The social media spell

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Grown-ups think that Facebook is the key to extraordinary success. They also understand nothing about Facebook. My grandfather, for instance, created a page to publicize his new book, but refused to add any friends. In the “About Me” section of my mom’s page (which she wanted for professional reasons), she wrote “Dear Friends, I do not collect friends on Facebook, and I do not get my messages here.”

The problem is, because grown-ups believe social media is magic, they keep hiring college students to connect them to the online world. (Though they do it in tricky ways, claiming you’ll work on “youth outreach” or “online organizing.”) I know, because this very summer, the City Commissioner of Philadelphia hired me to be her social media strategist.

To me, the concept of social media is very boring. I deleted my Facebook for a year, and I only got it back so I could stay in touch with my ten-year-old best friend in Argentina. Unfortunately, there aren’t many jobs, and the field of social media is one where being young and unqualified is golden. So, I went to work.

My first Tuesday on the job, I stayed late to go to a panel called “Ask the Expert: Social Media.” The panel was in the University Science Center, in a room filled with geometric shapes. There were blue and black rectangles on the rug and a wavy square ceiling panel that dipped in the center of the room. Everything was very cyber-hip. On one wall there was a clock made of mirrors that shot out in all directions.

Sitting across from me were two women: One looked about sixty and wore leopard print heels; the other seemed to be in her forties, with spiky blonde hair that was dark at the roots, and pink-framed glasses. Besides me, no one in the room was under the age of thirty.

Gloria Bell was our social media expert.

“I am my brand,” said Gloria. “People know Gloria Bell. I have a Google Alert on myself.”

She recommended we do this for our companies, so we would know who was talking about us. I wondered whether telling us to set up a Google alert really counted as expert information, but I wrote it down anyway. “If you have a great company picnic,” she said, raising her eyebrows and looking around the group, “post a couple of pictures online.”

Her main point was that companies need social media to show that they are “real” and “human.” These words had a tinny sound when she said them, like they might dent if we threw them against a wall.

Back in the office, the City Commissioner wanted me to reach out to unlikely voters over Facebook. I tried to explain that people who were unlikely to vote were also unlikely to friend the City Commissioner on Facebook, but the faith of grown-ups in social media is persistent and unwavering.

We found out halfway through the summer that Philadelphia actually has a detailed social media policy, which requires every update to be approved by the Mayor’s Office. Also, you had to disable the comment sections. These policies aren’t super compatible with the way that Twitter/Facebook/LinkedIn function, but I did what I could.

It was often troubling to see adults investing so faithfully in a process they knew nothing about. Though, ultimately, maybe it’s the same way young people believe in mortgages and pensions. We have no idea what we’re doing, but we dutifully, determinedly, press on.

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