The myth of the digital native has been soundly debunked, but the final nail in its coffin may well be Cathryn Sloane, unwitting poster child for the worst of Gen Y cliches.
Cathryn’s post ‘Why Every Social Media Manager Should Be Under 25’ enthusiastically makes a case for its self evident title, predictably spinning up a tempest of heated debate among said social media managers.
Countless commentators have taken her arguments apart (including advocating for her own demise Logan’s Run style), so I won’t retread those.
I choose to believe she’s taken the feedback and insights on board in good will, as a budding professional communicator would.
Who hasn’t said or done something (especially when they were young) that they didn’t think twice about with the blessing of hindsight.
But she did get me thinking…
Over the years managing communities I’ve hired the very young and the much older.
Of those ‘older’ people, most had a decade plus experience online, dealing with proto-social media and early online communities.
A couple had limited experience on digital front lines, but had important qualities like persistence, empathy, a desire to make a difference, or deep knowledge of the community subject matter.
Some were parents, which proved indispensable training for community management.
The people I don’t hire are the ones that show no knowledge of the depth and breadth of the web; zero interest in perspectives other than their own; those who don’t have the written communication skills for a predominantly editorial medium; or those with no interest in collaborating with others. Those are deal breakers for me.
Maybe it’s the circles I move in, but I rarely meet young people that insular.
The young people I’ve worked with are hungry learners, which is a positive influence on everyone around them.
What I don’t see in Cathryn’s post is that hunger.
Miles on the clock are a good thing, and most jobs ask for some so they know they’re entrusting their livelihood with someone who’s put out a few fires and boasts a few scars.
But it’s curiosity, adaptability and unflappability that’ll make or break you over the long haul – and lead you to a neat little set of life literacies. Ossification and narrow mindedness is what we have to avoid, not the middle aged or elderly.
Show me how you manage coordinated brand attacks and complex human dramas and we’ll talk. Show me your insights about what makes communities tick, and we can do great things together.
I’m talking about character here, which transcends age.
You need the thickest of skins, and empathy beyond your filter bubble. You have to balance duty of care with keeping it all in perspective. You have to catalyse connections through a screen, and inspire the courage to contribute.
Whether you can do this has very little to do with your age. Ask Yoda.
Great social media managers and community managers possess a passionate curiosity about the way humans behave and interact, understanding and respect for social systems and the inter-connectedness that makes up those systems.
The strongest social media talents look to history for context and lessons learned, while clamouring for fresh knowledge and skills. They’re as psyched about the latest social app as they are to sit with someone who’s been running a gaming forum for 10 years to pick their brain.
If you struggle to see the value in people and their stories, I’m not sure social media is a universe you want to splash about in. People are media in our age, and purpose informs platform.
We’d all be better off if we were more interested in the value of meaningful generational exchange – and the time and effort it takes to conduct.
How can we embed our fast media with moments where learning, deep and long form discussion and exchange and can find a home?
I wrote about the pressure on ‘slow’ exchange and reflection in a paper for Fast Capitalism, and the risks of confusing noise in social channels with worth, reputation, influence or wisdom. To me, Cathryn’s clumsy gauntlet throw shows she hasn’t yet figured out the differences between those things.
Understanding a tool isn’t understanding the behaviour it promotes or discourages. Googling trends isn’t the same as forecasting the life span of a community based on longitudinal analysis.
Taking the time to explain a new Facebook feature to a colleague doesn’t mean that colleague shouldn’t be there. It’s a chance for you to earn your salary, as a professional facilitator. If that work makes you impatient and bitter, you’re in the wrong job.
Neither social media or community management are about being a social butterfly or an early adopter.
Try coaching, social work, hostage negotiation, group therapy or politics and you’re getting warmer.
It’s taxing work that demands communicative maturity and reflexivity; an ability to parachute into any group, read its social codes and nuances and engage respectfully.
It’s about knowing what to say, do and what not to do if a member of your community commits suicide, or launches a cruel assault on other members. It’s about meeting the needs of others, not your own, and the complex, delicate alignment of those needs with your employer, or other stakeholders.
It’s considering the medium and long term (even now, too many brands are cultivating communities only to leave them to atrophy). It’s about diplomacy, moderation and risk mitigation.
It’s about story telling through endless, evolving forms, speaking to timeless emotions and ideas. It’s as much about offline as online.
It’s about the wallflowers as well as the prom queens.
It’s about humility in the face of shifting baselines and supporting one another.
Howard Rheingold talks about peeragogy as a better, 21c model for learning. I think we should be applying it to our work lives as well as our schools. Ageism has no place in a social business.
I don’t buy generational stereotypes as a rule, but we are forged by the social and cultural strains of our era.
Cathryn Sloane is coming of age in an accelerated, always-on culture that doesn’t parse her personal and professional life.
It teaches her that if she’s living it, she can monetise it.
She’s growing up in public and her existential teething will be blogged, shared, trolled, voted up or down, and impact her reputation for life.
If that’s all you’ve known, you can hardly be blamed for throwing your hands up and declaring that anyone expected to professionally navigate those waters will need to feel as perennially invincible as a twenty-something.
The thing is, with age, it’s likely she’ll realise she is that invincible, and constant change won’t seem nearly as panic inducing.
I can see how Cathryn’s ended up where she is. She’s probably upset at losing jobs to people who’ve been in the game longer. She’s maybe met some authority figures who don’t appreciate her skills or passions. Oh – and she lives in a world that fettishises the new and asks young women to be worldly but look like a child.
I see young people everywhere rising to the challenges of this world and finding amazing possibilities in the midst of its odds. They teach me every day. And I try to return to the favour.
After all, on the web, no one knows if you’re
a dog over 25.
Cathryn’s had a public setback, but if she’s serious about a life working with people and technology, I imagine she’ll be grateful for the lessons.
Cathryn – I’d love to read what you have to say on this topic in another decade. I wish you lots of luck (and some great mentors).