I’m more than a Twitter Monkey

So can I level with you guys? I’m relieved that I’m not going to be doing this same social media jam forever.

Not because I don’t like it – actually, I still really love it. I live to send out a tweet and see a flood of reaction come in as mentions and retweets. It warms my heart to see a Facebook entry with 100+ likes and a flood of often argumentative comments. And I’m not going to lie, I was bursting with pride at my part in making Huffington Post Politics the  most-trafficked politics site on the web last fall. It feels good to help drive 1.6 million social referrals in a month (December 2011).

No, I’m relieved because I’ve been worrying about my future and the future of the social media role at news organizations, for lots of reasons.

The Twitter Machine is a Cruel Mistress

At some news organizations, the social media editor role is one based largely in strategy, product development, evangelization and training. In other cases, the “social media editor” is manually running a newsroom’s branded social media accounts alone or as part of a small team, in a role I fondly refer to as “The Twitter Monkey”.

In theory, many social media jobs are intended to include both types of roles – but that doesn’t always work in practice (and I’m living proof). When you’re the/a voice behind a brand account that’s serious about breaking news – that is your life, end of story.

Watching and curating streams, responding to mentions, keeping an eye out for breaking news, promoting reporters’ work – it takes up so much time and mental energy that it’s difficult to do much else very effectively (and that includes being a spouse, friend, parent, pet owner, etc.).

The truth is, I’ve rarely had time in the past four years to actually step back and look at the big picture of what I’ve been doing. You have to be able to study, research and read to be able to create and evolve social strategy. You need to have time to experiment with new tools and practices and to work on new products to engage readers. You have to be available to help others with their own social media dilemmas. All of that is very difficult to do when you’re shoveling coal to power the Twitter Machine 24/7.

While that was fun, I wasn’t honing the sort of skills I feel would ultimately keep me employable in digital media, which brings me to Crippling Fear #2.

 

Joining the Twitter Monkey Seniors Tour

When I started running social media for The Cincinnati Enquirer in early 2008, there weren’t many social media editors out there. Most of us were former reporters, producers or editors who’d caught the Twitter bug and wanted to share it. We were part of the newsroom power structure from our former jobs, which helped move our practices into the rest of the operation.

These days, I’ve noted the social media specialist roles are increasingly filled by young, entry-level employees – and it isn’t surprising, social media has given many young journalists (myself included) a ticket straight into some of the largest media organizations.

Maybe this role has gotten younger because newsroom managers assume people in their 20s are naturally good at social media. Or maybe it’s because the role isn’t considered as much of a skill position as it was just a few years ago. Or maybe it’s because newsrooms don’t want to pay a social media specialist a salary befitting a few more years experience.

Whatever the reason, I feared (perhaps needlessly) that I’d soon be in a place where I wouldn’t be hirable as a social media editor anymore. I’d have to move on – and I was doubly worried I’d have nowhere to go.

It used to be you could start as a copyeditor, reporter or web producer and eventually (with good work) move up to be a mid-level editor, then an editor, then a director and so on. There was a system. The social media specialist, as a fairly new role, often isn’t in that system (from my anecdotal evidence-gathering). Their skills, while useful for their purposes, may not be likely to translate into larger digital roles in the minds of top level managers.

I can’t tell you how many times in my career I’ve expresses interest in jobs outside of social media – in content editing, digital management, news editor-type jobs, and been rebuffed with “but your experience seems to be in social media”. Lucky for me, I had a career before social media – and I’ve managed to do enough outside of my Twitter monkeying to keep those skills sharp.

Long story short, I was afraid I would be forever branded a “Social Media Person” – and then wouldn’t even be able to be hired for those existing social media positions, anyway.

 

Social Media =The Mafia

Maybe my fears are silly, I do come from a long line of worriers. I just can’t help but wonder what will become of my generation of social editors. Will those who want to move on be given the chance, as I have? Will the Twitter Monkeys be able to throw off their chains and join the editor meetings a bit more often?

I said in 2008 – and I still believe – that if we as the designated social media types were doing our jobs well, we wouldn’t be necessary because everyone in the newsroom would be proficient at social media.  That’s the best possible future I can imagine for the role of social media in our industry.

As for me, I know I may be leaving the ranks of the Twitter Monkeys, but I’m not out of social media by any means. I’ll still be wearing a hardhat, I just won’t be driving the forklift anymore.  Perhaps I can do all of that fun strategizing, teaching and big picture thinking I’ve heard so much about. I’ll get to spend more time on my own accounts, for once, and I’ll be helping others achieve their own goals. Man, I can’t wait.

Eds note: This is sort of stream of consciousness. Forgive my errors and future edits, I was on a roll. 

  • http://bydanielvictor.com Daniel Victor

    I totally agree that being a Twitter Monkey is a dead-end, but that’s just as much the case for the institution as it is for the employee. If a news org’s social strategy is “we should use social media,” you’re not going to have room to grow as a journalist, and the news org’s journalism isn’t going to get any better. 

    In interviewing to be a SME, I actually brought up the words “Twitter Monkey” several times, in the context of making sure I wouldn’t be one. I was interested only when I learned that I’d be involved in reporting projects from the beginning and could do my own SM-based reporting  – in other words, doing journalism, not just “engaging.” If the news org doesn’t want to let their social media people grow as journalists, then aspiring journalists shouldn’t go anywhere near the jobs. Which is a shame, because journalists are needed for them. 

    • http://zombiejournalism.com/ Mandy Jenkins

      I feel as if I should give you a co-credit on “Twitter Monkey”, as we both have used that term a lot over the past couple of years.

      You’re absolutely right about managing expectations. For me, I’ve always entered a job with the idea that it wouldn’t be Twitter Monkeying, but I end up right back there either because the responsibilities get shifted in that direction or I just end up getting symbiotic with the Tweetdeck. I hope the roles continue to evolve to make the actual practice of social media more of a group effort and less of a one man operation. 

      • http://bydanielvictor.com Daniel Victor

        I was actually just wondering if I subconsciously stole the term from you.

      • http://www.facebook.com/suzanneyada Suzanne Yada

        Totally unrelated to your fabulous post, but I imagine “getting symbiotic with the Tweetdeck” is the new “getting crazy with the Cheez Whiz.” (http://www.songmeanings.net/songs/view/9256/)

  • Bill Doskoch

    Have you changed jobs? If so, within the HuffPo or outside of it?

  • http://twitter.com/jenleereeves Jen Lee Reeves

    I think the concerns about “Twitter Monkey” is why I’ve worked so hard for everyone to be involved in my newsroom’s twitter account. I will not be the only person “in charge” of the account or I will go insane. Thanks for your perspective… I totally agree and this is a trend we need to be careful when new journos head into this social journalism world.

  • Bill Doskoch

    Sorry, I didn’t see the post where you’re moving to Digital First. But then again, it’s not made clear in the post above.

    • http://zombiejournalism.com/ Mandy Jenkins

      Good point, BIll. I added a link for some context!

  • http://twitter.com/mediachick76 mediachick76

    This is a great piece. Thank you for writing it! I agree that Fire, Aim, Ready is not a good communications strategy. I hope you now get to also spend more time as a parent, pet owner, etc.

  • http://www.sarahmillar.com Sarah Millar

    Thanks for the post, Mandy, and all the best in your new position. I now want a T-shirt that says, “I’m more than just a Twitter monkey.” Or have that on my business cards. Cheers.

  • http://twitter.com/pwthornton Patrick Thornton

    I’ve gotten the whole “but your experience seems to be in social media” despite only having one job where I was a social media manager. I’ve been doing Web work and journalism a lot longer than social media, and I consider social media to be one part of what I can do, but a lot of people see your last job as a social media manager and believe that’s all you can do.

    Part of the issue is that social media is so new, and many organizations don’t know how to fit it into their structure. Most people who are good with social media have a lot of other online skills. The best social media jobs, as you point out, are more than just being a Twitter Monkey.  Strategy and training make the job a lot more fun, and it’s great to be able to get more people at your org participating in social media.

    Good luck with the new role. 

  • http://twitter.com/JanetAronica Janet Aronica

    This is so candid and funny and wonderful. I think the same sentiments can be said of community managers working in marketing roles. Ideally they’d be taking all this customer feedback and sending it off to other areas of the organization to be put to greater use – product development, market research, public relations…. but in the end a lot of times it is just very reactive, if the company is engaging at all. Thank you for writing this and best of luck to you. Keep working hard. Keep that foot on the gas pedal.

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  • http://blog.truenorth.nu Mark Gannon

    Herbie!  You’re an elf and elves make toys!

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  • http://twitter.com/tylerkingkade Tyler Kingkade

    Congrats on taking on a new role, Mandy! And I have to say, if reporters themselves aren’t getting a hold of how to use social media — and understanding that utilizing Tumblr is just as important as sending a tweet — then they’re going to be in trouble a few years down the road. There’s got to be someone to man the Twitter machines right now for brand/org accounts, but it needs to be part of a wider array of engagement without becoming a customer service operator. I understand where you’re coming from on not wanting to get locked as someone who is the Social Media go-to guru, because it’s only one role of broader newsroom and digital media strategies.

  • http://twitter.com/DaniFankhauser Dani Fankhauser

    Great points – and I would recommend every social media editor do the occasional freelance piece as they can, just to show “experience that is not just social media,” as you mentioned. 
    But as for the future of all these people — I think they are doing a bit of the job of the old front-page editor, picking “headlines” for tweets and placing stories strategically — plus, many of them track analytics, etc. I think that grooms one well for a digital editor job and on up. Also, as more and more people use social media for reporting, the social editor is the front line in connecting reporters with sources. This is a powerful position (it’s about who you know, right?).
    And five years from now, we’ll all be a little older and no longer entry level, and it will be our peers, not our elders, deciding who is a good fit for what job. I think we’ll be fine.

  • http://adampschweigert.com Adam Schweigert

    This is exactly why I left media entirely (at least for the moment). There is simply no path to upper management in most news organizations from the digital department, and ESPECIALLY if you’re that guy/girl who “just does Twitter” (which is, of course, BS anyway, and for me, was probably only about 10% of my job). I can tell you that it’s especially bad in public media, but I’m sure it’s crap everywhere. Disappointing. Maybe it’ll turn around someday. Here’s hoping!

  • http://www.sevendaysvt.com/ Tyler Machado

    As a professional Twitter Monkey myself, I have mixed feelings about this post. I get the idea of feeling burnt out on the constant, 24/7 churn of feeding the Twitterbeast (I’m the only one who updates our brand’s social media accounts — not convenient!). But I’m also more optimistic both for my own role and the role of social media editors at large. I see the social media editor spot evolving into a sort of director of innovation. Sure, if we do our jobs, everyone in the newsroom will be great at social media. But I’m not sure it’s fair to expect our staffers to be constantly on alert for whatever hot new social network is coming down the pike next. In my current role, I’m not just looking to engage and push out content, but I’m also the one who’s on the lookout for other new digital tools that we should be using. And I think media outlets will always need someone to be on alert for that. Figuring out which tools to use and how best to use them is a pretty huge time commitment, and I’m not sure it’s easy to fold it in with other people’s job responsibilities.

    • http://zombiejournalism.com/ Mandy Jenkins

      I hope you’re right, Tyler. Ideally, a social media role would prepare someone for a larger role outside of feeding the Twitter machines… that is if a news org has the funding and foresight to pay someone to do something a bit more outside the box that might not directly lead to pageviews.  

  • http://twitter.com/tiffany Tiffany Bridge

    Preach, Mandy. It’s not just a problem in breaking-news organizations, though obviously the situation is more pronounced there.

  • http://twitter.com/phearlez Don Whiteside

    I saw someone on twitter comment that you could replace SME with “programmer” and it tracks very well. As a programmer in his early 40s I can say that’s very much true; I also think that this early-20s SME thing tracks very well too, and what it mostly reveals is a bias in the thinking of the organization.

    In the programmer world we often see this sort of youth/low-pay bias in places that view programmers as high-energy cannon fodder. It usually reflects a place that believes in what the industry calls a “death march,” the long-hours short-deadline project that contributes to the vision of programmers slaving over a hot keyboard well into the night, fueled by caffeine and twinkies. These places aren’t hiring us fogies for those jobs because we’re more expensive and we’re not going to find 70 hour work-weeks acceptable.

    Aside from the ageism issue, we don’t much want those jobs either. In our time we’ve learned a lot of methods and practices to better do the job and it’s part of why we expect better pay, but those employers don’t want employees with the input and autonomy that you need to make use of those skills. These folks employing those junior folks in SME jobs don’t want it either – they want a promotional person, not someone with the skills and autonomy to really engage with the public.

    I suspect a lot of them hire the junior folks – consciously or sub-consciously – because they’re looking for folks who aren’t experienced and confident enough to exert that autonomy. Most of us, when we were green, were much more careful about coloring outside the lines even if we believed we would have been right. You put a senior person in a gig you expect them to work with less supervision. And I think that terrifies a lot of organizations.

    Luckily for us there’s still plenty of places who see the value in experience in these jobs. I think there’s still a lot of the up-or-out thinking from business but it seems better than when I entered the workforce.

    • http://www.sevendaysvt.com/ Tyler Machado

       Great points. I’m hoping that the seeming inability of social media types and programmer types is just a consequence of the current media environment, where this is all still brand-new. Will upward mobility be easier when social media and news apps are 25-year-old concepts? I’d like to think so… then again, who knows what we’ll all be on to by then!

    • http://zombiejournalism.com/ Mandy Jenkins

      Very good points all around, Don. I’ve heard from several people in programming, web production, video production and online graphics who feel the same way. Even though this “new media” really isn’t that new anymore, it might as well be.  

  • http://www.breakingnews.com/ CoryBe

    Very well done.  Reminds me of the early years of TV websites when web producers rewrote TV scripts by the millions, “script monkeys” you could say, but were largely ignored by the rest of the organization. 

  • http://twitter.com/JuliuzBeezer Juliuz Beezer

    One proposed solution: move into management and start empire-building within the organization as social media disrupts traditional patterns of business-consumer relations. How far this applicable to traditional media organizations that view social media as a bolt-on rather than as integral part of their future is moot, but intrapreneurial effort may be one route out of your current ennui.

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  • http://twitter.com/your_overcoat Laurie

    Love this.

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  • http://twitter.com/fluxresearch Flux Research

    This is a great post, especially on typecasting and ageism, but I’m distracted by the fact that I had to dig to find your name, Mandy, and I have no idea what your last name is though I did find your husband’s full name!

    Is this a “Madonna” strategy or have I stumbled on a private blog meant only for people who already know who you are?

    Just ribbing a bit.  Best of luck with your new direction!

    • http://zombiejournalism.com/ Mandy Jenkins

      Ha! I recently rewrote some pages on the site and you’re right – I did remove my name (though not on purpose). I’m fixing this now…but maybe I shouldn’t. I do like the mysterious angle. (Thanks, by the way)

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  • http://www.quarterlife202.com/ Lisatella

    I don’t want to be a Twitter monkey. Everything you said here makes me think! Thanks, Mandy.

  • http://www.jaclynschiff.com Jaclyn Schiff

    Awesome post and congrats on kick-starting an important dialogue! The good news and the bad news is that this isn’t specific to journalism (but you could argue it’s more pronounced in journalism) — people in a variety of industries are finding it challenging to chart new career courses because of the way social media has changed things. So there’s an opportunity here to learn — from and with — managers who are dealing with the same thing. Of course, it’s not only a management problem. People need to do exactly what you’re doing and take ownership over their own career paths.

  • Margot Roosevelt

    HuffPo didn’t deserve you, Mandy.

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