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  • Writer's pictureAnthony McCosker

The Lure of Social Media Work

(From May 19, 2016)

I spent some time last year, with two colleagues, talking to people about how their organisations have rethought their communications work to leverage the benefits of social media.

We started out with two main goals: to find out more about the job ads that seemed to be popping up everywhere calling for social media experts of all shapes and sizes; and to work out how we can better help our students at Swinburne University connect with those jobs.

The discussions that followed were informative and raised a lot of questions and issues. Two of the most interesting to me relate to the blurring of boundaries between professional and personal identities for those who did social media work, and the familiar creep of 24/7 labour.

Overall, I wanted answers to some basic questions. For starters, ‘what is a social media expert?’ Before I get to that story, let’s start with this one.

Our New Media, Information and Communication Ecology

In so many varied ways social media has rapidly infused itself across a wide range of industries and work practices. A recent report by Australia’s peak science research organisation, the CSIRO, investigates the future of work, and the threat and opportunities associated with automation and disruptive digital technologies.

Social media fits the bill here mainly because it is not just one thing, but rather a range of technologies, services and platforms, as well as communication processes and shared social practices. But despite the threats of job losses from disruptive technologies, this is one area of digital work that is hiring. Industries and organisations large and small are investing heavily in building a social media presence, even in the absence of a clear strategy.

Our study participants from digital agencies saw the complexity and integrated or ‘ecological’ character of the media and communications environment, and emphasise the need to think broadly about what social media is. One of Australia’s largest companies, the telecommunications giant Telstra has positioned itself as a ‘social enterprise’, leading the way in thinking about how every part of its operations can benefit from social connectivity.

Mark Coad, CEO of media agency PHD explains that social media is ‘not even a channel or a platform, it’s almost like a capability that sits across everything we do’.

In media and communication theory, the terms ‘media ecology’, ‘information ecology’ and ‘communication ecology’ have all been developed to account for the importance of these kinds of contextual and interconnected factors.

Workplaces are already complex information ecologies involving people, locations, information technologies, work flow practices, management systems. In the broadest sense, ecology is not a metaphor here. When we study media we are studying cultures, contexts, practices as well as platforms, technical capacities and even material infrastructures. We live and act amongst media as Matthew Fuller puts it in his 2007 Media Ecologies book. Communication takes place within and across physical and digital environments, and we are always negotiating those ‘collapsed concepts’.

New Roles and Skills

New social technologies are at the forefront of making new ways of working possible. At the very least, think about the influence of email. The capabilities of social media have ramped up these changes. Hence, new professional roles are emerging, oriented around social media, with skill sets both inherited and unique.

Smart start-ups, mainly from Silicon Valley are innovating with social productivity tools, cloud based work platforms, and sharing technologies. There’s also a growing market for internal social media platforms like Yammer and Slack, and organisations seem to be reorienting their work practices around these tools. (I’ve heard the term Yampions used for those whose job it is to rally co-workers around the Yammer banner).

Also important are the analytics and insights packages — free or high-cost, standardised or bespoke. Technology companies like Salesforce are becoming powerhouses on the back of organisations’ need to make sense of their social media communities and campaigns. Social media data, analytics and insights is big business, and it is vital for business — not just so they can target ads better, but in reshaping all aspects of how they operate. And its a skill set future workers will need to master.

By now, none of this should be a surprise given the digital transformations and disruptions we see and hear about everyday. But we wanted to know more about those at the coalface of social media work.

We found that people working in social media roles were coming to them from a wide range of directions — marketing, of course, but also creative, communications, journalism, psychology and even cultural anthropology.

Pathways through university qualification are not established (at Swinburne we established a Social Media Major for this reason), so the emphasis is currently on experience and demonstrated capability. This brings opportunity for enterprising and creative individuals.

Overwhelmingly, our research participants emphasised critical and creative capacities: storytelling, visual media skills, strong writing ability and attention to detail, as well as people skills. We also found that there was a vital ‘cultural’ component. Being able to manage a community for, say, a retail clothing brand, or a screen media distributor like Madman, requires a cultural understanding of that community, an ability to connect on a human level and in a way that feels authentic.

Blurred Boundaries

These requisites of social media work create, or exacerbate, tensions that we see everywhere across social media. One that our participants emphasised involves the breaking down of distinctions between professional and personal identities.

It’s increasingly difficult to maintain completely separate social media profiles. We’ve seen this with organisations vetting new recruits on the basis of their social media profiles. And our study participants confirmed that the lines become easily blurred. If you’re posting or tweeting as a representative of Telstra, a small winery, Madman, or a non-profit organisation, you need to be careful about how that plays out. A disparaging remark on Facebook about your organisation can have serious consequences.

On the other hand, large organisations like Telstra and small and medium enterprises alike also see the great value in all their employees advocating for them in their personal social media spaces and conversations. If your workforce is 32,000 strong, that's a lot of social advocates.

And it’s 24/7 or bust

One thing that more or less all of our study participants talked about a lot, was the intense and relentless ‘24//7’ character of social media work. In fact social media becomes more active outside of work hours.

There is a concept in the business world of ‘chasing the sun’. For an organisation with national or global reach, time zones and locations become strategic players. Small social media teams can be located across time zones to provide around the clock community management and monitoring. Australia has a great advantage of matching time zones with large parts of South East Asia, and in particular China. This opens up unique opportunities — but perpetuates longstanding challenges if the conversations are with the Americas or Europe.

Among social media workers, this 24/7 quality of the work often means burnout, or unrealistic expectations. Many organisations simply do not allocate the proper resources. Part time and casual work in this area is common. Sometimes it is only one small part of a broader communications position description. And support for the work depends heavily on the leadership and strategy of senior management and executives.

To return full circle to the CSIRO report, one of the questions that wasn’t much raised in our discussions in 2015, is the question of automation. Facebook amongst other platforms, have begun to open their messenger and social systems to automated ‘chat bots’. There’s some great writing already around this, and also some first class panic, out there about the infiltration of Artificial Intelligence into our communication systems. More on this another time.

You can read the full study report for the juicy details it offers.

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