Every now and then, amidst the countless hours I spend on the addictive cesspool that is Twitter, I encounter a tweet that’s gone viral or I accidentally click on the Moments tab and hear of such an incident (I refuse to believe anyone has purposefully clicked on that Moments tab, it’s just not done). Going viral is a skillful accident that I’ve experienced a number of times under my own name, and it comes with a unique kind of surreal feeling that’s tough to describe: It’s a microcosm of fame and acclaim that makes you feel hyper-exposed on a platform that already breeds a discomfiting level of familiarity with the unknown. It’s also extremely difficult to engineer, with obviously tailored tweets feeling awkward and strained in a manner that inspires memories of Steve Buscemi in 30 Rock saying ‘How do you do, fellow kids?’ True hype is organic, and viral fame comes with a combination of wit, timing and sheer dumb luck. You could spend hours trying to pull it off and get nowhere. Believe me, I know.
Before I entered the realm of online journalism and became the fiery pop culture hot takes merchant you read today, I worked for two years at a company that specialized in online and social media based marketing of towns and small businesses. I’d been unemployed for the entirety of the previous year, during which time I had fine-tuned my Twitter abilities to a level of prowess that bordered the intersections of cultural commentator, online diarist, media critic and bad beat poet. When you’re broke and alone and utterly bereft of opportunities, you turn to the places where you know gratification is instant, and since LiveJournal was in the middle of a prolonged death, Twitter was my cruel ally. It only made sense that the site would become the shovel with which I could dig myself out of that hole and back into the real world.
My job was to man the fort of various Twitter and Facebook accounts, wherein we would promote small businesses in an array of locations and promote our own apps that would show the user a detailed map of their area for their consumer needs. What started as a three month part-time internship became my full-time job, one I heartily enjoyed until the redundancy notice was served two years later. As you can imagine, I quickly returned to Twitter to air my emotions on that subject.
When you’re working in social media, a field of business that’s still very new but rapidly growing, you spend a lot of time explaining to other people exactly what it is you do for a living, and you quickly find that such a task is more difficult than imagined. I know what I did for a job 4 days a week and on occasional evenings and weekends, but parsing it down to ‘I tweeted’ felt reductive. I could always hear the formation of a Daily Mail think-piece on the lazy evils of millennials every time I started the spiel once more. People are quick to tell you that you don’t have a real job, or that any stupid kid could do what you do, even though most of those doubters would run away in fear if asked to schedule 4 weeks of social media content in one afternoon.
Social media is all about the personality. Go onto my Twitter page and I’m reasonably sure you can get a detailed insight into what kind of person I am within 25 tweets. For people like me who owe a lot to the site, as messy and emotionally agonizing as it can be, we pour a lot of ourselves into our online presence. These days, I’m always aware of how a random tweet I knock out about this year’s Oscars or a bite-sized review of a TV episode I watched could be spotted by an editor with potential work in the pipeline. Your personality becomes your brand, and yes, I am aware of how incredibly depressing that is.
It’s different when you’re the voice behind a different face. Nowadays, even the most mundane brand or company has a Twitter account, and the pressure is on to make an impact in an over-saturated field where everyone is fighting for one like. For me, I often found it oddly dreamlike to pretend to be a brand: You have to tread an increasingly fine line between marketing, friendship, hot takes and customer service. It requires a personality utterly free of the traits of one; a kind of breathless enthusiasm with no real opinions to its name. you become incredibly aware of how something seemingly mundane could be misinterpreted or taken out of context, like posting a news story about a development from the local council. If the story is negative about the political party in charge of the council, you easily could find yourself barraged by supporters of that party chastising you for your perceived bias, or become the canvas for others to post their political grievances in either direction.
Try sharing an update from the local food-bank and it won’t take long for political skirmishes to break out in your mentions (true story: This happened once and that area’s local MP, who was kind of a disgraced figure, got involved and all I could do was watch the carnage unfold. Any response or action on my end would have just added to the mess). Do something as simple as tweet your enjoyment of a TV show and people will have no qualms about letting all their feelings hang out, which are seldom positive. That doesn’t even cover the chaos if you get a fact about a place you’re covering wrong.
Some social media gurus have turned the occupation into an art form, imbued with charm and a distinctly idiosyncratic approach that’s essentially the opposite of everything I was taught. Denny’s have a Twitter account that’s so effectively strange and funny that places like Forbes and Buzzfeed dedicate regular column inches to it. It’s become a regular occurrence for us to see a tweet from a well-known brand that makes even the most hardened cynic laugh and click to retweet. The pressure is always on to beat the last tweet that went viral, and that’s impossible to replicate. What worked on Monday probably won’t on the Friday.
That rush to get your weekly numbers up, as I did for my job, is exhausting, and I was doing it on the low-end of exposure. Think of the social media people just trying to do their jobs who end up in battles on behalf of their brand, and the people who angrily tweet at you thinking you’re responsible for every evil linked to the name you work under. Twitter’s an easy platform to dehumanise people on, but that’s made all the easier when you’re working under a logo and not a name. Most of the people sneering at or dismissing you don’t know how many hours you’re working a day or how tough it can be to meet the weekly targets, or how petty you get when a colleague does a better job on a tweet and you spend way too long thinking about how your 140 characters were better than theirs. They don’t take into account the growing fear of going viral in the wrong way or the constant dread of that person insulting you finding out you’re a woman so they can add gendered slurs to their roster of hate. Anyone can tweet, but making it your job is a feat that never gets its due.
I miss a lot about that job. I liked the work and my colleagues and being 5 minutes from a top-notch sandwich place, but I can’t say I’ve a desire to return to it. Watching fast food brands fight it out for the top shade has its charms, but as someone who knows exactly how much work went into that, it mostly leaves me feeling exhausted.
But obviously, you should all follow me on Twitter now.