When talking about her work as a social media strategist across different industries, including tech, politics and consumer goods, Linda Dianne says the one thing that has never changed, regardless of the industry, is the omnipresence of trolls.
“I’ve seen the worst of humanity,” Dianne says. “The worst has to be death threats or threats of sexual violence with really graphic footage of the kinds of acts people wanted to do to the brand or me.”
The prevalence of death threats isn’t unique to Dianne’s experience alone. Lia Haberman, a former social media manager for companies such as E! News and Yahoo who currently teaches social media marketing at UCLA, says online threats were a constant in some of the communities she managed. The ones who were able to pinpoint where she lived or made references to her family were the most unsettling. And some communities were so toxic that it made Haberman fear for her safety.
This seems to be the reality many social media managers have to face these days, working in an environment that’s replete with abuse and harassment. As social media has become an integral part of marketing for corporations, from Burger King capitalizing on depression to Netflix using memes to turn “Bird Box” into a hit movie, what’s often left undiscussed is the working conditions of social media managers and the pressures they face in a job that can be both stressful and undervalued.
The work of a social media manager, despite its significant role in marketing and branding, is often under-appreciated. Because many people use Facebook and Twitter, Haberman says, they assume the role of a social media specialist is easy. However, Haberman points out, “just because you can turn on the stove doesn’t make you a chef.”
The undervaluation of social media work often stems from a lack of understanding of the varied expertise required of a social media manager. According to Dianne, “the complicated part about working in social media is that people both within and outside of the brand you work for try to box you in. ‘You’re Marketing!’ ‘No, you’re Sales!’ ‘I thought you were an Analyst!’ ‘I thought you were just an intern!’ But in fact, my job as Social Media Lead is about thirty different things in one.”
The fact that social media managers must have varied skillsets is echoed by Nathan Allebach, the social media manager of Steak-umm, a brand that has gained notice for its quirky online persona in recent years. Allebach says the position straddles many different areas of expertise, including research, copywriting, brand strategizing, analytics reporting and visual production. The multifarious demands of the job make it amorphous and hard to pin down in neatly delineated terms, which, in turn, leads to people slighting it or brushing it off as something an intern could easily do.
The undervaluation of social media labor, however, is hardly new. In 2015, Alana Hope Levinson wrote that social media was a job that often carried with it heavy emotional costs as well as fewer opportunities and less security compared to other media positions. Notably, it was also one of the few divisions in a newsroom where women outnumbered men and a position that holds a bias for sourcing female candidates, according to a study done on the wording used in social media job employment ads.
One of the greatest challenges a social media manager, especially a female social media manager, faces in their work is, of course, having to regularly deal with the prevalence of hate speech and the vitriol of trolls. When speaking about her experience as a freelance social media strategist, Dianne says, “It’s interesting being a woman, especially a woman of color, in social media because most of the trolling assumes social media managers are female. So even when there is a man behind the brand, the language and imagery being weaponized still targets women.”
The preponderance of online harassment towards women has made the female social media managers I’ve talked to acutely aware of the importance of putting safety measures in place to protect themselves and their co-workers. Anna Bold, the community manager of The Tylt, explains that since her social team and the editorial staff who appear in front of the camera are primarily female, she’s always careful to keep an eye out for gender-focused abuse. She is also cautious about connecting staff members to the publication’s audience, saying she doesn’t want to “open anyone up to the potential of abuse.”
Constantly dealing with negative comments from users can extract a toll on any social media manager’s mental health, regardless of their gender. When the Steak-umm account was taking off, Allebach said he would receive explicit messages, some targeted towards his personal accounts, yelling at him to quit his job or kill himself. As Allebach describes it, “I always tell people to think about a time they got in a political Facebook comment war with someone and how mentally exhausting it was. Multiply that feeling by 69 and keep it going around the clock. That’s life for the average social media worker.”
As to how the life of a social media editor can be improved, many believe that social media platforms have to start taking the issue of abuse seriously and make more concerted efforts to decrease it. While Twitter, for instance, has been taking steps to improve its anti-harassment tools, according to Dunne, “there is still more to be done on a platform level. For example, banning certain users from constant harassment should be automatically triggered after reporting more than a handful of posts. Language that relies on racism, sexism, misogyny, transphobia and the like should be flagged rather than still appearing on the timeline.“
Better customer support at these social media platforms is also needed since a large part of content moderation relies on human moderators. Allebach points out that “it’s virtually impossible to get a hold of a real person and when you do, it’s usually some underpaid, under-resourced independent contractor who can’t help you anyway.”
“Layouts, tools, and algorithms can only go so far,” says Allebach. “Nothing can replace human support systems.”
Bold too believes that social media companies need to make greater efforts to deplatform bad actors on the platform. “Social media companies could stand to think a little more about the implications of their actions on our society,” she says. “It is easy to blame algorithms for lifting up bad content, but algorithms are all built by people and those people should take into account the potential effects of their actions.”
Supplying workers with mental health resources should also be a priority for the companies that employ them, especially as more research comes to light of the detrimental effects social media can have on workers who have to constantly be exposed to social media in their professional life. Patrick Wells, a copywriter who has worked for brands such as Moon Pie and Footlocker, says a company should take active responsibility of the mental health of their social media employees. Wells argues that “it’s not just showing a social media manager the best practices book and saying ‘Don’t respond to these types of comments,’ but it’s being aware of how these types of comments can affect someone over time and being proactive about taking care.”
When it comes to matters of resources, Allebach points out that if bigger corporations can afford to bring in coaches or consultants to boost a company’s productivity, then they should also be able to bring in mental health professionals once a month to do a mental health evaluation and provide social media workers with assistance and a greater net of support if they need it.
Investment in the mental well-being of a company’s social media workers feels especially pertinent given the recent social media trends of brands. Social media accounts of companies have become more humanized in the past few years, frequently posting in the first person. They’re also not afraid of courting negative reactions from users — in fact, sometimes they welcome it. But while this new strategy has led to more engagement from users, it has also engendered more abuse.
According to Haberman, “The sassy brand voice was an interesting trend but it created a few problems: it opened the door to added abuse for social media managers. And they never got enough credit or compensation for developing that voice or for the abuse they suffered.”
But if enduring abuse from users is one of the worst aspects of the job, then perhaps one of the best parts of being a social media manager is when a meaningful, positive connection is made.
“Any conversation between two or more strangers that ends with ‘Thank you for this civil discussion’ or ‘You’re right’ or ‘That really made me think about something new’ is a win in my book,” says Bold.
Allebach tells me he has become IRL friends with people who follow Steak-umm’s account and converses with some of them daily in DMs. It’s these relationships he cherishes the most. “The relationships I’ve made through social media management have by far been the most rewarding aspect of the job,” he says. “They are infinitely more meaningful than any #engagement.”
A similar sentiment is expressed by Wells: “I think the most positive things that happened were never the numbers or notoriety my work achieved, or how much money it made my boss — but it was whenever someone would DM something nice. Like ‘Hey, I don’t know if you’ll see this, but your content always makes my day a little better.’ If I can feel like I’m putting good out into the world instead of a bunch of ads and garbage, then it’s a win.”