how great the technology is, since you don’t know who you are trying to sell it to.

While I still have a great degree of love for academia, I still love doing research and publishing papers, I can really see myself doing more and more of the role of inter-mediator. Of course, I can write a full-fledged post on the theory of ecolabelling and how OceanWise and SeaChoice as ecolabelling schemes are also environmental policy instruments. I can certainly tells you about the ins and outs of pollution control strategies. But that doesn’t really help you directly (unless you are a consulting firm, the government or one of my students!). However, creating an online strategy to reach out to the public, and help educate folks on the dangers of ignoring climate change is for example, one of the best strategies to use both of my talents (my enviro-geek expertise and my up-and-coming social media geek savvy).

I do know of some people who do this kind of work, like Jason Mogus from Communicopia, Rob Cottingham and Alexandra Samuel, quite obviously ChangeEverything and of course, my friend Jonathon Narvey, who is an excellent writer and has done some freelance work for David Suzuki Foundation if I recall correctly. Somehow, I *think* this is the direction where my career may head. Who knows, I may end up taking up an assistant professorship(*) at one of the local (new) universities, but one thing is sure: The future definitely looks bright for me.

(*) And even if I become a tenure-track professor, I still plan to continue blogging.



1. Beth - May 23, 2008

In the health sciences, we talk about “knowledge translation” – which is the same as what you are talking about here. The point of KT is not that the academics just do research and tell people what we found, but rather that we engage the “research users” (e.g., clinicians, patients, families, communities) throughout the entire research project (including “hey people in the real world, what do YOU want us to research? what would help YOU?”) – like you said, bidirectional. And it requires people who know the field but can also speak to the people. This blog post is very similar to one I’ve had rolling around in my head for a while now. Great minds….

2. Cecily - May 23, 2008

Such intermediaries already exist in some communities – I know, because I’ve acted as one in two separate situations. When I was a usability expert/interaction designer, I was the intermediary between the customers who used our products and the developers who built the products. I was the person who watched the user work with our systems, talked to them about their struggles and successes, and translated this data into a set of actionable recommendations for improving our websites and software. I’d routinely hold focus groups for customers and visit customers in their homes/offices to ask them “hey, what do you want from us?”

Now, as a librarian, I’m an intermediary between library customers and the information they need. These days, my job largely involves helping people evaluate the information they find on the internet for validity, authority, timeliness, etc. I also show users how to get deeper, better, more targeted results by using tech speak (advanced search strings) and empowering them to find this information on their own, either free on the internet, or through walled databases that the library has subscriptions to.

Granted, many librarians are generalists, but at a large public library like VPL, we have dozens of subject matter expert librarians, and these kind of “expert” librarians are quite common at university libraries (where they’re often members of the faculty). Lots and lots of librarians are using 2.0 technologies to enhance the services they’ve been providing for years – a leading expert in this field is David Lee King. He’s worth looking up on The Google.

The concept isn’t a new one, really. We’re all intermediaries when we show our less technical family members how to use a piece of technology or a web service, and we share in their joy when they finally understand how to best make use of that technology themselves. We serve as intermediaries in an informal sense every day, and I think there are many of us out there in the web world (2.0 or otherwise) who take a more active, public role in connecting people to wider connections (if that makes sense). I wasn’t at Barefoot’s talk so I’m not sure if he was talking about a more formalized, centralized intermediary role taken on by one or more “experts”, but just as their are many communities, there should be many experts. As you pointed out, people respond better to people who speak their language, so it’s important that this kind of information doesn’t come from someone that the community views as an outsider.

3. Barbara Doduk - May 23, 2008

I think it is great you are looking at all the options of where your career can take you. In the end you might well do all those things, and more, it’s a long life and the world is open to you. Good luck.

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