According to a recent ad posted on the Internet, the college student recipient of Pizza Hut’s summer “Twinternship” would be charged with “attending advertising shoots, product meetings and other corporate events” as well as “playing social-media defense, monitoring Twitter for any mentions of the brand and alerting superiors whenever anything negative about the Hut is being said.” The clever ad continued “the successful applicant will speak fluent OMG and LOL and correctly use the terms DM (direct message), RT (retweet) and # (hashtag).” Now that most young people now stand little chance of finding meaningful, paid work in a career of their choice, its comforting to know that there is one sector the young under-employed permalancer or mid-twenties service industry grunt can still turn to in times of need – the social networking job. Previous generations have had their share of pointless, well-paid jobs-how could we forget the dot-com boom, the coolhunters – but rarely before has it been such a place of last refuge.
With the economy in a shambles and Generation Y’s ambitious dreams dashed up against the wall, many of my peers have turned to nihilism or sought refuge in grad school. The baby-boomers, like pimps waiting in the shadows to pounce at our time of greatest financial weakness, have set to work young people as their digital Sherpas to guide them through the treacherous new media landscape to the perceived “monetized relevance” on the other side. Everywhere, old people appear hard up to harness the intrinsic technology skills of the “net-gen,” those young people whose generational claim to fame thus far has been using social media to help get Barack Obama elected. But the Boomers’ attempts to seem “with it,” their overeagerness in attempting to hold on and remain relevant is feeble and embarrassing to watch. They should have some dignity and step back – who could ignore the look of demographic hunger on John McCain’s face during the second presidential debate when he scanned around the room and asked if anyone had sold anything on Ebay. Or not be shocked by Hillary Clinton’s commencement speech at Barnard, where her advice to the graduating class of girls was essentially “Get out there and Facebook!” You can turn on CNN and watch the news anchors, grown men and women, making awkward entreaties to millions of viewers to follow them online. These talking heads at the whim of the fickle interests of the crowd, make the mistake of perceiving these new communication methods as somehow “hip,” rather than just the latest tools in a lineage of ever smaller and more integrated communication technologies. It’s as if the impending specter of an increasingly digitized world has caused them to soil themselves in fear, and jump on the bandwagon as quickly as possible, hungrily attaching themselves to one new innovation then to the next in an effort to stave off death and irrelevance.
What are the main duties of a modern social media employee, you may ask? To find out, I spoke with a social media coordinator of a large nonprofit who preferred to remain anonymous.
“The most important thing is to listen to what is being said about the brand, either in the blogosphere or in the comments sections of pages, and respond. A lot of organizations set up “listening posts” and monitor specific keywords using Google alerts. When you find out what your constituents are saying, you can start talking about the same things, interjecting your brand into the conversation. The goal is to cultivate social capital and good will amongst your constituents, thus resulting in them donating to, interacting with, or talking about your brand.” When I explained that this seemed irkingly disingenuous, he elaborated, “It’s a bit like nerds in high school studying the cool kids to find out how to be cool too. Clearly you can’t just walk up to the cool kids and introduce yourself – they would laugh at you. Instead, you have to let the cool kids know, indirectly, that you are interested in the same things they are, and when they come over to talk to you about it, you ask them if they might want to give you some money too.”
On April 22, 2009, Li Evans, a self-described online “search and marketing professional,” posted some thoughts on Pizza Hut’s ‘Twinternship’ program to his blog, titling his piece, “A Pizza Hut PR Stunt or a Social Media Blunder Waiting to Happen?” Later that day, Li was surprised to check the comments section of his piece and find a lengthy direct response from one Chris Fuller, a spokesperson for Pizza Hut. In an oddly formalized letter, Chris politely thanked Li for writing about the Pizza Hut brand and acknowledged Li’s thoughts as valid. Chris maintained a positive upbeat tone while attempting to neutralize some of Li’s negative criticisms about the program, ultimately admitting that it was just a work in progress like anything else, before signing off with, “I agree with you on the point that we should be more actively engaged in conversations … I’m open to suggestions here. Any recommendations?” It seemed to be a kind and legitimate intervention. But as I surfed on, scouring the blogs for commentary on the Twinternship program, Chris Fuller popped up in the comments over and over again. It appeared he had done his due diligence managing the Pizza Hut brand, by reaching out and personally responding to each and every mean, cynical blogpost that had been written attempting to sully the Hut’s good name. “I appreciate your comments about Pizza Hut’s new twinternship program …” Chris’s responses began. This Chris Fuller began to seem to me like some kind of Terminator, sent by the company across space and time to neutralize bad PR. While the techno-fetishists laud social media as something intrinsically democratic that makes it so everyone can express an opinion, rarely is it mentioned how the closeness of social networking encourages a kind of all-moderating group think. As you become caught up in a web of social relations and conversations, the lack of social distance makes real independence impossible. Perhaps in some touchy-feely near-future where everyone is having conversations, you won’t be able to wantonly mock something on the Internet without receiving a kind and personal response from a mouthpiece saying, “Now that’s not very nice!” While on the one hand being nagged by the Boomers to “Innovate! Innovate!” in order to make them more money, young people have been given a social media duty as menial as moving the sands of the desert with tweezers – managing a brand, attempting to influence and maintain someone else’s image. In a recent CNET article called “Generation Y: We’re just not that into Twitter,” a Pace University study found that only 22 percent of 18-24-year-olds were using Twitter, while 99 percent of them reported using social networking sites. So, the author inquired, why weren’t young people biting for Twitter? In the message board comments that followed, someone named “Jacobthestupendous” wrote, “The biggest hurdle to the younger generations taking Twitter seriously is the voracity with which the Baby-boomers have latched onto it. When the cast of ‘The View’ goes on and on about Tweeting it guarantees that people like me will never ever give it a chance.”
In a time of limited employment opportunities, the fact that companies are clamoring to offer full-time paying jobs with benefits to techno-literate twenty-somethings to do little more than what they do already, could be viewed as an altruistic godsend. With Gmail and Facebook now socially acceptable to use at work, it would appear that we are verging upon the 1960’s Situationist dream of the four-hour workday achieved through complete automation. A lucrative career in social networking is many a blogger’s wet dream and for good reason, since it allows them to do what they do already and get paid. This makes sense on a day-to-day survival scale, but if you pan out and look at our current employment situation from a distance, it paints a profoundly depressing picture – the blogger, the freelancer, the social media employee, the unemployed jobseeker on Craigslist, all hunched over a computer, muscles atrophying as they plug outward into the void. Representing a brand on Twitter is essentially a more dignified digital equivalent to putting on a mascot outfit and prancing on the street corner to drive traffic. Dell, Starbucks, Whole Foods, Dunkin Donuts and many more companies have made expeditions into the realm of Twitter to varying degrees of success. Some brands have utilized the tool for customer service, some to provide entertainment and still others as a kind of 21st century “suggestions” box. At its most primal, Twitter helps the brand seem more dynamic and human, while at the same time acting as a pressure release valve to keep the consumer from going postal. If you follow Popeye’s Chicken on Twitter, you might enjoy checking its periodic outbursts on your smart phone – “So what exactly do you love about that chicken?” or “Would love to see your tweetpics of Father’s Day at Popeye’s!” But social networking is just the most recent venue of engagement in the decades-long hide-and-seek game between consumers and advertisers. The consumers left the cities and the advertisers chased after them, following them across the devastated American highway landscape with billboards. The consumers sought refuge in the peaceful silence of the early Internet, until the advertisers hunted them down, following them into the data cloud, with banner ads, free trial offers and now desperate inquests to acknowledge their brands on social networking Web sites.
Social networking’s optimistic boosters prefer not to view it in such stark terms. In theory, a social media job serves the simple altruistic purpose of “having a conversation with your constituency.” In Aliza Sherman’s much-heralded “10 Golden Rules of Social Media” rule no. 2 is to “Listen.” Within the online discourse about effective social networking, this is repeated over and over like a mantra. When Jennifer Preston was appointed to be the first-ever social media editor at The New York Times, she received polite kudos for her excellent Twittequette in her first communication, which read: “@How should The New York Times use Twitter?” Preston no doubt got hundreds of responses, just like Oprah when she writes asking her legions of followers, “Anybody got a surefire remedy for ticks?” While it’s nice to imagine that Twitter levels the playing field and that “they’re just like us” now, thinking that Oprah and Jennifer Preston are really listening seems mildly John Hinckley delusional. Twitter provides a feeling of closeness and accessibility, but is realistically much more akin to the unread slush mail bin or the “suggestions” box at the supermarket, providing users with an outlet to know details, and providing brands with a pressure release valve for an excess of opinions. Comments are meant to be received, scanned and then discarded.
Given the fungal growth of Twitter search engines and social media aggregates, it’s clear that the meta-narrative (what people are saying) has become much more important than the narrative (the hard facts). For certain segments of the population like celebrities, cultural producers and corporate brands, “being in the conversation” has become compulsory and non-abiders are taken aside and whispered to in hushed tones over lunch that they “really should get a Twitter.” It’s one thing entirely for digital natives to social network for their own benefit – for fun, to keep in touch with acquaintances, to get themselves some viral recognition and be part of the conversation. It’s another thing entirely to be implored by exuberant baby-boomers who read some trend piece in The New York Times and feel like they know what’s up. As we verge upon the end, our civilization teeters near oblivion like a quarter perched on the ledge of a Quarter Pusher machine, and one can only hope for a catastrophic power outage or an unrelenting neo-Luddite backlash. We huddle together in mortal fear, searching Twitter for what TIME Magazine tech writer Steven Johnson calls “social warmth,” but in the dead of night, after all the message board wars and Gchat conversations have fizzled out, there’s just your own cold reflection of the screen. Working, networking and communicating have become muddled and blurry, cross-pollinating with one another to the point where it’s difficult to make distinctions. In this shameless frenzy where social relationships are power, working is leisure and leisure is networking. Young people are called on to do their pointless, information-age duty for the future. But some information-age boosters like Steven Johnson say it best, creaking audioanimatronically: “This is what I ultimately find most inspiring about the Twitter phenomenon. We are living through the worst economic crisis in generations, with apocalyptic headlines threatening the end of capitalism as we know it, and yet in the middle of this chaos, the engineers at Twitter headquarters are scrambling to keep the servers up, application developers are releasing their latest builds …The weather reports keep announcing that the sky is falling, but here we are – millions of us – sitting around trying to invent new ways to talk to one another.”