Dear Dave: a letter to a colleague on metaphors, PLN, and perceptions

Dear Dave:


“Dear Sigmund…”

I hope you’ll forgive this departure from my usual blog format, but I was inspired by Sidney Friedman’s diary dialogue with Sigmund Freud in M*A*S*H and thought I’d give this a go.

Tuesday brought to light some big revelations on how people react so strongly to some blog posts when others remain read, but un-commented. As an examination of the dynamics of social media it’s fascinating, but that’s not quite where I was going, so bear with me.

Of course, I’m speaking of your post on the Snake Oil in the PLN. I liked it. But maybe not for the reasons that would be obvious.

It’s telling when someone who normally posts things that people tend to agree with, nod, and move on, suddenly posts something that really gets people talking because it’s so different. You’re a wonderful constant in many PLNs and Blog Readers, because you offer rich contributions, disagreement is rare, and as Tom Spiglanin says, your voice comes through so clearly and we sense that what you post is something you believe strongly in.  When something polarizing or potentially controversial comes up, it’s almost like they are dealing with a new author because the reactions seem so different that what they would normally be. But again, I digress a bit.

Let’s talk about your post.

You shared some insights on the nature of Personal Learning Networks with a cautionary approach via the analogy of the Snake Oil Salesman. A unique comparison, to be sure. There are some lessons to be gleaned from the insights on personal branding and how it is essentially a sales effort. (I suspect that there’s a rich discussion to be had on whether it’s sales or marketing, but that’s a post for another time.) Another question arises from thinking about whether or not there’s a surfeit of suitable individuals with whom you can connect and whether or not it’s really a problem.

I think, Dave, this is where many readers struggled with the Snake Oil analogy. Let’s be honest: it’s got some pretty negative connotations and, historical tales aside, it can be applied in the modern context to Used Car Salespeople, Personal Injury Lawyers, and Nigerian aristocrats with temporary cash-flow problems. The overall intent was great and it’s something we should probably talk more about as a community of practitioners than we really do. Finding connections who inspire us and teach us is a prime driver for creating a PLN but I also believe it’s a two-way street where the sharing of knowledge to others is just as valuable (if not more valuable) than the knowledge we glean for ourselves.  The meaning for a PLN is this: we want people to make good decisions about what the network should look like, who they include in their network and why they may want to include them. To make those kinds of great decisions, though, we need great criteria.

This, again, is where intent and analogy collide for many.

When all you have is a hammer...

When all you have is a hammer…

Might we serve our community better if we drove the focus toward the positive criteria instead of the (potentially) cautionary stuff?  On one hand, a general awareness of what constitutes falsehood is valuable awareness for someone new to the connection-making business and we do them no favo(u)rs to deny that falsehood exists. On the other hand, by potentially imprinting the Snake Oil theme in their heads, are people going to reconsider how they react to new connections? To me, that is little departed from “if you go looking for a problem, you’re bound to find one.” The picture here shows another analogy we know very well.  That’s one of the reasons why I understand where Shannon Tipton was coming from with her response to you, because of some of the perceived connections between inexperience and Snake Oil, and the slippery slope to exclusionary tactics and some kind of PLN “A” List. In that vein I was reminded of a post Shannon did about some behaviours L&D needs to change. While her focus was on how L&D treats learners, I see some parallels in how L&D should be treating one another.

As I pondered how to transfer thoughts from brain to (virtual) paper, I think I hit upon part of the root cause of the reaction to this perceived departure from your usual stream of positivity.

Star Power.

Yep. I said it.  To a lot of folks, Dave Kelly is a Star.

Please don’t mistake my intent here.  You have done yeoman work on your own and for the Guild and you’re making significant contributions to the body of knowledge in L&D, so nobody would deny that the success is well and legitimately earned.

Frankly, if anyone else out there this side of ShowBiz has established their Brand as rapidly and effectively, I’ve yet to meet them. Combine visibility with the high-profile work you are doing ex officio as the face of DevLearn and LSCon, and that star power adds an entirely different spin on what you say. It comes with cachet, it comes with oompf, it comes with all sorts of cred, and it carries significantly more weight than it might have 3-5 years ago. So if someone reads that post as “Dave says there’s lots of Snake Oil in a PLN”, reactions are bound to be visceral, swift, divergent, and emotional.  In the calm light of day, I wanted to come back to one thing you said that is important:

There are plenty of individuals and organizations whose brand is more powerful than the actual substance behind the brand. They are experts at marketing themselves as experts.

This is absolutely spot-on but, as I said in my comment, I perceive these kinds of things as vendor-driven.  Their contributions are biased because their agenda is promotion of product and driving revenue. Someone without the right kind of filter will start believing this “10 Awesome tips you need to create powerful elearning RIGHT NOW” stuff as gospel, when it does precious little to advance the practice of L&D as a whole. In fact, I think it holds us back.

So…I did say I liked the post.  I genuinely do.  I’m not sure I would have taken that sort of unique stance (but, who knows…maybe I’ll try it someday). But in all cando(u)r, the Snake Oil story just didn’t work for me. I’m not convinced that it’s more rule than exception and I think that using that particular lens as your first view of a potential connection is self-defeating.  For a personal insight, as much as I am a lifelong cynic, I am desperately trying to perceive people as positive until they prove otherwise, and even then, I have to ask the question about “proof” being interpretive rather than factual.  For years, I was always amazed when people were nice to me because I usually presumed that I wasn’t likeable and that’s just how things were.

But I did say I liked it.  It sparked reactions. It got people talking.  It got people thinking.  It got people asking questions about the metaphor and where it fits in our PLNs. It got people re-examining you through new lenses, along with what you share and where it comes from.  In short, the post got conversation happening.  It’s things like this that make people add an individual to a PLN. It’s also something that makes me think about what I need to do to get that same level of engagement in my own brand because I know I’m not there yet.  I’m still learning.

Ultimately, that’s what it’s all about.  The value of my PLN proves itself yet again.

Best to you and yours,


About Mark L. Sheppard

learning geek, lifelong learner, terminally curious, recovering blogger and Ed Tech explorer.

Posted on November 18, 2014, in Letters to Colleagues and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 5 Comments.

  1. Thanks for the thoughtful post Mark, and for adding to the conversation. I’ve got a few thoughts to add, and wanted to break them down a bit. I think a lot of what I’m going to type here is going to be part of another blog post on my site. 🙂

    What My Post Is About…

    I know some people thought my use of the label “Snake Oil Salesman” was overly harsh. To me the fact that some people were offended by the use of it only reinforces that it was the right term.

    Snake Oil Saleman IS an insulting term. As I’ve said in comments on the original post, one of the key factors that earns the Snake Oil Salesman label is INTENT. In the context of a PLN, the snake oil salesman has an awareness that he or she is overselling him or herself to others, positioning themselves as a leader that should be connected with and respected.

    I don’t care how knowledgeable that person is or is not – their experience is actually irrelevant. Once that intent is present, every action they take becomes suspect. I can’t speak for everyone, but my PLN is an overwhelming positive place. Don’t get me wrong, I disagree with members of my PLN often, but those disagreements are excellent learning opportunities. Debate is great for learning.

    But deception is not. That has no place in my PLN, and I wouldn’t recommend allowing that cancer to exist in anyone else’s,

    What My Post Is NOT About…

    Some of the comments made to my post criticized me for qualifying people who could be included in my PLN based on their experience. There were comments that made it seem like those who were less experienced than me were not welcome in my PLN.

    I have two responses to that. First, it’s simply not true. I relish the opportunity to connect and learn with people who have less experience than me. If you reread the post, I don’t talk about not welcoming people based on experience; I talk about not welcoming people who misrepresent themselves. It’s exclusion based not on a lack of experience, but on a lack of integrity.

    Some felt that I was focusing on people that were trying to join discussions that are above their current level of experience. I wasn’t, but I easily could have been.

    I’m fine with someone joining discussions that are above their pay grade – I do it all the time. But there’s no reason you can’t do it transparently. I see more drawbacks then benefits to trying to fake it in a conversation beyond a person’s knowledge and skills. Just be honest and say “I’m new to this, and am looking to learn more”. We’re talking about PLNs here, not a paycheck that’s putting food on the table. The “Fake it till you make it” rules don’t apply. When it comes to your PLN, NOT faking it is what helps you make it.

    The second response is to simply point out that the concern people have brought up is just inaccurate as it relates to the post. Yes, I do say that the Snake Oil Salesman in your PLN is overselling their experience. But the main focus on that statement isn’t the level of experience; it’s on the overselling. It comes back to intent. I don’t care how experienced you are; if you’re using enthusiasm to give a false impression of how much experience and/or competence you have, the second someone connects with you that might not have otherwise, you’re a snake oil salesman.

    The Positive Focus on PLNs…

    You mention that we would be better off focusing on the positive criteria rather than messages of caution. In the overall context of PLNs, I completely agree. If you analyzed my blog you’d find a great number of pieces touting the wonders of the PLN – this post with a cautionary tale is one small piece of an otherwise positive focus.

    That doesn’t make the cautionary tale of snake oil any less true, or important for people to be aware of.

    Experts at Marketing Themselves as Experts…

    You describe this as something more vendor-driven. I’m going to agree and disagree with you on this. I agree it is a statement that applies mostly to vendors. The disagreement comes from how I interpret your use of the term vendor.

    I’m assuming you’re referring to the traditional vendor community – those building the products and services that organizations buy to support learning strategies. These are vendors in the traditional context.

    In the context of PLNs I would argue we are all vendors, selling ourselves to others, with the products and services we offer being the value we can add to the PLNs of others.

    One Last Thing…

    In your closing you mention that the snake oil salesman is less the rule than the exception – you’re 100% right in that. My post wasn’t meant to imply there’s an epidemic of snake oil and that you need to start every new connection with caution in mind. It’s more about awareness.

    Think of it in the context of a child. The vast majority of people my kids will meet in their life will be great people. But there are people that would do them harm, and I need my kids to understand that those people exist and what the warning signs of identifying someone like that are so that they can be safe.

    The snake oil salesman IS rare as compared to the connections that are available, but we need to know that they are out there to be safe.

    Thanks again for continuing the conversation Mark!

    • Dave:

      Glad to add my thoughts to the discussion, for whatever they are worth and I appreciate the detailed, thoughtful response.

      I think the conversation shows that there’s no shortage of interpretations and reactions among our peers and colleagues when it comes to our connections and what they mean to us.

      I also appreciate the clarification on some of the points you made because it gives us all a better sense of where you’re coming from but hopefully inspires some new thinking on our PLNs and the folks who are part of them.

  2. Mark, thanks for this post and Dave, for your reply. As you implied, Mark, perception is everything. My perception is that you’ve read Dan Pink’s latest, or maybe I’m filtering some of the discussion through my reading of it. 😉

  1. Pingback: Rhetoric on Marketing and Greek Philosophy - Activate Learning Solutions

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