No More Gurus! 10 Great Online Keynotes

Read this Quora post about “interesting speakers on social media.” It features some of the most well known voices touting each other. It was disappointing to see the same old same old, including the usual lack of recommended female speakers (8 out of 41), which is astounding given that more than half of social media communicators are women.

The “guru” circle consists of consultants and service providers who market to organizations that need social media and online communications services. One could argue a conflict of interest, but on top of it, many lack the inside experiences within major organizations and cultures. Insiders fight a much different battle getting their organizations to open up and become more networked than the ones faced by outside consultants.

What would happen if conference organizers automatically eliminated the talking head consultant gurus with their vested interest in looking good? Who would be left to discuss online media? Here’s a list of ten suggested speakers that would be great keynotes for conferences abut online media trends and developments (including social):

Amra Tamren, founder and CEO, Allvoices


Amra’s Allvoices is the largest global community offering local to global news and perspectives in one place. Launched in July of 2008, Allvoices is the fastest growing open media site with over 4.7M unique users per month and 300,000 citizen reporters from over 180 countries. Prior to Allvoices, Amra was a partner at Sevin Rosen Funds focusing on investment opportunities in the communications infrastructure and next-generation carriers. And having spoken with her on a panel in the past, she definitely has the chops.

Andrew Rasiej, founder, Personal Democracy Forum

Andrew Rasiej.jpeg

Andrew Rasiej is the Founder of Personal Democracy Forum , an annual conference and community website about the intersection of politics and technology. He is also the co-founder of techPresident, an award winning group blog that covers how the 2008 presidential candidates are using the web, and how content generated by voters is affecting the campaign. He has served as an advisor to Senators and Congressman and political candidates on the use of Information Technology for campaign and policy purposes since 1999. Having seen him speak privately and publicly on three occasions, he’s fantastic.

Andy Carvin, senior strategist, NPR


Before taking a digital (and social) lead at NPR, Andy Carvin was the founding editor and former coordinator of the Digital Divide Network, an online community of more than 10,000 Internet activists in over 140 countries working to bridge the digital divide. He is also an active blogger as well as a field correspondent to the vlog Rocketboom. Andy Carvin was one of the cofounders of the CrisisCommons movement, and is also a fantastic speaker.

Christopher Barger, director, social media, GM


Christopher Barger (image by C.C. Chapman) has been through a few wars, first with GM’s bankruptcy, the crawl back to the public marketplace, the launch of the Volt, etc. But beyond that before GM, he helped IBM make its way into the social media era with its well discussed blogging culture and other social initiatives. Barger is joining the ranks of social media authors, but one of the few authors who has done it from the inside the corporate walls. Twice.

Gina Bianchini, co-founder, Ning


Gina Bianchini founded one of the more successful social network properties on the web. Prior to Ning, Bianchini was co-founder and president of Harmonic Communications which was acquired by Dentsu. She has also held positions at CKS Group and Goldman Sachs & Co. A successful innovator and executive, Bianchini would be a fantastic speaker for any conference.

Jay Rosen, professor of journalism, NYU


You wanna talk media? There can be no more authoritative, brilliant speaker than Jay Rosen. Jay Rosen has been on the journalism faculty at New York University since 1986; from 1999 to 2005 he served as chair of the Department. He lives in New York City. Rosen is the author of PressThink, a weblog about journalism and its ordeals, which he introduced in September 2003. In June 2005, PressThink won the Reporters Without Borders 2005 Freedom Blog award for outstanding defense of free expression.

Michael Smith, vice president of social innovation, Case Foundation


Michael Smith (pictured at the right) touches many projects for the Case Foundation focusing on creating a better digital web for causes. Some of his work includes supporting the CEO on economic development efforts in the Palestinian West Bank and leading the Foundation’s efforts to tap “citizen-centered” approaches to civic engagement, including its new grant program, the Make It Your Own Awards™. Prior to joining the Case Foundation, he spent a decade helping build foundations and national initiatives aimed at bridging the “digital divide.” He is a stellar speaker in person.

Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook

Sandberg is second-in-command at Facebook and oversees the firm’s business operations including sales, marketing, business development, human resources, public policy and communications. Prior to Facebook, Sheryl was Vice President of Global Online Sales and Operations at Google, where she built and managed the online sales channels for advertising and publishing and operations for consumer products worldwide. She was also instrumental in launching, Google’s philanthropic arm. Oh yeah, she’s a great speaker, too.

Sonal Shah, director of social innovation, White House

NRI newsmaker-Sonal Shah.jpeg

Sonal R. Shah is an American economist and public official. Since April 2009, she has been serving as the Director of the new Office of Social Innovation and Civic Participation in the White House. Previously, Shah was a member of the Obama-Biden Transition Project and was the head of Global Development Initiatives, a philanthropic arm of Sonal is also a compelling and seasoned speaker.

Wendy Harman, social media director, American Red Cross


Wendy Harman has been on the front lines of online social innovation with the American Red Cross since late 2006. She has seen it all, from hurricanes to Haiti. Prior to joining the American Red Cross, she fell in love with intellectual property at law school and then worked for musicians’ rights at the Future of Music Coalition and Lawyers for the Arts. She was along for the ride when musicians were among the first to bypass traditional gatekeepers using social media tools, and she’s been trying to keep up and do good ever since.

Every single one of these speakers would add a little spice to the current roster of gurus, and bring fantastic new insights to the table that would jog the mind. Who would you add to the list?

32 thoughts on “No More Gurus! 10 Great Online Keynotes

  1. Geoff – interesting post, as always. I’ve spent a lot of time on NOT being labeled a “guru”. For several reasons.

    Foremost, I don’t have all the answers – I am learning every day. That hardly qualifies me to be a guru.

    Second – I don’t see what I do as “Social Media” – I am just a customer guy, trying to do right by customers. I happen to also be involved in some marketing stuff, and yes, Scoble works for me. None of that makes me an expert.

    All of that makes me interested. Interested in the space, the people that really make a difference to customers first (companies second) and interested in where I can take this for my company.

    I like to play. I like to try things, and see what fails, then try something else. That doesn’t make me a guru – it makes me someone that experiments. Someone that is allowed to.

    I try to talk more about what we do for others than who we are, or what we can do for you. Walk the walk, screw the talk! :) We try to be helpful – to as many people as we can – be they customers, customers of the competition, non-profits, and most especially our own employees.

    I hope I am never a guru. I hope we never stop being helpful.


    Rob La Gesse
    Chief Disruption Officer and DIrector of Social Strategy.
    Rackspace Hosting

    • Thanks, Rob. We go way back, and I think the best of you. I think the consultant factor is a huge part of it, and I can say that as a consultant. In order to market ourselves we need to share our ideas with the marketplace, and demonstrate leadership.

      However, some folks have done a disservice to the industry by doing this, creating this circle of insiders. Because their business benefits from staying on top, they do so, but they are doing it in ways that are harmful to the market, with stale ideas, and by not advancing the industry through current content and by maintaining a glass ceiling.

      It is absolutely annoying, and has gotten to a point where it’s not worth supporting these people anymore. Seeing the group in action on Quora — intended or not — was really an eye opening moment.

      • I seriously love this post, and agree with Rob that it is all about walking and not talking. I finally took a few minutes to listen to Sheryl Sandberg and was totally inspired. I so did that.

        • I watched Sheryl too…and then forwarded the link to entire book club because it related to our discussion last month.

          I am so burned out at conferences. I don’t want validation from the people I listen to…I want inspiration. I want to know how other people are putting together the puzzle in other industries. I want to hear from the folks that are doing the digging. I want to hear the passion from their lips…not paying lip service to social media.

          • I also also want to hear how other people are putting the
            puzzle together in other industries. Believe me Marketing, PR and
            and Technology have their fair share of Puzzlers but unfortunately
            it seems that a lot of other industries are lagging and have a lot
            of catching up to do. Any suggestions on how to find the folks
            doing the digging? (That’s a big questions, I know)

  2. Geoff –
    thanks for the fresh faces and not the business as usual types.

    You missed Becky McCray — she really is out standing in her field and represents rural America very well. Not everyone lives in big cities. Actually – 2/3 of us live in rural communities.

    • Hey Deb, I am pretty familiar with Becky and think she’s a great lady. I’ve actually interviewed her before. One of the qualifiers for this list is that the speaker not be a consultant serving clients with social media services, so I am afraid she would not belong here… But she is notable, for sure.

  3. Great list of people here Geoff – many of which I look forward to finally meeting in person (Wendy, Michael and Jay especially).

    Once the powers that be know where to find people and who they are, I’m hoping it will cause that much needed shift. Cheers to changing up the roster.

    • Thanks, Andre. Yes, we need to keep highlighting brilliant new voices that have walked the long mile so to speak. And I, too, hope to meet Jay Rosen sometime soon. He just rocks it!

  4. I’ll nominate a few you might not know too:

    Nancy Baym, Ph.D.

    Aleks Krotoski, Ph.D.

    Fred Stutzman, Ph.D.

    and of course, I’m putting together the Routledge Handbook of Social Media, though I am not a keynoter in that field. There are plenty of other good candidates for keynotes from academia.

  5. Want to see some mobile health peeps on this list Geoff – they are doing some seriously innovative things. In fact, would like to see more health peeps period. Mandu Nahava, CEO of mDhil, Susannah Fox from Pew, Matt Holt, Health 2.0.

  6. So lets not talk about it, let’s do it! How much would it cost to get these people at an action orientated conference.

    Day 1 sessions on different subjects, different ways of sharing (not just the table in front, moderator, everyone listening, we clap, then leave). Take notes start formulating how to use this information.

    Day 2 Form up groups of folks to work on things action plans, strategies, operationalize, technologies, resources, costs, cost reductions, increase profits, marketshare increase, customer satisfaction.

    Cost should be reasonable. I may know 3-4 great folks here in Minneapolis that could definitely pull this off. Could we have it here in Minneapolis too….

  7. Its a cabal Geoff. These people are making money snowing each other. Networks like Facebook and News outlets like Mashable help it succeed. The goal is don’t rock the boat while we are all making money for ourselves even if we make none for our clients. Can you say SubPrime Bubble for Social?

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  9. Wonderful list Geoff. I really appreciate the fact that you underscore the different challenges of being an advocate for new media and different thinking within an organizations. Too many consultants and self-proclaimed gurus think there is simply a magic wand that they must wave to transform a company. You’ll often see them point to one incident or program as failure of an entire strategy on their blogs. Anyone with a half a head of business sense knows that organizational shifts and cultural change is often a herculean task.

    I’m look forward to usuing this list as a “must-see” for speakers in 2011.

    • Yeah, I’ve really stopped pointing out social media failures or brand disagreements on my blog. I feel like they cause more harm than good, and often create a pile on effect or contribute to a larger one. The Starbucks and Gap rebranding efforts are recent examples of this.

      As to speakers, these are a good start, but add your own, too. We need more!

  10. I really think it’s great that you are shining the spotlight on new voices and new names – there definitely is not a lot of that going on.

    However, I think that building this post on that particular quora question may be a bit shaky. The question was “Who are the most interesting Social Media speakers?” How are we defining “interesting”? For people who are really new to the Social Media world, “Interesting” could be, “They really inspired me to start a blog” or “they got me interested in joining Twitter.”

    I do think we are in danger of creating a granite ceiling, as I’ve discussed here before. I have been told recently that I was talking about things “that have been covered before.” Well, sure. But no one has done it with my voice and my perspective, nor has anyone incorporated my own personal experiences to highlight certain issues. There seems to be a desire among some to close out new ways of talking about old things.

    That’s kind of sad, if you ask me.

    • Marjorie, thanks for coming by. While I can see that point of view, I feel differently. I’ve been in this business for a long time, and I’m really tired of 2008. Nor am i going to support it anymore, or the people who aren’t going to evolve their thinking. As a consumer and an industry participant that’s my right.

      The good news for people that aren’t tired of 2008 topics is that they can read your blog, or conferences organized by folks like you. While the number will dwindle over time, there will always be folks open to such content. A win win for all. But let’s not represent these people as the best when there is more evolved thinking out there.

      • Hmm. What are folks like me, Geoff?

        I’m really disappointed that you use terminology tied to discarding me when I come here to converse with you and with other people I respect a great deal.

        It smacks of traits you so often (and rightfully) complain about in others.

  11. Agree! As a corporate exec, I don’t want to see one more “guru.” Give me people who have “done it” in a corporate environment – the more complex the challenge the better. Sites like CustomerThink, filled with gurus who have never actually done anything, are indeed passe.

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