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It’s Time For the Social Media Workforce to Organize

Something is happening in the world of social media managers and editors—and it looks a bit like the beginning of a labor movement.

I can't believe someone used this photo of me without my permission.
@WorkInSociaI on Twitter
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A few weeks ago, as the conversation around Dave Chappelle’s latest special hit a fever pitch and Netflix employees prepared to walk out over the comic’s hateful (and unfunny) anti-trans material, an unexpected conversation emerged around social media, brand accounts, the people who run them. Specifically, how those things are meant to function when the shit hits the fan. 

It all started when Netflix’s @Most account (self-described as the “home of Netflix’s LGBTQ+ storytelling”) tweeted this thread: 

The thread, while specific to the Chapelle situation, served to spotlight just how impossible it is to smile and shill for a brand as it distributes content that’s harmful to a community it claims to support. But it also reignited a larger and ever-evolving conversation about how freaking weird brand accounts are in the first place. Yes, we all know about the ghostly voices who write thirsty, engagement-hungry tweets on behalf of soda and fast food companies, but the issue with @Most and Netflix underscored the fact that at some point we’re going to have to grapple with the dissonance of brands that use inclusivity and personality as a marketing tool. What happens online when that veneer chips? And more importantly, what are the voices behind a brand supposed to do?  

This is an issue I think about all the time. I’ve been a full time social editor in media for years, and have done social work in some capacity for pretty much my entire career, for both brands and news outlets. You could slap a giant “It’s Complicated” status on top of the entire field frankly, but the problems plaguing social media workers have become far worse in the hell of the pandemic. But with that turmoil, I think, has also come a kind of progress. As the larger workforce is slowing down, demanding more, and quitting all together, it seems that social media laborers are starting to join the chorus.

If you’re reading this and thinking you’ve missed something big, you haven’t. We haven’t seen any social-specific demonstrations or massive revolts, but there are signs out there if you’re paying attention (more on that in a minute) and personally, I’m excited as hell by the rumblings. The age of the social media manager is long past due, and as I see what looks like dawn on the horizon, I’m welcoming it with open arms (atrophied by a life spent online, but functional nonetheless). What would such an age look like? Well for starters, it would mean proper compensation, well-staffed teams, job descriptions that actually describe jobs, clear objectives and the tools to achieve them, and job security—many of the kinds of things that engender power and respect (and good work!), that are so often lacking in media generally and many other industries, too. On the one hand, a girl can dream… on the other hand, these are the kinds of things a bargaining contract could help secure.

That’s not to say such a seismic shift would come easily. Truly one of the oldest and most tired jokes on the internet is the fact that every social account is run by a child intern, but in this, the year of our lord 2021, it’s somehow an old and tired joke that reflects a current and persistent attitude. Decades into social media being part of our daily lives, social media careerists are still demeaned and lack the kind of corporate respect that their editorial and marketing contemporaries enjoy. They’re overworked and do a million jobs for companies that don’t pay them well and often don’t offer any clear career path or opportunity for growth. For being a thankless job that leads to well-documented burnout and turnover, social media managers are still tasked with being company voices, editors, the last line of defense when something is published, audience engagement masterminds, community moderators (an especially toxic task), salespeople, trend spotters, news breakers, decision makers, scheduling robots, content creators, and genies that can make things go viral. I’m sure I’m forgetting a few things here. The point is, we’re tired!!!!!!! 

Oh and you can also never log off—all the while the apps and the billionaires that run them are constantly changing the way these tools work and moving the goalposts along with them. You’d think that as these companies increasingly run the whole damn world, social media experts would in turn inherit the earth. But no, they are still undervalued, understaffed, overwhelmed, and are generally not okay as a result. Social media jobs: All of the responsibility and none of the perks.

Whew. These (real and valid) complaints are as old as the intern joke itself, and until now they’ve seemed wholly chronic and incurable. Maybe they still are. But we’re also entering what feels like a new phase of social media as a career. For so long, social media work existed as a new and nebulous field that was somehow both critical to the livelihood of a modern brand and regarded as the work of a career newbie or something to be tacked onto an existing role. Now, the field of social media has veterans who have some amount of sway and strategists with platforms to talk about the finer details of the work. 

One such person is Rachel Karten, a former director of social for Bon Appetit and now a social media consultant who authors the Link in Bio newsletter. (Something I have contributed to, albeit in an extremely minor way.) Link in Bio is dedicated to all things social, with regular interviews and reflections on everything from mental health to the nuances of social media work, to a reader-generated compensation survey highlighting the salary differences and demographics across the field of social media. When I initially subscribed and started reading Link in Bio, it honestly kind of blew my mind. It’s among the first times I felt like the work of a social media strategist was being taken seriously (it is serious work!) in the way that other journalism and marketing careers are. On top of that, it offers a sense of community of other people who are serious about the work of social media. It’s become a sanity-saving read for me, and from what I can tell, I’m not alone.

Of course, it’s not all serious. Another development I’ve noticed more and more over the last few years? Big, beautiful meme accounts. Chief among them is the Instagram account, Work In Social They Said. It’s one of several handles launched in the last few years that’s aimed at social media professionals, and I routinely scroll it while concurrently laughing and crying. Even if you don’t work in social, you’ll probably find it relatable because a good meme knows no bounds. Work in Social, like Link in Bio, offers a sense of community and some much-needed perspective for the social workforce that has been sorely lacking for so long. And the shareability and lols don’t hurt either honestly. 

So, does all this add up to anything? Will any of it actually lead anywhere? Am I a totally fried and frustrated social editor grasping for a prayer? Yes, probably, but also, I don’t know! I don’t totally think so. Right now it might just be newsletters, meme accounts, and tweets, but those things feel like they’re accumulating into something bigger. There’s a sense of organization, presence, and awareness that simply wasn’t there years ago. More people (mostly women, notably) work in social media than ever, which means it’s not the mysterious or new field it once was. Obviously I’m biased, but I’m hopeful that as momentum builds, so do the conversations around power and labor. 

The last time Netflix’s @Most account tweeted was October 20th. The post simply read: “brb walking out.” I don’t know what will happen next, but I know social media eds and managers are talking to their employers, to the wider world, and more importantly, to each other in a way they haven’t before. If that continues, I’d like to think proper organizing will follow. And to any social managers who are reading this: let’s not forget that we’ve got all the passwords to the accounts. We don’t even need to seize the means, we already have them.