A couple of days ago, I started telling people via social media about my career shift away from mostly social media stuff and towards (back to?) writing and editing. It’s not really a surprise to anyone who knew me before 2007 but so much has changed within that seemingly short amount of time that the shift seems like a new thing, rather than going back to an old thing. It’s not really enough of an issue to belabor the point, except that it does come as the footnote of a prolonged public (though personal) monologue about the role that these social technologies play in my personal and professional life.
I’ve never been shy about critiquing social media marketing or online culture (It’s one of the things that prompted Raizel and I to create The Learned Fangirl.) But I do want to clarify a couple of things, even though I don’t really think I should have to; no, i do not “hate” social media. Never have. My issues are a bit different.
Social media is a strange beast, even more so than blogging or e-mail or other kinds of communication online, it requires a certain level of emotional labor, whether you are posting your individual opinions or creating posts on behalf of an organization or company. What you put out on these channels exists in a gray area of personal expression and potential commodity, and in an age where individuals are expected to present their own selves as a potential commodity or a content/branding object to be consumed, that line becomes blurred even further.
If you happen to work in social media, particularly as a community manager, there’s another level of gray area that exists that adds to that “emotional labor” I mentioned before, but because passion and enthusiasm is so often part of the job description. To do the work, you not only create content, you live it. You assume the face of the brand, and in some cases, the soul.
And even though the party line of social media has been “be authentic” or “be yourself” or “be passionate,” in order to fully enjoy the benefits of living a social mediated life online, we so often see the pitfalls of that: the tension between workers and companies (or students and schools) when individual express potentially controversial opinions online, or companies that use and rely on user generated content but seek to control the voice and tenor of that content to the point that it’s indistinguishable from marketing, which of course defeats the purpose of looking to user content in the first place. Or more insidiously, the harassment that women and people or color specifically face when being open and honestly critical about some of the power imbalances of the tech industry, or online culture, or even geek culture. To be open, to be yourself, to be honest online means potentially making a target of yourself and depending how much of a marginalized person, that target gets bigger and bigger. So for those people, for people like myself, the emotional labor is multiplied.
Still, I don’t “hate” social media, I see so much potential with it, that it frustrates me to no end to see it squandered in a feedback loop of clickbait and outrage and insults. Social media can exist as public square, a public marketplace, and a megaphone for some.There’s a gray area between private and public selves on social, or personal and organizational selves, yet the divide still exists to benefit the status quo and the same power structures and inequity. To speak publicly, and honestly about this issues isn’t about hating social media, but about wanting more from it.