Have you ever tried to talk to a friend or family member who is not really enmeshed in social media about social media stuff? Have you said something like, “Wow, so and so just retweeted my post on Twitter and gave me a plus one on it via Google Plus and then called me a thought leader!” If so (and why wouldn’t you say something like this?) you were probably greeted with a blank stare, a pregnant pause, or a, “Is that good?” There are a lot of new words and phrases that are pouring out of the online world. Some of them are useful. I think. I can’t really think of any 100% useful ones right now. But a lot of them are really starting to drive me nuts. At the top of this latter list is the term “thought leader.”
What does this mean in the online world?
I think the term “thought leader” evolved because people became uncomfortable with calling themselves “influential” or “influencers.” Truth be told, I think the phrase “thought leader” means a lot of things in the world of social media. It could be synonymous with “innovative” in some cases. It could be synonymous with “a good predictor of the future.” Or, let’s just be honest, it could be another way of categorizing “the A-lister,” the “cool kids,” etc. However you slice it, it has always felt to me like using the phrase “thought leader” especially in a self-referential way, was a nice way to avoid looking like a 100% braggart. Thought leader makes you seem very important, but then you are leading people and so that’s kind of honorable and kind of not just about you.
Why I hate this term
I recently discovered that Elizabeth Barrett Browning wrote a poem called, “Thought Leader, how do I hate thee? Let me count the ways.” I know, surprising, right? As it happens, her thoughts perfectly align with my own (who woulda thought?) so I thought I would just share it here.
Thought Leader, How I Hate Thee. Let Me Count The Ways
How do I hate thee? Let me count the ways.
I hate thee with all my fight and might
As thou doth blur the line betwixt wrong and right.
As thou doth kill the urge in others to race
To their own thoughts and clarity and light.
I hate thee as thou mask the height
That others can reach with their own grace.
I hate thee for the power thou doth abuse,
I hate thee for thy gathered train.
I hate thee for what you’re making us lose,
I hate thee for at disagreement you complain.
I hate thee for the doors you close,
I hate thee for the thorn in my side causes pain.
Now, let’s put this into some 21st century talk. Understand that this is not about any one person who has been called thought leader, but rather it’s what the term has come to symbolize for me.
If you’re a thought leader, by definition, you lead other peoples’ thoughts.
Why do we want that?
Social Media as a tool is still too new to be able to say that any one way of doing things is right or wrong. What works for one person is not guaranteed to work for another. What works for one company is not guaranteed to work for another. When it comes to facets of life beyond social media the idea of a thought leader makes me even more itchy. Martin Luther King was not a thought leader. All of the thoughts he infused into the world were translations of ideas from everyone ranging from Jesus to Gandhi. Gandhi was not a thought leader, he simply led people by example. He put thoughts out there and other people agreed.
When I hear or see the term “thought leader,” to me it feels like a closed door. When you are called a thought leader in the online world, it seems to mean that everything you say is right and cannot be argued with. After all, you’re a thought leader. If someone disagrees with a thought leader, we get into really mature discussions about “haters” and “haterade.” Because if you disagree with a thought leader, you hate them.
The term thought leader is, to me, what has led to the polarization of the online world in large measure. People feel they must be led by a thought leader, and if two groups of people are following two different thought leaders, obviously both groups are saying that the other leader is wrong. Hence, everyone hates everybody.
Most importantly though, the existence of “thought leaders” insinuates that you or I can’t be thoughtful or possess powerful or influential thoughts. If you are not “branded” (as cattle, not the marketing term) as a thought leader, what are you? A thought follower? Thoughtless? A snack that a brain-hungry zombie would pass by?
If content is still king online, then that means words that make up that content are the princes. The words “thought leader” used as an adjective wield a power that I am highly uncomfortable with. Clearly Elizabeth Barrett Browning didn’t like the ramifications either.
What do YOU think?
Image Credit: http://www.flickr.com/photos/tmartin/71654890/ via Creative Commons