Let’s Talk About Mental Health

Featuring an interview with Utibe Mbagwu, content curator at Instagram.

Back in March, following the hate crime of a white gunman targeting Asian women working at spas in Atlanta, I put up an Instagram Story that acknowledged what AAPI social media managers might be going through. Specifically, that when you work in social media you aren’t able to step away or log off from seeing traumatic news online. Utibe Mbagwu, who had just left her job at Into The Gloss and Glossier a month earlier, responded saying she related and shared this post she had written for Into The Gloss about this topic. We DMed back and forth a bit on mental health within social media, especially when tied to identity.

For this week’s newsletter, I asked her if she’d share more of her thoughts around social media, mental health, burnout, and identity—and am so grateful she agreed. I am such a big fan of her work from Glossier and Into The Gloss, and she’s now over at Instagram working on one of my favorite accounts, @creators

Rachel Karten: Thank you so much for chatting with me today! To start, can you talk a little about your current role and past social roles?

Utibe Mbagwu: Right now I am working at Instagram. I specifically do social media at Instagram, managing an account they have called @creators. It’s an account that essentially helps aspiring, emerging, and influential creators grow their audience. We share new product features, best practices, and highlight people who are doing well in the field. I started there pretty recently and love it so far.

Before I came to Instagram I worked at Into The Gloss and Glossier. I started as an Editorial Intern and, like what usually happens in social media, they needed someone to fill in the gaps and asked me and another editorial intern to help manage Facebook and Twitter. I leaned in and made my own memes, hacked a formula for great performance, and really owned it. They brought me on to work there full-time across both Into The Gloss and Glossier. I loved working there especially because I really learned how to manage social media as a person and not as a brand because social media at Glossier Inc. is more about connection and community. I was there for almost four years. 

Before Glossier I worked at a film festival company, for a Black arts criticism journal, and a movie theater clerk (ha!) almost always doing social media in some capacity. 

RK: I love @creators, I think it’s one of the best things Instagram has done in terms of being more transparent about their platform. Can you tell me a little bit about @gobehindthescreens, the account you created that spotlights editors of color?

UM: When I was working at Glossier, I quickly realized that social media is such a fuzzy space. It’s a really new career path and it’s hard to map out what a trajectory looks like. I wanted to hear from people about various questions—What does a good social media presence look like? What does excelling in a social media position look like? How are you getting through it all?

At the same time I had a friend, Siraad Dirshe, who was also doing social media while working in beauty, and we were like, What’s going on? All these really cool girls are running these amazing accounts. And, specifically, there are so many Black women running these buzzy, leading social media accounts. I loved discovering that Black women were leading these accounts because it gave me that possibility model of being successful in the industry. We ended up putting together a panel with Peyton Dix who was at Paper Magazine at the time, Nana Agyemang who was at The Cut, and Madison Utendahl who led The Museum of Ice Cream’s social media. It was honestly partly selfish because I wanted to hear from them and be better at my job.  

I wanted to have more panels but COVID hit and I turned it into a digital platform—which ended up being a great decision. Now I post best practices, spotlights of social media editors of color, and case studies. It’s a budding labor of love.

RK: I love that. Everyone should be following! I’d love to jump into mental health and social media. You’ve talked about this a lot before, whether in articles or on social, and I’d love to hear your perspective on it and why it’s so important to be talking about. 

UM: Yeah, I really didn’t start talking about my mental health in relation to social media until COVID. I finally started seeing language around it—specifically people who were now working from home saying, I’ve been staring at a screen all day and it’s driving me wild. I was like...I’ve been feeling this way for years, this is my job. But before COVID I didn’t really feel like there was conversation around the burn out that happens in social media. When you spend so much time just consuming it, which is required as a social manager, you fall prone to the not-so-great aspects of social media. The time suck, the constant comparison to other people, even something as simple as checking how a post is doing. 

You know, that simple action of checking on a post is behavior that verges on obsessiveness. The euphoria around a post excelling and the feeling of dread when a post tanks are two ends of the engagement pendulum social media managers know all too well...and checking your phone countless times an hour only adds to the emotional rush. An app that I wish I'd known about sooner to help me be more intentional with my phone usage is an app called Opal. (This is not an ad by the way, just something I really find useful!) I can block any social media apps I'd like for as long as I need. I'm also appreciative of the option to proactively schedule time blocks during the morning, during focus work hours, and when I'm winding down for bed.

But for me it was all of that, coupled with the outcries of racial injustice that went down in the spring and summer. And it wasn’t until that time that people in my network were like...you should take a break.

RK: Something we briefly talked about before this interview was how identity can affect the experience of a social media manager. For example, I have heard from social media managers who had experiences where because of their identity they were asked to either write something on behalf of the company or keep working online through a traumatizing event. You briefly wrote about your experience with this on Into the Gloss. If you're comfortable, can you talk a little more about that experience and its toll on your mental health?

UM: For Black women and for people of color, I feel we are predisposed to be more culturally attuned (which often means more culturally flexible) than our peers. W.E.B. Dubois unpacked this as the amplified awareness that comes with being Black and American—but for Black women, it's a triple consciousness—and when you tie in other genders, sexuality, able-bodied-ness, the matrix multiplies. Those layers of identity can give marginalized people a pulse—a knack to recognize what is relevant, appropriate, and forward-pushing to share on social media, as ultimately, we want to see ourselves and our values somewhat reflected in the content we create and share. 

Last year, when outcries around racial injustice permeated social media, the way my identity folded into my role as a social media manager caused another kind of internal dilemma. While a socioeconomic reckoning was needed, there was this implicit pressure as a Black person managing accounts with hundreds of thousands of followers to make Black experiences digestible and palatable to "unknowing" audiences. It's a hard thing to shake: knowing that your cultural makeup is a gap of knowledge for the audience you cater to, while also knowing that your identity can be a vehicle to a better bottom line. It's also hard to know how social media managers of color can avoid the pressure of performance when their identity is used to underscore the values of a business.

When there was that initial awareness around the anti-Asian hate crimes happening this year, I felt like it was all happening again. Where social media managers of color are put in positions where they have to navigate success during an inflammatory moment on social media that’s centered around their identity. 

Thankfully, there appears to be more language around burnout and the mental effects of being exposed to traumatic content or upsetting discourse when you're constantly online. Hopefully, that culminates into more mindfulness around these roles and breaks (!) for social media managers during heightened times. 

RK: I think there are more conversations happening around this but not quite enough as it relates to social media, specifically. Do you have any thoughts around what companies can do to structurally support the mental health of social media managers?

UM: There needs to just be more conversation around social media burnout. More understanding around people of color being in these positions and giving them the time that they need to feel comfortable coming back to the job. Also I think more education around inclusion in the workplace and in business, generally.

RK: Do you think there's a correlation between that toll on mental health and burnout within social media as a field?

UM: Yes. Oh my gosh. I always feel like in a perfect world there should be one social media person per platform—perhaps even more, honestly. I get that it’s not always realistic, but ensuring that social media managers aren’t working in a silo does take some of the burden off of a social media manager who is trying to post across every single platform.  

I think the nature of working in social media means that it's going at a fast pace, you need to be on top of things culturally, and that means you always have to be on and nimble. And that means you teach yourself a lot of skills—whether that be photo and video editing, copywriting, producing, art directing, brand marketing, and everything else in between. And while we work so hard, it’s still a job that’s tricky to advance within.

Despite all that, I am excited to see what the future of working in social media looks like. It’s only ramping up. It’s definitely not going away, which was a fear I had when I was starting out, and it’s interesting to see how the platforms themselves work to incorporate features that look out for users’ mental health. I really hope that there is more respect for people who are working in this space and also more opportunities given to social managers specifically for growth and for care.

RK: Thank you so much, Utibe! I really appreciate you taking the time to chat.


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