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A Lot (= what I don’t know)

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A few years ago I started some conference presentations with a sloppy attempt of a disclaimer, leaning on my own familiar TV metaphor of Sargent Schultz from Hogan’s Heroes and his classic yodel of “I Know Nothing!”. I was trying to deploy it in the sense of “I am not an expert” (Yes, I am a card carrying member of the Imposter Syndrome Club).

But Schultz’s method was one of being deliberately ignorant of what he observed, as some means of staying out of trouble.

I tried to use Schultz though, taking it down the path of what I learned when researching my facts on Hogan’s Heroes, weighing what I read about the character backgrounds on Wikipedia- I asked library experts among NMC members about what “trusted references” they would use to research the background of TV actors – these include reference books such as “Encyclopedia of Television” ($675) and “Television Characters” ($75) or subscription databases services such as the Gale Group (and I wandered down thr tangential lane of noting actor Robert Crane’s mysterious death in an apartment complex less than half a mile from where I lived then).

I was trying to ask about what the new notions of “expertise” were and if maybe “expertiness” in the Colbertian sense was sometimes enough. Or maybe it was a problem.

Yet I continue to see places where people continually market their expert skills, they spend each day showing the world what they know. I’ve alluded before (and will again, and will never reveal) that I subscribe to one particular blog, one which has 100 times as many readers and 1000 times as many twitter followers than me (therefore I am jealous), that almost regularly contains some of the most noxious self inflating writings I have ever come across.

Obviously, all those followers know something I don’t. But reading that keeps me grounded.

Or today, someone twitter me a link to 33 Signals Of An Alpha Social Media Evangelist. Some of them are things that many people do who maybe are not alpha leaders / A-Listers per se:

1. They are informers, usually using tools such as Twitter to spread links that point to information-rich articles.

2. They are giving away valuable things for free, such as how-to articles, video tutorials, etc.

3. They are usually early adopters, with things such as new tech gadgets or trendy social network sites.

But then I wonder at:

5. They usually have a lot of fans for their own Facebook pages.

18. Their profiles usually can be found on Wikipedia or their own Google Profiles.

19. On Twitter, they tend to have a huge amount of followers (i.e. 100,000+) and get listed 1,000+ times.

24. They usually have a “verified account” stamp for their Twitter profiles.

I was unsure if the author was 100% serious or tongue in cheek.

In particular, having a huge number of twitter followers is a serious false positive IMHO, and in this month’s Wired magazine, Clive Thompson nailed it with “in Praise of Online Obscurity”:

I’ve heard this story again and again from those who’ve risen into the lower ranks of microfame. At a few hundred or a few thousand followers, they’re having fun “” but any bigger and it falls apart. Social media stops being social. It’s no longer a bantering process of thinking and living out loud. It becomes old-fashioned broadcasting.

The lesson? There’s value in obscurity.

After all, the world’s bravest and most important ideas are often forged away from the spotlight “” in small, obscure groups of people who are passionately interested in a subject and like arguing about it. They’re willing to experiment with risky or dumb concepts because they’re among intimates. (It was, after all, small groups of marginal weirdos that brought us the computer, democracy, and the novel.)

And that is where I want to be, so here I wave my own flag of ignorance–

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Rather than boasting what I know, or all the 1-2-3 steps You Should Do To Be As Successful as Me (plus the Link to My Book You Should Tell Your Friends About, I am going to tell you how little I really know.

  • I am a lousy, sloppy programmer. I know enough PHP to make web sites, tinker with systems like WordPress or drupal, but my approach is more sledge hammer- keep piling on code til it works. I don;t do structured programming, my code is not optimal. And most of it is marginally tested beyond my own uses.
  • Almost any technical question someone asks me, I cant recall on the spot. I’ve built up a lot of expert reputation because I google something and send the results back. That is not what I know at all. The same goes for questions on “best technologies for X” or “Is there a software tool that will do Y”– if you think I am pulling from my brain, you are sadly mistaken
  • I am not all that well read. Or maybe I just don’t remember it much. I can’t quote the ideas of famous philosophers or education theorists, I”ve not read many of the great works. My 12th grade English teacher was so dull, I experienced her classes playing LP records of a reading of Julius Ceaser by placing my head like I was reading the book in my lap, and snoozing. I can’t sit at social gatherings and effectively banter whether Blah Blahs sense of pacing was reserved due to her Puritan upbringing or if So and so’s use of symbolism was immature. It has nothing to do with not enjoying reading, it’s more not being that engaged in the talking or posturing about reading.

    So while I feel like one of the Clampets in a literary circle, I am trying to hang with the loose group of Motley Readers doing some shared reading of Joyce’s The Dubliners this month. But I am not trying to share what I think I am supposed to say about it (be googling around)– I am just going about it on my own.

  • I’m lucky if I can remember the title of a movie I saw, much less memorize the pilot or peel back the meaning. I’ve hung around with some of my other colleagues that can back and forth with vivid details from movies they saw 10 years ago, or be able to compare on Director’s lighting choices with another. Thank you for my offline writing and references when I can reach into IMDb to fill in the neural gaps.

    And I find it fun to maybe try and latch on better to pop culture references that are not always readily at my recall. So I can banter with Jim Groom and joke that the “CogDog Abides” to a reference that runs through his DNA. I can do it asynchronously! It’s not about faking your knowledge, but it is about trying to figure out how to tap in deeply to something you don’t have instant recall on. The same goes for song lyrics- you can find online the text version of the words from almost any song, copy it, paste it, re-write a few words into the theme of something you are blogging about– and you’ve tapped into a pop culture bit.

There’s a lot more that I Don’t Know, but I am getting tired of writing — it would take me the rest of my life.

So there. I don’t “know” a lot of things– to me this is an opportunity, cause how dull would it be to be Such A Great Expert That Knows it All (and Charges You $25,000 to Bring it as a Workshop)? I’d hate such a burden. But that’s me down here happy in ignorant obscurity-ville. That just means I am jealous of the shiny people.

And I think the continued propping up of Pompous Self-Inflated Windbags as “experts to follow” is crappo deluxe.

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An early 90s builder of web stuff and blogging Alan Levine barks at on web storytelling (#ds106 #4life), photography, bending WordPress, and serendipity in the infinite internet river. He thinks it's weird to write about himself in the third person. And he is 100% into the Fediverse (or tells himself so) Tooting as


  1. This is the second time in a week you’ve explicitly brought up the idea of the Motley Readers and research and how you aren’t researching before you write about the reading. I would hope not. I wonder why you feel compelled to make that point repeatedly? Do you think anyone else in the group is doing so?

    What confuses me is that you make it sound as if people who talk about books are doing something wrong. Posturing I can understand, but talking about books? And why do you suggest that people who talk about symbolism or pacing must be somehow inauthentic?

    It is possible to sincerely love an art and want to talk about it… and if people who have a fair amount of knowledge have conversations that get into things that seem esoteric to those who don’t, why shouldn’t they be able to enjoy that? It’s not as if such things have to be exclusionary. Part of the intent of the Motley Read is precisely to let people express themselves in whatever way they see fit. Those who have a background in the field or who have read extensively or who just have those proclivities will talk about things differently. It happens when people get together with an in every field of endeavor, as far as I can tell, whether art or craft, from programming to books to cooking. It doesn’t follow that those people– that *I* or anyone else who approaches the book that doesn’t happen to be the way *you* do so– are inauthentic, experiencing the book in some lesser and less “real” way.

    Whatever your way of writing about _Dubliners_ is, it’s valuable. I don’t really see how it’s all that different from what everyone else is doing who is choosing to write about it! But there are times when anti-elitism (and I do recognize that there are posers) becomes its own kind of elitism, denying people who write or think or express themselves in different ways the legitimacy they deserve.

  2. Fellow traveler in the Imposter Syndrome/small blog audience boat here. I often feel out of my element or not quite as knowledgeable as people around me, but there’s a kind of headiness in that. I love asking questions of smart people and getting good answers. And sometimes I get to be the smart person in the room. But I think being a “real” smart person is understanding that just because you’ve been pointed to as an expert doesn’t mean that you don’t have more to learn. The experts that don’t understand that are no fun to be around. And you, my friend, are fun to be around. 🙂

  3. I know more about imposter syndrome than I wish I did. But you already know that about me.

    I’m also very unhappy that we’re midway through February and I haven’t even picked up Dubliners, much less participated in the motleyread. I feel very guilty about this because the invitation I got was just amazingly sweet and wonderful. I had all these good intentions. Nobody’s fault but mine…. Still, I feel down about it all.

    I love the folks involved in the motleyread in part because they’re all non-poser intellectuals. So I grok Chris’s response and it resonates with me too. Believe me, in the quasi-sticks where I grew up, there were plenty of people who wanted to call me out for even using the word “symbolism,” let alone applying it to something. Elementary school and junior high left a lot of scars on me for that reason. Then I learned some more about how to let my freak flag fly, I guess, but I remember the jibes pretty vividly.

    Then I got to grad school, and academia, and found a lot of what for lack of a better phrase I’d call competitive intellectual preening. Smart people, yes, but devoted to sorting the rest of the world out on the basis of their perceptions of other folks’ intelligence and education. So-and-so is first-rate, so-and-so is second-rate, etc. etc. etc. So you’re not wrong that pomposity exists, expertise can be high-IQ self-love, and posers can ruin a good deep conversation by spreading their peacock feathers or starting a pissing contest. Or doing both at once (yikes, what a mess).

    But Chris is also right that for the non-posers the conversation can get very erudite not as an exclusionary tactic, but as a way of using shared experience and knowledge to work through richly complex and resonant stuff (art music writing etc. etc.). And of course you know I include various kinds of popular music in the category of richly complex and resonant stuff, even a song called (ironically) “Pure and Easy.” 🙂 It’s all about the shared exploration, with something for everyone no matter where you start. And the non-expert often asks the best questions–less path dependency, and a greater chance of seeing something unexpected because so much is unexpected.

    So OK. Ready for a non sequitur tea in China?

    There’s a great Monty Python sketch with a penguin on top of a television set. The two “ladies” in the sketch are talking about the penguin, and one asks the other a question about why the penguin is on the set, to which the other replies that she’s “not Dr. bloody Bronowski” (he did the series “The Ascent of Man,” which I’ve never seen but can bluff about for 30 seconds, after which I talk about “The Shock of the New,” which I have seen). “Who’s he?” the first “lady” asks. “Oh, he knows everything!” the second “lady” replies. “Oh, I wouldn’t like that,” the first “lady” concludes. “That’d take all the mystery out of life.”

    It’s a really funny sketch. I’ll play it for you. We can lol. 🙂

  4. And I heart you and Alan even more than the YouTubez 🙂

    You might not yet be directly contributing to the motleyread reading, but this thread is a significant contribution anyway. Just the kind of thing I hoped would grow green from the reading roots.

  5. You all happen to be lucky, because I am the real McCoy, not an imposter, but the truth of the internet. And you can follow my blog http:/, my twitter account or my youtube account and become and expert just like me.

    Also, I coined EDUPUNK, started UMW Blogs (Gardner had nothing to do with it, nor did DTLT), and I am possibly North America’s premiere, if underrated artist. You should be happy, and feel lucky, to have me in your network.

    Hope that turns the tide of this comment thread. Humility is a dangerous drug that doesn’t let go once it’s ugly fangs dig into your ego. Fight, fight, fight against the dying of the heart light 🙂

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