Let’s Talk About Leaving Social Media...Maybe?
Featuring an interview with Amy Brown, an originator of Sassy Brand Twitter.
I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that most people who work in social media have thought about leaving social media. As I’ve mentioned, it’s a job that often underpays, burns you out, and requires you to rely on sometimes ethically questionable platforms. So I decided it’s time to talk with someone currently grappling with whether or not she should stay in social.
I first heard of Amy Brown the way I think many do, by at one point asking myself, Who the hell is running the Wendy’s Twitter account? From 2012-2017, the answer would lead you right to Amy. She sort of invented, or at the very least popularized, Sassy Brand Twitter. And while in this year of 2021 Sassy Brand Twitter might make us cringe thinking about Burger King telling women to stay in the kitchen, using a human voice online for a big corporation was a new and extremely smart idea at the time.
Now, after working for Wendy’s, running social for a political campaign, a handful of other social jobs, and some freelancing, Amy is wondering if social media is where she wants to be long term. Earlier this year, she wrote a powerful article in Fast Company titled “I’m a social media manager. Facebook and Twitter have made my job an ethical nightmare.” I suggest you read it before our interview, but in it she says that the toxicity of the social media platforms has been evident for some time now, and continuing to participate in it feels like a choice all social managers have to make. She writes, “I don’t see a future in this career path anymore until there are some serious changes.”
Rachel Karten: Hi Amy! Thanks so much for chatting with me. To start, I'd just love to hear about your past social experience and what you’re up to these days.
Amy Brown: I started in social right around 2012. I graduated from college with a degree in print journalism, but I'd always been really personally interested in social media and the internet—I grew up on LiveJournal and MySpace. I noticed that it was this burgeoning industry and that I could get paid to just be on the internet.
I had been working as a copywriter when a job at Wendy's opened up, I applied and landed it. I was there for four and a half years. I was the first member of the internal social team and we worked with an agency. It was back in the days when brand social was really like the Wild West—nobody was really paying that much attention. I got to do some really cool stuff there.
I left Wendy’s to freelance for a little bit, then jumped back into full-time employment. I worked for Postmates, then worked on a campaign to impeach the president, which then turned into Tom Steyer’s presidential campaign. I then took a little time off and ended up at Figma, my most recent job, where I was for a little bit over a year. I found myself in a position that's pretty ideal for a lot of social media managers. There was never really a crisis, no need to work on nights and weekends, and the community was really positive and upbeat. The dream. But despite all that, I still mentally couldn’t get into it. And I think that’s what really solidified for me that I needed to leave and figure out what I want to do next and in the long-term.
RK: And what was it about social media, besides getting paid to be on the internet, that initially drew you in? And how has that changed throughout the years you’ve worked in social?
AB: I think in the early days of brand social, it was really surprising for people to hear back from a brand, especially when there was obviously a human on the other end. I've always loved that aspect of it. Specifically community management, and engaging with people and making their day. I would hand write little notes and send people gift cards. But I think a lot of that has fundamentally shifted over the last 10 years. For one thing, it's not that surprising to see a brand speaking with a human voice anymore. And I also think consumers have gotten a little tired of it, right? It used to be a novelty and it's not so much anymore
RK: Let’s jump into the Fast Company article. What prompted you to write it? And what are some of the specific issues that you personally grappled with while working in social and using platforms like Facebook and Twitter?
AB: The major impetus for the piece was the insurrection at the Capitol. It really felt like a wake up call and kind of a breaking point for me—especially knowing that all of these groups organized on Facebook. Also Tom Steyer is a target of a lot of Pizzagate conspiracy theorists just because of people in his network. So when I worked for him I was on the receiving end of a lot of QAnon and Pizzagate messages. I would try and get people at Twitter and Facebook to do something about it—they were literally Tweeting us all day about how Tom eats children—and they wouldn’t. I felt there was potential for real world violence, and it really just felt like screaming into the void. Organizationally they really did not seem to care or want to fix any of the harassment issues. Our work as social managers shapes the success of these platforms, but when we need their help, it’s clear nobody is listening.
In general, I'd just like to see a more proactive approach from social media companies on hate speech and disinformation. It feels like they've mostly engaged on these topics reactively (after misinformation swings an election, after Facebook was used to organize a riot at the Capitol, etc.).
RK: In your article you also mention social media managers coming together to address this. I’m curious to hear your thoughts around how maybe you have seen that happen or some things you’d like to see happen?
AB: I feel like we have a lot of power, right? We control the way our companies interact with these platforms and, quite frankly, I think we deserve a little more in return from them. They've sort of prompted this entire industry and there's no real resources. Like I said, when things go wrong, they just kind of throw up their hands and they're like, Ugh.
I'm still not really sure what organizing social media managers looks like. In the wake of my article a lot of people were like, I want to be involved, but I can't do so publicly because my company has such strong ties to these platforms. And I feel like that's a huge problem. Social managers want change, but they don't want to make waves or make themselves seem unemployable.
I wish we had an industry organization. One of my acquaintances on social is always talking about the idea that social media managers need a union. Having industry standards for what's a workweek, what are fair salaries, etc. I feel like if we standardized some of this as an industry, similar to the Writers Guild, I think that could be really interesting. There are a lot of people out there who don't really understand why someone with a desk job would need a union. There's sort of this old-fashion view that it's only for people who do physical labor. But I know from experience that just because you're working at a desk doesn't mean you can't get taken advantage of.
RK: I think the idea of a union that represents social managers is spot on. Where are you at mentally, right now? We’ve worked in social media for about the same amount of time (8ish years). I know I am feeling burnt out—how are you doing?
AB: Part of the reason I was really into the internet as a kid is because I've always been kind of an introvert. In my teens, I felt kind of alienated from my peers, so I'd go online to find like-minded people. And now I kind of feel like the internet makes me feel alienated from people.
RK: Okay, last question: What’s next? Do you think you’ll stay in social media?
AB: On the social end, I'm interested in doing work with companies I really care about. I think doing social for a non-profit would be rewarding. I also have thought about going to grad school. I have always thought it would be interesting to be a mental health therapist, but that's obviously a huge left turn. I’m just trying to keep my options open at this point.
I was talking to my mom about this and she said she had a similar experience in her early thirties where she was done with what she was doing and wanted a new career path. Societally we are pressured to achieve things young and have it all figured out—you can see this perpetuated by 30 Under 30 lists. We celebrate young people's accomplishments and so you feel like, I'm about to be 32 and it feels like it's too late to embark on another career path, which is absolutely not the truth. There's so much life left—so I think I'm just trying to get over that anxiety and figure out what the next thing is.
This week on my Instagram Stories I asked you if I should write about leaving social media or Gary Vaynerchuk. Clearly, this week was leaving social. But that means if you have any particular thoughts on ~Gary Vee~ or personal stories to share, my inbox is open.
Lastly, I’ve been noodling on the idea of creating an anonymous compensation survey for social media professionals (inspired by this one Natasha Pickowicz posted for the food industry). I’ve always found Glassdoor and other compensation comparison sites to be extremely hard to navigate and I mostly just rely on my friends who work in social for salary information. But there are almost 10k of us on here (!!!) and I think we might be able to put together something that feels more up to date and useful. Look out for that in the coming weeks.
Finally…a few jobs!
En Japanese Brasserie, a restaurant in NY, is seeking a Social Media Manager. Email Maya at firstname.lastname@example.org for more info.
Leaf and June, an interior plant design company in Brooklyn, is looking for a social media consultant/freelancer. Email Lisa at email@example.com for more info.