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Published: Jun 26, 2020 10 min read
Naomi Elliott for Money

“Social media manager” is one of the most highly-sought positions out there.

Since 2013, the number of professionals who use the title on LinkedIn has doubled, according to a company spokeswoman. In the last decade, job postings looking for people who can fill these roles has spiked more than 1,000%.

Whether it’s UNICEF, Target or Harvard Law School, an active social media presence is expected of public-facing entities. Businesses of all stripes hire individuals to speak on the internet on their behalf, which, in a time of COVID-19, has become the only safe place to “gather” in large groups.

But you’d never know the importance of the role based on the status of the job. Or the pay.

“Everyone is on social these days, so lots of people think they know exactly what makes for a good post,” says Jake Banas, social media manager at Futurism, a media company focused on science and technology news. “But the role is much more complicated."

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We’re quick to dismiss social media and its self-obsessed silliness, dedication to memes and eschewal of capital letters. The truth is, a social media manager is a copywriter, photographer, graphic designer, video editor, media analyst, data analyst and customer service rep, sometimes all in one day.

It’s a long day, too.

The boom in social media reliance, coupled with the rapid-fire nature of the 24/7 news cycle, has dissolved any sense of the traditional workday for those behind the screens. Pre-scheduling posts and closing the computer at 5 p.m. just doesn’t cut it.

When major brands stayed silent on the topic of #BlackLivesMatter during a period of worldwide protests against police brutality, people noticed. On the flip side, the brands that spoke out in favor of the movement often did so via the already traumatized BIPOC manning their keyboards. (“For A Black Social Media Manager In The George Floyd Age, Each Click Holds Trauma,” reads a recent headline from Kaiser Health News.)

“It’s exhausting,” says Banas. “During the workweek, I’m actively keeping tabs on at least five different accounts.” These include Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, LinkedIn, Snapchat and, most recently, TikTok. “Even during nights and weekends, you're never really off.”

The national average salary for social media managers is $50,500, according to Glassdoor. If you isolate the components of these positions into the full-time jobs they often represent, the pay imbalance is striking: copywriters average $58,500, marketing managers average $65,500, ad managers average $71,000, and so on.

The job also has some unique demands. Too often, constant, casual surveillance is crucial to a social media manager’s success.

Fifteen years ago, influencer and digital strategist Casie Stewart was a small fries blogger documenting the places she went, the clothes she wore, and the food she munched on (before Instagram came along and this became a habit for everyone).

In 2009, Stewart landed her first “real” position in social media management at MTV’s MuchMusic, a Canadian cable channel that airs music videos and pop culture programming. At first she thought she was so cool — she had a TV at her desk and got to tag Snooki in #bts photos (that’s “behind the scenes”) for a living. But she quickly found out that the job “looks a lot more glamorous than it is,” she says.

Like many social media managers, Stewart kept long hours—tweeting about The Hills and Jersey Shore until 10 p.m. or later—while her coworkers got to clock out in time for dinner.

There’s a lingering assumption that “anyone” can run a social media account, but it’s a lot more involved when you’re using it to grow a brand (or trying to).

Stewart says that the simple act of posting on Instagram—not the camera work, graphic design or copywriting needed to create the content itself—takes a lot of gruntwork, like finding optimal hashtags (that aren’t too similar to your previous posts in order to keep the algorithm happy), tagging the appropriate accounts, playing with filters, adding a geotag (whether it’s sincere or satirical), and more.

Effective social media management also includes researching the key players and stories within a brand’s field. While companies can dictate the “trending” stories on Twitter via paid promotions, they need eyes on the ground if they want to participate in the natural, unpredictable conversations the platform elicits.

Which is ironic, given that the language of business accounts—always ‘we,’ never ‘I’—is designed to mask the person behind the keyboard. Kelsey from marketing didn’t make a meme-y video about not eating Tide pods; Tide did. Yet the responsibility of managing error, crisis and the trolls that spew hate speech unfolding on a feed of one million followers ultimately comes down to one person.

If you’ve ever read the comments section of … anything, ever, you’ve seen the slew of anonymous harassment inherent in the largely unregulated world of social media. And it’s only getting worse.

“I started managing a Facebook page more than a decade ago,” says freelance digital strategist Bridget Shirvell. “Back then, people seemed more willing to be civil… Now I know that given a story, say, on the climate crisis or even plant-based diets, I’m going to have to moderate comments where people are so rude to each other and don’t add anything to the conversation.”

Make no mistake: this is a tough-as-nails job. But it’s never really treated as such.

When “social media manager” first became a title, it was mostly filled by young women trying to gain access to the creative industry, Cornell communications professor Brooke Erin Duffy tells me. They ended up tethered to their phones, creating a constant flow of content without their byline, minimizing their digital persona to carry the mantle of the brand. The pay was rarely worth it. (Not much has changed in recent years. According to a recent PayScale survey, 77% of social media managers self-identify as female in 2020.)

In one study from August 2017, Duffy roamed job boards to examine the language of social media listings.

She found a minefield of oxymorons: companies want applicants to be self-directed AND community-oriented; creative as well as analytic; highly specialized but also able to “wear multiple hats.” If it seems like employers don’t know what they’re looking for, it’s because they want more than any one employee can give. Their solution? Find people willing to treat their labor like an extension of their life.

Less than half of the full-time job ads studied by Duffy and partner Becca Schwartz mentioned any educational qualifications — Unlike most positions, proving your success and likeability by way of your personal Instagram follower count is usually your ticket in. (Stewart, for one, believed that her blog was the reason she was hired by MTV.) It's a practice that underscores a pattern of misunderstanding: A social media manager’s work can’t be fully appreciated by her colleagues and superiors if it’s seen as something that they would do in their free time anyway.

Experts predict our reliance on these positions will continue to grow in the future, even if our appreciation of the people filling them does not.

Rather than paying social media managers a salary commensurate with their responsibility, companies have begun outsourcing to people willing to work without job security and for far less money. Of the 88,000 social media positions advertised on LinkedIn today, more than 20% are internships, volunteer, contract or part-time without benefits.

Soon, experts say, the duties of late-night posting and hate-speech monitoring will migrate from the shoulders of quippy 20-somethings with unlimited data plans to low-income workers in less-developed countries.

A browse on Upwork already advertises thousands of examples: a Pakistani SEO expert with 100% positive reviews and a rate of $3/hour; a Bangladeshi Pinterest, Instagram and Facebook expert who charges $6/hour and keeps two tenets in mind: “Client Demand and Time is Expensive.”

Given the corporate reliance on platforms like Facebook and Twitter—an estimated 90% of businesses are on social media today—the devaluation of this type of work touches every industry. A generation of U.S. social media managers have toiled for years as the "face" of big brands. Today, their jobs are undervalued and underpaid, but soon, their jobs won't exist at all.

Cheap, outsourced labor is allowing brands to get tailored social media packages “for as low as several hundred dollars monthly," says Dale Johnson, content marketer and founder of Nomad Paradise. "That, simply, is the biggest difference from 2010 to 2020.”

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