First Person

Why you think social media is run by interns

April 27, 2018
Photo by Priscilla Du Preez on Unsplash

A few weeks ago, I fell prey to an outdated belief about social media editors. I made a joke on Vice’s Twitter account about missing 4:20, tweeting out a weed-related article at 4:21 instead (I never said it was a good joke), and one reader responded: “Someone give this social media intern a raise.”

This is a common assumption, as evidenced by dozens of tweets telling brands and publishers to “fire their social media intern” for various mistakes. Social media is my full-time job, yet there are those who still think a publisher’s account with almost 2 million followers is run by an intern. (CJR reached out to Sam Natale, the reader who offered his misguided praise, but didn’t hear back.)

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Why do these comments persist? Alana Levinson’s essay “The Pink Ghetto of Social Media” and Alina Heim’s “The Invisible Workforce Behind the Social CEO” suggest the bias against social media editors has sexist overtones. But beyond that, what makes readers think there’s an intern on the other end of an account?

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It’s almost like publishers want readers to think it’s an intern tweeting—because an intern means someone young, funny, and relevant. It’s a fantasy where only the youngest people in the office know how to “do” social media, and therefore the “fun” task of posting on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram all day is thrust upon the person at the bottom of the totem pole.

At one point, these people were right. Ten years ago, and less, when publishers didn’t know the power of social media, it may very well have been an intern holding the reins. But in 2018—where we now have a president who tweets out official policy—the business of social media has become so complex that it is now a bona fide profession.

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As the complexities of the platforms have changed, so has the strategy. Sometimes I tweet a simple “lmao” as a sell for an article—and yes, people call me an intern for it. But there is legitimate thought behind those sells. When I say “sell,” by the way, I mean the top copy or caption written alongside a link card. Here’s an example of pretty silly tweet from The New York Times; the sell in this case is “Consider this less a recipe, more of a prod in a direction that you never considered.”

Brands and publishers have to walk a fine line on social media. They want to be relatable, funny, reverent in certain cases, omnipresent, and all-knowing, without showing too much of a personal bias—kind of like a hip, cool god. They don’t, however, want to be perceived as crude or giving off a “how do you do, fellow kids” vibe. This push and pull goes into every sell, and every tweet.

Why go through this trouble for a stupid tweet that most people scroll past? Above all, social media editors are looking for clicks, and their bosses—the publishers—support as much. As The Onion so eloquently put it: We don’t make any money if you don’t click the fucking link. Social media accounts are also hungry for engagements—likes, comments, retweets (or on Facebook, shares)—that lead to larger follow counts and larger influence. Finesse, thought, and keeping up with internet culture are essential when not only searching for influence, but representing yourself as the brand or publisher. And as a bottom line, more followers and engagements (namely, retweets or shares) means more clicks.

But the voice on the other side of your feed also needs to be human, and that human voice may sometimes be perceived as unprofessional. That’s where the misconception about the intern comes in. Readers may hold a certain schema for what it means to be professional; when they see an account tweet “lmao,” it breaks that schema. A full-time, salaried employee can’t do that, they think. Only an intern can do that. False! I do it all the time, because I want you to click, like, retweet, reply.

Then there are memes. “A meme can be considered trivial by someone older,” social media professional Alina Heim tells me over email, “but a young person will likely have a better understanding of the comedic value behind a meme, and how difficult it is to come up with one that truly resonates with an audience.” Meme creation requires both soft (humor, empathy) and hard (photo editing, gif-making) social media skills—and those who don’t make them or keep up with memes don’t know the work that goes into one. Memes, like social media as a whole, have gotten more complex as the internet has aged; there’s even a whole subreddit called r/MemeEconomy where people “buy and sell” memes based on how good they are.

Memes are ever-changing, ever-multiplying, which means editors who utilize them on social media—such as this brilliant use of the recent American Choppermeme from the Monterey Bay Aquarium—have to stay abreast of meme trends. A more meta example is when the Washington Post used the American Choppermeme to explain why it’s okay for media outlets to explain memes themselves. Again, editors have to walk a line: Make and use memes to be funny and relevant, yet be careful. They can’t be hokey, or appear as though they’re trying to sell something; memes also can’t be stale, for the risk of the brand/publisher being called stale themselves. Social media in 2018 is a balancing act. Editors must use prowess and experience to create a precise social strategy, but make it look so easy that an intern could do it.

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Anna Rose Iovine is a social editor at Vice and a freelance writer based in New York City.