How to Recognize Snake Oil in Your Personal Learning Network

The Snake Oil Salesman. Despite how dated the term is – most hypotheses on the subject estimate it first being coined in the 19th century – the phrase still conjures up a standard vision of a man in the old west, well dressed, and selling the miracle elixir that will cure whatever ails you. The phrase is still used today to describe unscrupulous practices, usually in the context of sales.

SnakeOilIn this post I’m going to explore the presence of snake oil in a somewhat  less likely place than in the old west; I’m going to explore the presence of snake oil within your personal learning network.

This might seem like a strange connection for me to be making. After all, you’re probably thinking that selling snake oil has nothing to do with PLNs.

If so… you’d be wrong.

We’re All Selling

Let’s start with a baseline: We’re all selling ourselves. Every one of us. This isn’t a bad thing; it’s just something we need to be aware of in the context of personal learning networks.

I’ve often spoken and written about the importance of personal branding, especially in the context of social media and personal learning networks. Personal branding is essentially a sales technique; you are positioning you and your abilities in a way that would make someone want to connect with you. This isn’t just a practice used by consultants who are looking for connections that will literally lead to a revenue-generating sale either.

When people are strategic about building and leveraging their personal learning networks, they are also (or at least, they should be) very conscious about managing their personal brand. Your personal persona, especially online, and the image you portray are what makes you attractive to connect with. The “selling process” of personal learning networks is the efforts individuals take to not only connect with others, but to create an image around themselves so that others will want to connect with them.

Making a Buying Decision

A sales process only really works when there are people willing to buy what is being sold. In a personal learning network, the decision to connect with someone is the closing of a sale. Like any sale, the decision to close comes when both sides see value in the transaction – in this case the connection being made between two individuals. The decision to connect with someone is based on a number of personal factors. For me, the primary driver to connect with someone and have them be a part of my PLN is if that person is going to be a resource that helps me grow. I generally look for people that are doing interesting work that I can learn from. I want to have conversations with people in which ideas and practices that move our industry forward are being shared. That’s where my passion lies, and those are the people I am actively seeking to connect with.

Regardless of what you’re personally seeking for your PLN, I’m sure you’ll find no shortage of individuals whose brand matches that criteria.

And in some cases, that’s the problem.

Buyer Beware

In any sales environment, be it stock trading, used car sales, or eBay, you’ll find the modern version of the Snake Oil Salesman. Your personal learning network is no different.

Find that hard to believe? Wikipedia defines a snake oil salesman as “someone who knowingly sells fraudulent goods or who is himself or herself a fraud, quack, charlatan, or the like.” We’ve all encountered snake oil salesmen in the building of our PLNs; the problem is that we’re often too busy building our PLN to realize we’ve invited one of them into our network. That’s a big problem.

Let’s look at the origins of the snake oil salesman. This is a person who would search for a need people had – usually a disease that available medicines could not address. He or she would then create a fake elixir and position it as a cure for what the public needed.

This created two major problems. First, people were still sick; the problem was not solved. Second, and more importantly, as more people fell under the spell of the snake oil salesman, they were taken further off the path they needed to be on, unaware that they had gone astray.

This is the real danger posed by snake oil in your PLN. 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. They give the appearance of someone that can enhance your PLN and help it grow, when in reality they serve as an anchor that keeps it from moving forward. They take you off the path you want to be on, usually without you being aware of it happening.

It’s critical that we are able to identify snake oil salesmen in and around our personal learning networks. But how can we do that?

Enthusiasm: The Secret Ingredient of Snake Oil

It’s not always easy to sniff out snake oil in your PLN. But there’s one thing that all snake oil salesmen seem to have in common: Enthusiasm.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that everyone that’s enthusiastic about what they do is a snake oil salesmen. Hell, enthusiasm is one of the traits I appreciate most from those in my PLN. But there are plenty of people that leverage the excitement of enthusiasm to mask their snake oil. They use enthusiasm to exaggerate their practices and efforts, building connections based on the energy and excitement they bring to a conversation rather than the substance.

And that’s where the danger lies. Someone that’s adding energy and excitement to a conversation may be a lot of fun, but without substance it’s unlikely they are helping you grow, and growth is the primary purpose of a personal learning network. The snake oil salesman portrays themselves as a thought leader in a space, and usually does a great job of facilitating a self-congratulatory environment in which everyone’s efforts are immediately perceived as leading-edge. While that’s usually a cyclical environment full of positive energy, it’s also an environment that insulates itself from the rest of the world, providing those in such a network with an inflated interpretation of where there knowledge and skills exist against industry standards.

Avoiding the Snake Oil Salesman

There are two primary ways to avoid the snake oil salesmen in your personal learning network. The first is to realize that enthusiasm is an intoxicating and magnetic force. It draws us in, taps into our emotions, and can easily alter our perceptions. We need to be aware of this. With that awareness in place we can look past the enthusiasm. As I mentioned earlier, enthusiasm isn’t a bad thing. What we want and need in our PLNs is enthusiasm built upon substance. Enthusiasm in itself is not an indicator of competence. When you start connecting with someone, dig deeper. Find out where they do their work, and with who. Share examples.

I’m not implying an inquisition; this type of sharing is a natural part of a strong PLN. It’s also when the holes in the snake oil salesman’s facade start to become apparent.

The second way to avoid the snake oil salesman is to build a PLN with a career maturity model in mind. We’re all at different stages in our careers, and we all work for organizations with different learning cultures. We need to connect with people across this continuum, including people who are where we have been in the past, where we are today, and where we hope to be in the future. I believe each of us is our own yardstick. I don’t judge myself against anyone else; I judge myself against where I was yesterday. Connecting with people across this career maturity model helps us better understand the context of where we have been, where we are, and where we are going.

That context also helps us see through the enthusiasm of the snake oil salesman. It provides the examples that help us verify that we are on a growth path.


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43 Responses to How to Recognize Snake Oil in Your Personal Learning Network

  1. Jane Bozarth (@JaneBozarth) November 18, 2014 at 8:21 am #

    Enthusiasm without competence, “expertise” based on no experience or knowledge of research, and chatter without any real contribution, even if well intended, only adds to the noise. And a dark side of community is the danger of it becoming too insular, which can serve to perpetuate bad practice. Perhaps it’s the idea of the PLN itself that needs examining, which I realized when I recently saw it used as a verb (“PLNing”)(smh). Is it a vital, important source of growth and moving the game forward, or just a place for more inane chatter? For myself I prefer to define it as the former. One of the easiest ways I’ve found of recognizing snake oil in considering my own Personal Learning Network is to notice when someone isn’t offering anything that helps anyone learn. They aren’t hard to spot. Then they’re no longer part of my PLN.

    • David November 18, 2014 at 12:54 pm #

      The insular silos that perpetuate bad practice exist for a couple of reasons. For me, a critical ingredient of “snake oil” is intent. That’s what makes the snake oil salesman so dangerous; there’s an awareness of perpetuating bad practice in play but they continue to do so because it supports them personally. That’s why it’s so critical to recognize when it’s happening.

      Your comment echoes the related issue of communities that perpetuate bad practices without being aware of it. That’s a separate issue, and one that may inspire a follow-up post. 🙂

  2. Nick Leffler November 18, 2014 at 11:29 am #

    Love the post, but raises more questions than it answers. Usually good posts do 🙂

    One big question that I wonder is how do you tell you’re dealing with someone who’s selling snake oil? I know enthusiasm with no substance, but how do you really know if there’s no substance? Isn’t that part of what they’re good at is selling like there is substance. I guess it’s obvious I don’t deal with many salespeople (or at least I’m a pro at blowing them off).

    Another question it raises for me is; how do you know if you’re a snake oil salesperson? Honestly for all I know I could be! (ok I’m not that far up on anybody’s radar to be, but just as an example)

    Some snake oil salespeople I could imagine are selling a dream, something they believe themselves which is where all that enthusiasm comes from I guess. So how does someone tell if they are guilty of this trap of the pie in the sky dream but can’t actually delivery (but is under the impression they have).

    One stupid example but truth is what I deal with at work every day. I hear lots of talk about doing things better and how to do that, but then I don’t see that reflected in that persons actual work. I know they know better but they keep doing things the same old way, repeating the mistakes. They obviously don’t know they’re doing that, somehow.

    So I digress as usual. Love the post, love the ideas, deal with it every day, how the heck do I know I’M not the snake oil salesman?

    • David November 18, 2014 at 1:12 pm #

      Thanks for the comment Nick. You raise some great questions. Let me respond separately to different parts.

      “Love the post, but raises more questions than it answers.”

      If it inspires conversation, that’s a good thing.

      “how do you tell you’re dealing with someone who’s selling snake oil?”

      In short? Stay informed. The more you keep your pulse on what is going on in the industry via multiple sources, the more something like snake oil would seem out of place by context.

      “how do you know if you’re a snake oil salesperson?”

      That is such a great question. It echoes a comment I just made in response to Jane Bozarth’s comment earlier. I think most snake oil salesmen KNOW they are snake oil salesmen. There’s an awareness of in play. In the context of a PLN, it’s me knowing I’m not an expert in an area but portraying that I am anyway.

      That’s different than ignorance. Many people just don’t know what they don’t know, but that’s not deceitful. It just represents the value of a strong PLN that keeps you informed and in touch.

      “Some snake oil salespeople I could imagine are selling a dream, something they believe themselves which is where all that enthusiasm comes from I guess.”

      I disagree with this. Snake oil salesmen are selling an idea that they think people will buy, but one that they know is not real. They are tapping into the dream someone else has, knowing they can’t help bring it to reality.

  3. Shannon Tipton (@stipton) November 18, 2014 at 12:58 pm #

    Dave – Interesting post. My guess is this was written, as any good post is, with dialog in mind and here is my take on your “snake oil” analogy (which may have touched a nerve or two out in the universe). While I’m sure it wasn’t intentional, the tone of the post comes across as a bit grandiose. A “personal learning network” is just that – personal and defined by someone’s own standard. As you said yourself, “For me, the primary driver to connect with someone and have them be a part of my PLN is if that person is going to be a resource that helps me grow.” That is your personal standard.

    That being said, you do bring up a valid point, although I might suggest “snake oil” is perhaps not what we should be looking for, but the “Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing”. The person who pretends to be something they are not. The person who hooks you in, then bites your head off (or steals your credit – whichever best fits). Credibility (or lack thereof) is a very real issue, but I don’t believe it should be tied in with lack of experience or knowledge. One is not necessarily part and parcel with another.

    Regarding enthusiasm. Perhaps I’m the odd woman out, but I’m okay with people who display loads of enthusiasm but may be lacking in knowledge or experience, better than the aloof “expert”. There are many an enthusiastic person within L&D who wants to learn and grow, yet wants to fit in as well – a bit high school, I know, but it is reality. I have found throughout the years of being involved in L&D (over 20) and involved in my twitter based PLN (over 5) that our network of people, well-meaning as they can be, are at times a bit….challenging; and at times not welcoming to newcomers with thoughts and ideas that may not be as fresh as we would like. Does that make them “snake oil” if they fake it a bit to try to participate in the conversation? Who among us hasn’t done that at some point in our careers? I want people in my PLN who genuinely want to grow alongside the people who make me a better person and professional.

    I believe it is unfair to leverage the metaphor of “snake oil” to people because they appear to have not risen to the level of knowledge or expertise that we label as appropriate. Is your PLN a place for open dialog, true growth and learning for everyone, or is it the L&D version of MENSA where only those that prove themselves “worthy” welcome? It’s a slippery slope when we tell people they aren’t good enough, smart enough, or experienced enough for our PLN.

    Now, if we want to be more specific and say people who are faking their credentials, are claiming experience they do not have, or perhaps are believing their own press – then those are the people who are not adding value, or worse spreading cancer among the network…and yes, we need to carve them out.

    To wrap this up – you’re correct, life as we know it is one big selling experience and buyer beware is accurate. Just be sure you are taking your purchase out for a test drive or two before you jump to conclusions.

    • David November 18, 2014 at 2:15 pm #

      Thanks for the comment. As you pointed out, most of what I write is an invite for conversation. Let me parse up my response a bit.

      Regarding the definition of PLNs…

      While I agree we all have different goals for our PLNs, they are still PLNs. The very idea that they are learning networks practically mandates that there is growth in play. If there are people present in your PLN that are not in some way providing a growth opportunity, I would not advise having them in the network.

      Regarding Credibility, Experience, and Knowledge…

      I agree that credibility is not directly proportionate to experience and knowledge. In the context of snake oil, I think credibility has more to do with transparency as it relates to your current level of expertise and knowledge.

      Regarding Enthusiasm…

      I’m not downplaying the value of enthusiasm. In the post I specifically state “I’m not saying that everyone that’s enthusiastic about what they do is a snake oil salesmen. Hell, enthusiasm is one of the traits I appreciate most from those in my PLN.” My issue with enthusiasm is when it is used to mislead people, to form a connection based on hype rather than substance.

      Regarding Snake Oil and Experience…

      This is the part of your comment that I feel is very off base from what I’ve written. This isn’t about ranking people by experience, or qualifying people to participate in a conversation. It’s about transparency and honesty within your personal learning network.

      I have plenty of people in my network, many of whom have less experience in the field than I do. At DevLearn some of my favorite conversations took place at DemoFest, when I had the opportunity to sit at a few of the student tables and learn about their projects. These were great conversations that we both learned from because we were transparent and honest about what we each brought to the conversation. That’s not a statement of hierarchy either; it’s a statement of context.

      To draw a line in the sand a bit related to “what is snake oil?”, I want to take your “fake it to make it” analogy a little further.

      I have no issue with people joining conversations that are outside their current level of expertise. I encourage it. It’s a great way to learn. But it requires transparency. The moment a person taking the fake-it-to-make it angle portrays a level of expertise they do not have and someone else buys into it, looking towards that person as a resource for expertise, a line has been crossed. Someone else is now being harmed in that equation.

      That person has just become a snake oil salesman.

    • Nick Leffler November 18, 2014 at 3:41 pm #

      Shannon, I love this line:

      Is your PLN a place for open dialog, true growth and learning for everyone, or is it the L&D version of MENSA where only those that prove themselves “worthy” welcome? It’s a slippery slope when we tell people they aren’t good enough, smart enough, or experienced enough for our PLN.

      Another one that rung true for me is the aloof “expert”.

      You have touched on two things that I think are more rampant than any sort of snake oil, at least in my experience. A PLN is a two way street, not everybody is an expert, not everybody is going to have immediate benefit to you, but it’s about creating that dialog and expanding your horizons. If we based our network off those that have proven themselves only we are closing ourselves in from new thinking and new ways of doing things. A slippery slope indeed.

      Love your comment.

      • Shannon Tipton (@stipton) November 18, 2014 at 4:29 pm #

        Nick – Thank you and I agree. Perhaps snake oil is not the correct analogy for this group. I am less concerned about a member of my PLN who is not providing me with growth in learning than I am with vendors who are purporting to be self-proclaimed Guru’s or Experts. Purposefully leading people astray.

        Dave – I appreciate you addressing my comment. Regarding the definition of PLN – we will have to agree to disagree. IMO – Learning comes from both sides of the fence. If people want “join” my PLN, and I perceive the relationship is a bit lopsided, that’s okay – isn’t that what mentoring and nurturing is all about? We are L&D after all is said and done. My perception of your message above was one of culling or moderating your PLN to best suit your advantage (or career maturity), not as a shared experience. Nothing wrong with that, we all have limited time. However, as I said before I want to keep the lines open for people like yourself who have much to offer the community and the new generation of bright minds (but no experience) who can teach myself and others a new lesson or two.

        Regarding enthusiasm: I think I get what you are saying here – like the late night infomercial. BUY, BUY, BUY! Although I think it curious that enthusiasm seems to be portrayed here as suspect or a cautionary tale. I suppose I prefer to see things a bit more optimistically and take enthusiasm on the surface. Too trusting? Perhaps.

        Regarding snake oil/experience: It feels that some others have picked up the same vibe, so not sure how off base I was. However, isn’t that the beauty of these conversations – to discuss perceptions?

        Lastly – the line in the sand. “Fake it to make it” in the context of a group conversation or meeting – have you never been in a conversation early in your career, when you did not have the confidence you have now, to raise your hand and say I don’t understand what the hell you are talking about? I know I have been there and to that I smiled and nodded at the group (did my best to look like I knew what everyone was saying) and did my research back in my office. I am now secure enough in myself and my position in life to ask for further clarification but I am not going to hold that against an up and coming mind. Nor do I believe that person has just become a “snake oil salesman”. I don’t suggest people offer a solution when they have no knowledge or context, but I see no foul in offering an opinion and then learning from the responses.

        Great debate.

        • David November 18, 2014 at 5:44 pm #

          I think you’re misinterpreting my comments on the definition of a PLN, or perhaps we’re saying the same thing in different ways. I definitely see PLNs as shared experience. I do cull who I include in my PLN, as I think we all should, but that culling is based less on the experience level of the individual and more on the quality of the interactions I have with them.

          Mentoring, if done well, should provide learning opportunities for both sides, so I don’t see that as lopsided in any way. It may not be the traditional top-down model, but I think everyone should include the less-experienced in their PLN. At the minimum that mentoring opportunity forces us to look at what we ‘know’ in a new light – but there are plenty of benefits beyond that.

  4. Mark Sheppard November 18, 2014 at 2:05 pm #


    This post takes a very interesting metaphoric approach to how we could/should build our PLN but perhaps that metaphor is a bridge too far?

    The network tends to be a living thing, differing in composition from individual to individual, but also from need to need. To paraphrase the band, Trooper, Some members may be there for a good time, and others for a long time, but the choice of inclusion – or not – remains the province of the individual who forges that network. I have always viewed mine as a patchwork quilt that tends to change colours and patterns as time goes on.

    Where I perceive a risk is in the way we assess & evaluate “who gets in”. As someone who spent a lot of time in school ‘on the outside looking in’, it’s something that hits home. Exercising some critical thinking about who brings value to your network is one thing, but I believe there is an inherent duty among the seasoned practitioners to share expertise with those who are new to the field or even new to the concept of networking. While the professional return may not be the same as what I might get from a thought leader, the personal return shouldn’t be dismissed.

    Inexperience or enthusiasm has to be fostered for what it is, free of labels or preconceived notions. An empathetic practitioner is going to – I hope – foster a diverse and rich network, and that might include folks who may not be all that they brand themselves to be; and there may still be a value in keeping them as part of that network. They could serve as a barometer for our own perceptions of self or they could be fodder for deeper conversations about perceptions and projections versus reality (…and that’s a nicer way of saying, “Keep your friends close, but keep your enemies closer”)

    To use the metaphor further, practitioners should be less concerned about someone with an insecurity complex and much more wary of vendors whose promotions of product to the community masquerade as advice that advances the practise of L&D. To me, that’s the real Snake Oil in our networks, and the one that deserves the higher scrutiny.

    You’ve definitely fostered some good discussion with this post, Dave. Never, ever a bad thing. 🙂

    • David November 18, 2014 at 2:46 pm #

      Thanks for the comment Mark. As you stated in your closing, conversation is always a good thing.

      I find your use of “who gets in” very interesting because it’s a point of view I never really view my PLN through. Let me explain.

      I consider you part of my PLN. While we can probably backtrack to our first interactions to see when that happened, there was never an official “Mark has become part of David’s PLN” moment in time. You never gave me permission to have you as part of my PLN either. It just happened as part of our natural interactions with one another. It’s also possible that you don’t consider me to be part of your PLN even though I see you as part of mine. And that’s perfectly OK.

      To me PLNs are very organic. They don’t form based on permissions; they form based on interactions. Now, I can see your point about “who gets in” applying a bit in this context. If someone reaches out to me and I ignore the request because I for some reason deem the interaction unworthy, then that person doesn’t have the opportunity to have me in their PLN. I still don’t see that as they didn’t “get in” to my PLN as much as I see it as me choosing not to join their PLN.

      Also, in that scenario, there’s a good chance I would be a complete jerk. I completely support your comments about those with experience being open to sharing with the less experienced. We need more of that. I would disagree a bit on the return of interactions with the inexperienced as compared to a “thought leader” though. As I referenced in another comment, I find I learn a tremendous amount from conversations I have with those of less experience than my own.

      All of this is valid discussion, so please don’t take what I say next as shrugging it off. I’d like to see that conversation splinter off on it’s own (he said, hoping Mark picks up the ball and runs to his blog with it).

      I just see what you’ve described in your comment as completely separate from the snake oil conversation. The focus of the snake oil conversation isn’t on inclusion or community; it’s on deception, and the damage it can do when it permeates your PLN. Enthusiasm in that context is the tool that is often used to mask the deception.

      • Mark Sheppard November 18, 2014 at 2:57 pm #


        This post is definitely fodder for a lot of meaningful exchange, and I think it speaks to the very personal nature of the PLN (and you are no small component of mine) and how we perceive it. It may also speak to why some reactions to the metaphor are more impassioned.

        Maybe it will help if we had more context about the Snake Oil idea. I mean, I get the basic concept (anyone who ever used vaporware in the past will know what it’s like), but without putting you in a difficult spot, was there something specific that inspired the dialogue?

        FWIW, I don’t see you shrugging anything off. Text only always makes interpretation of intent so challenging, hence the request for clarity.

        • David November 18, 2014 at 3:15 pm #

          This is more about a trend then a specific instance. And my reasoning for posting this is more about awareness for people as they manage their PLNs then anything else. I have seen a number of good people looking to grow that have been taken in a direction they may not have chosen if transparency and full disclosure was in place.

  5. Tracy Parish November 18, 2014 at 3:33 pm #

    This last paragraph speaks unsurrmountable volumes to me. In essence this is all that needs to be said in introducing a PLN and coaching someone in how to develop and enhance thier PLN.

    – build a PLN with a career maturity model in mind.
    – connect with people across this continuum
    – including people who are where we have been in the past, where we are today, and where we hope to be in the future.
    -each of us is our own yardstick.
    – judge yourself against where you were yesterday.
    – connecting with people across this career maturity model

    • Tracy Parish November 18, 2014 at 3:35 pm #


      This last paragraph speaks insurmountable volumes……

    • David November 18, 2014 at 3:42 pm #

      Thanks Tracy. That’s how I see it.

    • Tom Spiglanin November 19, 2014 at 9:17 pm #

      Perfectly said, Tracy.

  6. Lesley Price November 18, 2014 at 3:44 pm #

    Hey David

    Interesting discussion you have started here. Ever the teacher as that is where I started my time in learning. Nothing starts from nothing…so following up on Mark’s question, there is always a spark for a conversation or a post. In my experience that comes from something personal. I can appreciate that an open post such as this, it is absolutely not the place for personal discussions, but I would be interested to know, what makes you think that they ‘have been taken in a direction they may not have chosen’?

    We are all masters of our own destiny and there are many routes we can choose to take. Sometimes we have to make mistakes whether that be to do with projects we are involved in or with people we include in our PLN. One could argue that Dorothy should not have gone down the Yellow Brick Road to find the Wizard of Oz, after all, wasn’t he to all intents and purposes a Snake Oil Salesman? Yet, that led her to the discovery that there was ‘No place like home’

    I don’t think we should avoid the Snake Oil Salesman…I think we should recognise people for what they are and what they can add to our network. At the end of the day, I have all kinds of people in my PLN and you have a special place as you have helped me out so often, particularly in curating resources for Learning Live and Learning Technologies. What may be a Snake Oil Salesman in one situation, may actually have a lot to offer in another.

    Thank goodness for Toto…he was the one who pulled back the curtain and showed that what the Wizard was doing was a sham, but the Wizard still helped Dorothy get home and she learned from the experience 🙂

    • David November 18, 2014 at 4:17 pm #

      Hey Lesley. As I’ve done with other comments, I’m going to break up my response to address a few different aspects of your comment.

      “I would be interested to know, what makes you think that they ‘have been taken in a direction they may not have chosen’?”

      Let me first bring attention to the word “they”. This is unfortunately something that I’ve heard a number of times over the years from multiple people in one form or another. It’s just something that is a part of the PLN landscape, so people need to be aware of how to navigate it.

      While I support the idea of us all masters of our own destiny, the reality isn’t always that cut and dry. I agree that we learn from our experiences – mistakes included. But there’s a difference between a natural mistake that is just part of life, and being deliberately misled by someone else. One of the common refrains I hear from people is “If I knew then what I know now, I would have done differently.” People don’t know what they don’t know, and there are those that take advantage of the by selling themselves with the aura of expertise that doesn’t really exist. That’s unfortunate, but it’s something we need to be aware of.

      “I don’t think we should avoid the Snake Oil Salesman…”

      I agree that everyone brings something unique to the table. There are plenty of people in my PLN that add value, even if I don’t agree with everything they say. That’s different than selling snake oil. Snake oil is something that is intentional. There’s a deception there, and I’d prefer not to invite that into the conversations I participate in. You’re absolutely right that context matters. What makes a snake oil salesman in one context may not make them one in another.

      But it may. And my preference for my PLN is to not take that chance.

  7. Chad Udell November 18, 2014 at 4:35 pm #

    Oftentimes for me, it comes down to do this…

    Do they talk the talk? If so… next step… Do they walk the walk?

    Basically… can they do what the say they do and do it expertly and with success?

    Anything less than that, and it’s just a Billy Mumphrey story.

    • David November 18, 2014 at 5:25 pm #

      Exactly Chad. I wonder why it is that so many people never take that next step beyond just listening to what people say? Any thoughts there?

  8. Lesley Price November 18, 2014 at 5:12 pm #

    Hi David

    I wouldn’t disagree, however maybe what people don’t have time for is reflection. Its reflection that gives us the benefit of hindsight and that illusive 20:20 vision. In todays very fast moving world where everything is instant and at our finger tips, too often fingers are put to keyboards, tablets or phones and all of a sudden, before you know it, there is response before the brain engages. The same happens in both the education and corporate environments…we are so focussed on doing doing doing and hitting deadlines that all to often there is very little time for reflection. Its during this reflection time that we can do a bit more of the background research on people that your suggest. Its during that reflection time that we can even begin to think, how much value am I getting and how much am I giving…and giving to the point where you just become exhausted giving.

    I appreciate that I am now an ‘old timer’ …I have even been described recently as a ‘veteran’ lol! But that is ok.. I can live with it. One of the skills I learned very early on in my teaching career was the importance of reflection. Maybe part of the problem we have now, is that that skill is not valued and developed by either the individual or probably more significant, by the organisation that employs them. Its very easy to focus on the now especially when you don’t have the luxury of having the time to reflect on the past. The big danger to me is that you never have the time to even think about what you didn’t know then, never mind what you could have learned from it and how you could have done it differently. The same applies to individuals that may intentionally deceive you. If you don’t have the time to reflect on how it has happened, it can and probably will happen again.

    • David November 18, 2014 at 5:33 pm #

      There’s definitely another side to this story exploring the responsibilities of those that buy the snake oil, or anyone that doesn’t do their homework in general to verify the credibility of what they are buying from someone. Even if I’m deceived by someone else, I have at least some responsibility for having allowed that to happen. In order for something like that to happen, on some level I must be transferring ownership of the responsibility for my learning over to the expert – and that’s a mistake regardless of how credible the expert is.

  9. @urbie November 19, 2014 at 12:52 am #

    My take on growing one’s PLN..

  10. Tom Spiglanin November 20, 2014 at 6:52 pm #

    I read, re-read, and even read this article a third time through. There is so much touched on here beyond the snake oil. I see your essential theme as one of integrity – you want people of integrity in your PLN and you want to excise those who lack it. Your narrative prompted me to write my own post exploring what I gleaned from yours, using the lens of integrity.

    What I now wonder is whether snake oil salesmen always know that’s what they are. I’m thinking not about deliberately misleading, but about subconscious manipulation. Some want to fit in and say what they think others want to hear – with enthusiasm, as you point out. That may be initially difficult to distinguish from those who are not expert but with good intention contribute to conversations to learn more. Others may steer conversations their way, while others pretend to listen and even agree while not really hearing what’s been said. There are also those who take disagreement personally, as if it’s offensive. I think these people are genuinely unaware they’re doing this. I don’t know if I would categorize this as selling snake oil, but it’s still something you want to avoid in your PLN. The good news is that it doesn’t take an exorcism to eliminate them, just common sense and consistent practice.

    Thanks for your post, Dave.

    • David November 23, 2014 at 8:46 pm #

      Thanks for the comment Tom. I agree that there are plenty of people that lead people in a direction they probably should not be without realizing it. I don’t think these people would fall under the heading of Snake Oil Salesmen. For me that label requires more than just doing harm; it requires awareness and intent. That’s why the term “Snake Oil Salesman” is so strong in my mind. Misleading people on something without being aware of it is, as you’ve pointed out, dangerous and something that isn’t without accountability. But it’s also forgivable offense.

      Snake Oil is different. That’s someone that misleads with intent – hence the strong words I have about it in this post.

  11. Maureen November 22, 2014 at 10:48 am #

    Hi David,
    Thanks for this perspective on PLN’s. Being a bit “behind the times” this idea is just breaking into the consciousness where I work and the “warning” is a valid one. I agree with Tom’s comments about the reasons behind why some people may come off as “snake oil salesman” for various reasons. Do you think it’s harder to spot the “fake” in a PLN because we’re relying on the written word and don’t have the advantage of seeing and interacting with the person face-to-face? In the past when we built “networks” we shook hands, looked into each other’s eyes and had “gut feelings” about who we were interacting with – now we have to “read between the lines” with only a fraction of input.

    • David November 23, 2014 at 8:51 pm #

      That’s a great question Maureen. I do think our reliance on writing for social media connections is part of the problem, but the problem I describe has existed for decades. Regardless of the medium, people have used enthusiasm to sway an emotional decision in circumstances where decisions made based on logic might not go in their favor.

      Whether digital or face-to-face, enthusiasm only isn’t enough. We need to verify the credibility of someone through the work that they do, not the passion they show when describing the work they say they do. Both things are important, by passion without substance is a big red flag.

  12. Kate Herzog November 23, 2014 at 8:42 am #

    “Growth is the primary purpose of a personal learning network.”

    The string of comments AND replies to them associated with this post is a great example of Jane Bozarth’s “PLNing”! If someone makes you ‘think’, if someone gives you a reason to ‘reflect’, if someone provides breadcrumbs you decide to ‘follow’ … does that not serve the ‘growth’ function? Whether or not that individual becomes part of your PLN (by dint of your following them on Twitter or subscribing to their blog feed), they will have provided you with a growth nutrient.

  13. David November 23, 2014 at 8:56 pm #

    I don’t consider any one action a trigger of formalizing the addition of someone to my PLN. It’s more about the interactions, and the relationship that exists so that both sides can call upon each other to exchange ideas.

  14. Jane Bozarth November 23, 2014 at 9:06 pm #

    Clarification: My reference to the term “PLNing” as a meaningless verb was intended to ilustrate that for some the idea of the PLN has been relegated to just one more space for more empty noise. It was in no way meant to imply a positive; that’s why I followed it with (smh). –JB

  15. Ajay M. Pangarkar November 27, 2014 at 3:52 pm #

    Hi Dave,

    Interesting post (in a good way 😉 ).

    My position of ‘snake oil’ is not the people who claim they’re experts (I respect them as long as they can back it up) but rather the people that attempt to ‘bully’ others into thinking a certain way because they believe they are the subject authorities. I find this happening more frequently within various PLNs.

    It is difficult to explain unless you actually see it in action or experience it yourself. By this example, the ‘snake oil person shrewdly discounts/disparages your position/beliefs in an effort to make themselves look more plausible as THE subject authority.

    It is easy for them to do this online since they don’t have to confront you in person. This is considered ‘mild’ intimidation. This is what I consider the ‘con’, or the ‘snake oil’, and it is unacceptable.

    Regretfully, many people simply submit to this behavior, never challenging this type of ‘snake oil’ person. If a ‘snake oil’ person gets into my PLN, I know that the person will eventually show their true colors. Eventually, the PLN will be astute enough to call them out.

    Unfortunately, this type subtle (online) ‘bullying’ or intimidation is becoming increasingly prevalent (I often see this occurring in tweets and tweetchats). We are all professionals and must respect the opinions of others even though they may differ significantly from our own.

    Thank you Dave for creating an insightful conversation.

    • David December 3, 2014 at 5:02 pm #

      I’ve seen bullying within learning networks as well. And it’s wrong.

      That said, I don’t consider the snake oil salesman as a bully, or at least not always. The snake oil salesman relies on deception, whereas the bully relies on intimidation.

      In that context I can see a shift to bullying someone if that person tries to “out” the snake oil salesman as a fraud.

      So I see them as separate, but related.

      And they are both behaviors that have no place in a PLN.

  16. Arthur Ottney December 3, 2014 at 4:28 pm #

    Good conversation. Haven’t had time to digest the minutiae of all opinions, but the original premise and arguments are clear. The Snake Oil pitch metaphor applies to all professions, but even more so in soft-product service industries including training.
    There’s a significant difference between exploratory research and concrete methods & product. They serve different purposes, provide different results. Same goes for education, experience, certifications, and samples. Some inspire growth, some prove with product. Neither should be discounted.
    When participating in various webinars and conferences, I try to keep an open mind and learn something. Most often they’re vacuous. It’s cotton candy.
    When a method is taught, practiced, tested, and debated, the outcome is more substantial.
    Several years ago at an academic conference with my department chair, we attended a panel session. After leaving the session, he said the speakers’ presentations were like pouring syrup all over the table and smearing it around with their hands. They “went from idea to practice without considering methodology and method. It’s Snake Oil.”

    • David December 3, 2014 at 5:04 pm #

      Thanks for your comments Arthur. I agree that snake oil salesman are everywhere. Being able to sniff it out as you’ve described is a valuable skill, and encouraging others to have a similar “Snake Oil Radar” – also known as a Bull$hit detector – was one of my intentions of this post.

  17. Ramesh sood December 4, 2014 at 11:26 pm #

    Well, David.. I loved and will keep both the following lessons in my heart:

    – judge yourself against where you were yesterday.

    – connecting with people across this career maturity model

    Yet my question would be – fine , I can choose whom to seek fro connections to learn more.. Does it mean we should avoid youngsters to enter into our PLN, because they invite us to connect because they want to learn and grow..picking up lessons from our experience..


    • David December 17, 2014 at 11:16 pm #

      Hi Ramesh. Thanks for the comment. I don’t think we should avoid youngsters or the inexperienced – quite the opposite. They don’t carry the baggage of preconceived ideas forged from experience, so they bring a fresh view on things.

      However, if an inexperienced person presents themselves as being more experienced than they are, that gives me pause, because it goes against the values of true learning. If someone misrepresents their knowledge and skills, it alters the conversation. Maybe the misrepresentation would lead me NOT to share something this person could learn from based on an assumption on my part that he or she already knows it. More damaging, maybe I take a lesson from the person when in truth, they’re just making something in an attempt to impress.

      It goes back to integrity and transparency to me.

  18. Candice Kramer December 6, 2014 at 9:07 am #

    Great conversation! It is indeed a valuable skill to develop a critical evaluation practice (in everything we do) and to help others do the same–something I have to remind myself to do when my own enthusiasm overtakes my better judgment, which I admit happens now and then, and the neurons are firing and those fireworks urge me to speak without clarity. Come on, we’ve all done it.

    There are two things I thought of as I read through this and the comments. First, there is always a danger that the snake oil artist sells their version of reality, hilarity ensues, and leaves the ‘hoodwinked’ buyer with a bad taste in his mouth and a reluctance to trust others who offer a real value. This is a sad development and can lead to domination of the conversation by the loudest and most charismatic. (Politics in America, anyone?)

    Second, you could substitute ‘social learning’ for much of what you said, David, and it would be a similar conversation, what Jane Hart calls ‘fauxial’ learning. But that’s another ball o’ wax entirely.

    Either way, we have a responsibility to ourselves and our network(s) to question and critically evaluate the salesmen in our networks, as well as the newbies and ourselves. I do like the idea of following a career maturity model, though that may not work for everyone. It IS necessary to have a purpose in mind in managing our networks, and to regularly review whether we’re being true to that purpose and whether it is still what we want from our PLNs, as well as how we want to be viewed, bringing in both Tom’s mention of integrity and Lesley’s of reflection. At the risk of sounding like a journalism professor, we do have to check our sources and do our research. And model that behavior for others.

    Thank you all for a very interesting discussion; I always learn from these exchanges, and value everyone’s point of view. Have a safe, happy, and reflective holiday season!

    • David December 17, 2014 at 11:16 pm #

      Thanks for the comment Candice – Happy holidays to you too!

  19. Stephen Price January 6, 2015 at 4:33 am #

    Very interesting topic, and interesting discussion which I happened across by accident, and has encouraged me to put some time aside to review and nurture my own network.

    The use of the term “Snake Oil” is a very evocative and can trigger un-intended responses. This comment is to propose a different term to replace “Snake Oil”, to avoid the baggage associated with it.

    My experience is rom working in IT, where knowledge and reputation are important, in this world I have encounter only a few real Snake Oil Salesmen, or Charlatans. I feel Charlatans are fairly rare breed, as they have a willfully intent to deceive. There are more “Foxes”, these are people who are sly and “talk the talk”, they often exhibit symptoms of the Dunning-Kruger effect. The term Fox helps to remove the connotations of willful deceit, and encourage discussion of why there is a perceived slyness or over-confidence. Often a Fox is overly enthusiastic as they are unable to perceive any faults or alternatives the Dunning-Kruger effect.

    Thank you for the interesting topic, and encouraging me to think about my PLN.

    • David January 6, 2015 at 1:25 pm #

      Great point Stephen. Labels are very powerful, and carry a lot of personal baggage in the different ways they are interpreted. Thanks for adding to the conversation!

  20. click here April 16, 2016 at 5:22 pm #

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