Enough with the “Social Media Intern”​ Jokes

Okay, I’ve snapped. It’s time to say it: Interns don’t run the social media accounts of major corporations, especially not in the middle of a communications crisis. I will gladly die on this hill, as a senior social media staffer who has worked late into the night writing apology tweets one by one from a brand account.

Here’s a new year’s resolution you can all feel free to borrow: Stop treating social media as either a force destroying democracy or a pointless, shallow field that doesn’t require professional expertise. Make up your mind! Are we interns or civilization-threatening nerds? (For the record I am a nerd trying to not destroy civilization and living with a lot of ethical angst over my chosen field. But I’m not an intern!)

Making fun of the “social media intern” during a PR crisis or when a brand messes up on Twitter reinforces two discriminatory assumptions: that social media is a “pink ghetto” of unskilled women, and that millennials bring no valuable experience to the workforce and are simply born with iPhones in our hands. It also erases the valuable professional expertise of an entire industry of capable, hardworking adults.

Social media employees are typically underpaid, do enormous amounts of unrecognized and unsupported emotional labor at great psychological expense, and often aren’t given opportunities to advance. When you make fun of “social media interns,” you’re undermining the work of someone who I can guarantee has been exposed to shocking amounts of graphic language and imagery, violent references and racial/gendered/homophobic slurs, all without mental health support. The amount of revenge porn, antisemitism, cruelty and violence I see during comment moderation and PR responses — just do to my job — deeply damages my health and well-being. In 2017 I wound up in the ER with a heart condition due to stress at the plucky age of twenty-five. 

Social media managers don’t just write tweets; we’re also digital bodyguards for the brands we work for. And we’re quite frequently working on a freelance or contract basis with no health benefits and limited stability. Overtime pay? As if.

The stakes of working in social media are extremely high: we cannot make a single mistake, requiring our performance to be absolutely perfect 100% of the time. People who work in social media do not get to have a single bad day. It’s difficult to name another role that is so underpaid and despised, and yet also requires you to be the flawless public face of a company online to millions and millions of viewers who can react to your choices within seconds.

Moral of the story: The way social media is disrespected as a field is the result of a lot of forces. It’s the disregard of emotional labor as real work. It’s ageism that dismisses social media as something “kids” just know how to do. It’s the result of workers rights being rolled back. Tweeting that all social media employees are interns is just a joke, yes. People who make the joke aren’t bigots, they’re clueless. But we should talk about the erasure of an entire field’s professional skills, and the exploitation of economically insecure young people. I’m lucky to work with people at TED who understand and respect the toll my job takes, and I have great benefits and job security. But as I watch my friends get laid off and overworked and underpaid again and again and again at other companies, I understand that I’m the exception, not the rule.

If you work somewhere with social media staff, from a company to a publication to a university, take them out for lunch and ask them about their challenges. Ask them what they’re seeing online and what they think of the company. Our perspective is precious but undervalued. We have great editorial judgment and risk assessment.

And if you are a social media intern, I see you! I was you once. Your skills are valuable, you should be paid fairly for your work, and you deserve a work environment that is respectful and supports your growth.

P.S. Don’t believe me that social media is a skilled profession and that it can absolutely suck? I asked my Twitter followers who work in social to tell me about their worst day on the job. Here’s what they said.

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Ella Dawson is a sex and culture critic and a digital strategist. She drinks too much Diet Coke.

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