Is there a more contentious issue in the social media world than age? Recently, the debate ignited again, and it seems every social media observer or business commentator felt moved to have their say.
On one side of the ring, you have the unsuspecting Cathryn Sloane, pilloried for her ludicrous contention that no social media manager should be over 25. Among the thousands of responses to her post were many along the lines of “11 Reasons a 23-Year-Old Shouldn’t Run Your Social Media,” by Hollis Thomases. Oddly enough, although Sloane was ridden out of social media town on a rail, Thomases didn’t get too many “Atta girl!” comments, either. The fickle Interweb strikes again:
Yet, over in the pro-youth corner, responses to Sloane were awfully similar:
It looks like, no matter which position you take, wading into the Great Age Debate is a sure way to lose the respect of everyone you love, while simultaneously being labeled an ageist bigot. (So, what do I do? Wade into the Great Age Debate. I’ve never been accused of having excellent self-preservation instincts. Must be the immortality of youth.)
Seriously, though: Let’s talk about this from a vantage point two steps farther back from the issue. It’s awfully hard to do that, though, because this is just about the most personal thing we could talk about as an industry.
For the older social media managers in the room, the suggestion that their job should be given to a greenhorn intern is disrespectful, embarrassing, painful, and suggestive of the deeply wounding presumption that a person loses his or her value with age. That’s something that can’t be minimized. Many older people have lost their jobs due to age after 30+ years of excellent performance, and few of them can prove it in a court of law in order to recover damages.
But—and here’s where I get a little personal—I hope that my older friends can recognize that the conversation is just as emotional for young people, in a way that it wouldn’t have been when you were young. You grew up at a time when a person could reasonably expect to follow the plan, work hard, and be rewarded for it. Today, young people can’t have expectations, period. We can’t expect to have a job, and for those with jobs, we can’t expect the companies we work for to exist, much less employ us, in ten years.
Yes, you had the fear of a Russian nuke blowing us all to bits and (for men) the fear of being drafted to deal with, but if you lived to adulthood, you figured you’d be able to afford a home and family. Today, the “Recession Generation” doesn’t even feel financially secure enough to commit to a car payment. So, please forgive us if we’re a little protective of our space in an industry that grew up as we did, one of the few transformative and innovative things to appear during the dark years after the dot-com bubble burst.
OK, but how old should social media managers be?
Like most inflammatory subjects and ferocious debates, this one can’t be answered with an absolute. Rather, the answer is something much more difficult to quantify in a blog post: Common sense. Hire a social media manager whose skills, temperament, and experience are conducive to superior on-the-job performance, and who seems to understand the brand.
I fell into the world of social media management as 19 with a handful of college credits and a work history including “cashier” and “door-to-door canvasser.” Did I know what I was doing? No. But I had strong communication skills, Twitter was still new enough that anyone who understood it could make a decent sideline out of explaining how to create an account and compose a tweet to companies, and the employer was a startup eager to hire a kid with writing chops who would work cheap and learn fast.
I made mistakes, I had to Google basic pieces of knowledge, and I didn’t advocate for social media as more than a traffic driver. But I did drive traffic. Up to half the whole site’s organic traffic per month, by myself. And I did learn. I learned how to manage a forum, a corporate Twitter account, a Facebook page, a chat room, a company blog, a community, and my own working time. I prioritized, studied, learned, and grew with the company.
Unfortunately, that startup took the same nosedive many did in 2008, and ultimately we parted ways. But, at 21, I left that job with a set of social media skills that many people twice my age didn’t have. And that many people twice my age did have. Because the point of this story is, it’s the skills, not the age.
It’s also attitude. Social media is a fundamentally embarrassing thing, and a discipline in which even the best people make mistakes. It moves fast and it exposes every negative experience anyone has ever had with the brand you represent. You have to drop the ego and listen to things you don’t want to hear. Social media takes the confidence of a cocky marketing/PR person, but he or she must also be a selfless and genuine customer service representative. It takes an advocate willing to push back when someone asks social media to do something that would damage the company’s relationship with its audience.
That said, social media isn’t hard work. Digging a ditch or picking tomatoes for twelve hours is hard work. Social media is a delight, because it provides constant interaction and instant reinforcement. Because it’s such a delight, lots of people want to work in social media. Therein lies the root of the who-to-hire dilemma.
I’ll be the bearer of bad news: Age, experience, Ivy League education, or anything else, will never equate to a magic formula that inoculates you against poor hiring. You just have to hire well, make the tough decision to call, “Next,” if you’ve hired badly, and try to do (as Brain would say to Pinky) the same thing you do every day: Try to put the right people on the right projects working toward the right goals to hit the right benchmarks to take the company in the right direction.
(Plug: If you’re looking to start on that path, reading Ask A Manager every day wouldn’t hurt. I’ve been a fan for more than two years and learned more than I can even put into words.)